BUCHAREST (Reuters) -- Romanians voted today in a closely fought presidential election that is key to reviving economic and justice reforms and solving a government crisis that has delayed aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Without the quick formation of a new government and a renewed push to modernize, Romania could fail to recover swiftly from recession and will likely lag behind other former Soviet bloc states that have joined the European Union.
The new president will play a pivotal role in the reform process by nominating a new prime minister, who must replace the center-left coalition that collapsed in October amid internal bickering.
Opinion polls show centrist incumbent Traian Basescu with about 35 percent support, ahead of left-wing challenger Mircea Geoana on 30 percent. A third candidate, Crin Antonescu, has about 18 percent.
Surveys show Basescu and Geoana neck-and-neck in a runoff due on December 6 if no one wins an absolute majority in today's first round. Two polls have shown Basescu narrowly behind, but the results were within the polls' margin of error.
Around 18 million Romanians can vote today.
If reelected, Basescu may try to revive his efforts to counter pervasive corruption and would likely work closely with the central bank on stabilizing the economy.
But political analysts say he would have to tone down his confrontational style, which has angered his rivals and discouraged voters.
"He is a very strong character. Not everybody tolerates that," said Laura Stefan of the Romanian Academic Society think tank. "But his attitude toward justice reforms is of crucial importance. He defended these ideas when no one else would."
After several years of strong economic growth, Romania was one of the hardest hit in the region over the last year when the global crisis cut off sources of cash, raising jobless rates.
Basescu appears to have taken the brunt of voter anger, with many Romanians turning to Geoana's promises of social protection and blaming Basescu for political bickering that has delayed crucial economic reforms.
"All my family votes with Geoana. Basescu can't get along. Nobody can understand him. He told people they will live well and nobody does," said Vali Postovaru, an unemployed 29-year-old who has just returned from working in Italy.
Whoever forms the new government will have three election-free years to slim the bloated public finances and clean up a political class steeped in murky deals and graft.
Its main task will be to win back the trust of international lenders, including the IMF and the European Commission, and restore investor confidence damaged by political instability and back-pedaling on reforms.
Broad reforms are vital -- 20 years after the end of communist rule the Balkan country of 22 million is one of the poorest and most graft-prone corners of the European Union.
The economy is expected to shrink 7 percent in 2009, millions of Romanians live on less than 100 euros ($149) a month, and no top officials accused of graft have been convicted.
Although both Basescu and Geoana say they will mend relations with the IMF and meet aid terms quickly, analysts say reforms will stagnate if Geoana's Social Democrats (PSD) form the next cabinet.
Basescu will push for a prime minister from the centrist Democrat Liberal Party, which now runs a caretaker government.
"Should...Geoana win the presidency, expectations of a PSD-dominated government will increase, suggesting a more tempestuous relationship with the IMF and EU," said Jon Levy from the Eurasia Group think tank.