BUCHAREST -- Voting is under way in Romania in a hotly contested presidential runoff that could resolve months of political crisis amid severe economic strains.
Romanians are casting ballots in the second round of the country's presidential election, in which incumbent President Traian Basescu of the governing center-right Democrat Liberal Party is running for a second five-year term.
His rival, former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, is head of the Senate and of the Social Democratic Party -- the successor to the Communist Party.
The two contenders claim they will lift Romania out of the political and economic crisis, eradicate widespread corruption, and restore public trust.
Both candidates came out almost neck-and-neck in the first round of voting two weeks ago, with Basescu winning 32.44 percent of ballots and Geoana 31.15 percent.
An opinion poll last week credited Geoana as likely to win the second round, with 54 percent of the votes.
But many analysts say the race is too close to call.
One of the key roles of the next president will be to appoint a prime minister.
Romania has been led by a caretaker government since October, when parliament dismissed Prime Minister Emil Boc in a no confidence vote.
Romania's economy is expected to shrink some 8.5 percent this year with unemployment at more than 7 percent, 3 percent higher than last year.
The International Monetary Fund has delayed the payment of part of a 20 billion-euro bail-out loan because of the current lack of effective government in Romania.
Campaigning was intense for President Traian Basescu and challenger Mircea Geoana.
In his campaign, Basescu, a former sea captain, pleaded for "accelerating reforms" and reducing public expenditure. He takes credit for raising Romania's international profile by leading the country into the European Union on January 1, 2007 and hosting a major NATO summit in 2008.
After casting his vote today, Geoana said: "I hope we will have wisdom to choose unity, stability and the hope of a new start."
Basescu accuses Geoana of being a pawn of media moguls and business players, a charge that has resonated with some voters.
"I will vote for President Basescu. I think he is the most honest and he has proved this against all moguls who steal everything possible in this country," a Bucharest resident who wished to be identified only as Maria told Reuters ahead of the runoff vote.
Basescu's rival promised a "return to stability" and a "unification" of Romanians after "five years of tensions and scandals," and said he wanted to preserve jobs.
"Even if Mircea Geoana wins, he will not have all the power as Traian Basescu had," Tanase said, "but he will have behind him the majority of the parties in parliament, which for me is a sign of more democracy."
Some 18 million people out of the population of 21.5 million are eligible to vote. Balloting was due to end at 6:00 p.m. UTC.
Exit polls will be released this evening but the first official results are not expected sooner than early on December 7.
Participation was more than 54 percent during the first round, better than expected as many Romanians claim disillusionment with their politicians, 20 years after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.compiled from wire reports