Low turnout in tight legislative poll

Opinion polls point to a close race in Romania's parliamentary election between the Social Democrats and the right-leaning Liberal Democrats, both of whom are expected to pull ahead of the Liberals of Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu.


(AFP) - Romanians trickled to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament, as the leftist Social Democrats and right-wing Liberal Democrats battled it out ahead of Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu's Liberals.

Voter turnout at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) was 19.84 percent, according to preliminary figures, compared to 27.18 percent at that same stage in 2004 and 27.25 percent in 2000.

Polling stations were to close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT), with exit polls expected shortly thereafter. Preliminary results should be published by the central electoral bureau Monday morning.

The vote comes at a critical time for Romania -- one of the newest ex-communist members of the European Union -- as it battles the fallout from a global economic downturn.

Political observers expected a low turnout, with the 18 million eligible voters growing disillusioned about politics. Moreover, the election also comes on the eve of a national holiday and in the middle of a long weekend.

Opinion polls forecast that turnout would not surpass 45 percent.

"It's a pity that a lot of youngsters have left Bucharest and I hope they will be back this evening in time to use their right to vote, which was fought for hard in December 1989," Liberal Democrat vice-president and prime ministerial candidate Theodor Stolojan said after casting his ballot.

Romania's sixth general election since the collapse of communism in December 1989 comes at a time of economic crisis, with labour disputes looming and the prospect of recession.

"These are the most important elections since 1990," said Social Democrat leader Mircea Geoana, and because of the economic crisis, the result "will influence Romania's fate for the next 20 years."

For his part, Tariceanu urged Romanians "to choose the path that will allow the country to become the European Union's seventh economic power."

His one-time ally and now arch-rival, President Traian Basescu, who is close to the Liberal Democrats, added: "I voted for a parliament that combines the experience of some and the courage of the young."

A Bucharest University professor echoed the thoughts of many Romanians, however, as he exited the polling station: "I hope this vote will lead to a renewal of the political class."

All 315 parliamentary seats and 137 senate seats are up for grabs. For the first time, senators and deputies will be elected in a single round of voting, using a combination of party and candidate lists.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote gave the two leading parties between 32 and 35 percent support, with the Liberals at 20 percent and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), which has been in every government since 1996, the necessary five percent to return to parliament.

Whichever party wins, Basescu will be the one to name the next prime minister and he has practically ruled out all the main party leaders, insisting: "Nobody shall impose a prime minister on me."

The polling did not entirely go smoothly everywhere.

In southern Prahova county, several residents reported getting telephone calls from someone posing as a police officer who advised them not to leave their house as they risked being robbed, police told AFP.

The Social Democrats meanwhile reported anonymous phone calls telling voters not to go to their local polling station because, the callers claimed, it was "in flames" or "the stamps have been stolen."

"This is a disinformation campaign aimed at keeping voters away from the polls," the party said.

It was not clear in either instance who was behind the calls.

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