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Romania vote set to give boost to region's liberals

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Bucharest (AFP)

Romania's pro-European President Klaus Iohannis is the favourite to win the first round of the country's election Sunday, potentially adding to a liberal fightback against the region's prevailing nationalism.

Iohannis hails from the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) and says that a victory for the left-wing Social Democrat (PSD) candidate, former prime minister Viorica Dancila, would pose a threat to democracy.

The PSD's spell in government, which began in late 2016, saw the party repeatedly clash with Brussels -- and Iohannis -- over allegations it was trying to push through controversial judicial reforms in order to neuter the judiciary and benefit PSD politicians.

The beleaguered left-wing government collapsed in a no-confidence vote last month.

Iohannis has made rule of law a central plank of his campaign which has mirrored that of Slovakian anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova, who won the presidential election in that country in March.

In Hungary too, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a rare setback last month when centre-left candidate Gergely Karacsony united the opposition to wrest the mayoralty of the capital Budapest from Orban's Fidesz party.

While nationalism has been less present in Romanian politics than in Hungary or Poland, the PSD had tried to frame its clashes with EU institutions as evidence that the party was standing up for Romania.

However as the German magazine Osteuropa pointed out in a recent editorial, at May's European elections "while Fidesz and (Poland's ruling) PiS party won on the back of anti-Brussels campaigns, Romanian voters punished the government and sent a pro-European signal".

The heavy losses in May's poll added to a series of travails for Dancila's government which eventually saw it brought down by parliament last month.

Earlier this week MPs gave their backing to a government led by the PNL's Ludovic Orban.

- Parkas in EU colours -

Iohannis, a member of the country's ethnic German minority, was first elected in 2014 and is widely expected to win a second five-year term in the run-off vote on November 24.

In the final spurt of campaigning on Friday the former physics teacher and mayor of the city of Sibiu once again warned against a vote for the PSD.

The left-wing party is seen as the successor of the elite which dominated the country before the overthrow of communism in 1989 and is accused of harbouring corruption in its ranks.

In the town of Targoviste, 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Bucharest, campaigners for Iohannis were handing out leaflets in blue parkas representing the colours of the EU flag.

They are hoping their message is strong enough to reach beyond the country's frontiers and engage a key constituency -- the some four million Romanians who have emigrated in recent years.

The diaspora predominantly votes for liberal candidates and Romanian missions abroad have set up three times as many polling stations as at the last vote in anticipation of high turnout.

Voting opened at many locations abroad on Friday and by midday on Saturday more than 200,000 diaspora Romanians had already voted, a record for the first round of a presidential election.

The election could mark the end of an era as for the first time since the return to multi-party democracy the PSD -- increasingly reliant on an ageing, rural voter base -- can't be sure of making it through to the second round of the contest.

Polls indicate Dancila will face a tough fight for second place with 44-year-old Dan Barna standing for the recently formed pro-European Save Romania Union (USR) party.

In total 14 candidates are standing and 18.2 million people are eligible to vote.

Polling stations will open at 0700 local time (0500 GMT) Sunday and will close at 2100, with two exit polls expected shortly afterwards.

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