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Romania's pro-EU president set for re-election

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Bucharest (AFP)

Romania's Klaus Iohannis looked set to be re-elected as president in the second round of presidential elections Sunday, confirming the pro-European trajectory of the eastern EU member.

Thirty years after the fall of communism, the centre-right former physics professor is running against Social Democrats (PSD) leader and former prime minister Viorica Dancila, whose government fell last month following a no-confidence vote.

In a first round of voting on November 10, Iohannis gained 38 percent of the vote, ahead of 13 other candidates. Dancila came second with 22 percent.

Analysts say voters who backed lower-placed candidates can be expected to largely swing behind Iohannis on Sunday, amid deep resentment towards the PSD over controversial judicial reforms.

The PSD government has engaged in a long battle with Brussels -- and Iohannis who backed the EU -- over allegations it was trying to push through measures to neuter the judiciary and benefit PSD politicians.

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.

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

- 'Normal Romania' -

After a parliamentary no-confidence vote last month deposed the PSD-led government, Iohannis tasked ally Ludovic Orban with forming a new government to be in place until legislative elections due late next year.

In his bid for a fresh five-year mandate, Iohannis -- who made the rule of law a central plank of his campaign -- promised to build up what he called a "normal Romania" with functioning institutions and without corruption.

Former foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu said Iohannis guaranteed "predictability" in Bucharest's foreign policy.

Since the PSD's return to power in late 2016, the party, which has dominated post-communism Romania, sought to brush up its populist credentials through an anti-EU stance.

"Mr Iohannis represents the only European and Euro-Atlantic option," Diaconescu told AFP.

Under the constitution, Romania's president is responsible for foreign affairs as well as approving the appointment of judges and top prosecutors.

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have protested against the judicial reforms proposed by the PSD, seen as giving politicians a way to avoid corruption sentences.

One sociologist Alin Teodorescu has estimated that introducing the controversial judicial reforms has cost the PSD over a million votes.

- 'Dictator' vs 'toxic' -

The PSD for its part has accused Iohannis of being a "dictator".

"He's a coward and an arrogant man," Dancila, 55, an engineer by training, said.

Criticised for refusing any face-to-face debate during the campaign, Iohannis called his rival the "incarnation of a toxic regime".

Dancila has highlighted the strong economic growth recorded during the PSD's time in office by increases in pensions and salaries in the public sector.

But this largesse has sparked concerns by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has warned that a new pensions law could double the country's fiscal deficit.

Analysts say Dancila's survival as the head of PSD is at stake on Sunday. Her 22 percent of the vote in the first round was half of what PSD got in 2016 elections and follows a rocky ride for the party this year.

In May, its powerful then leader Liviu Dragnea was jailed on corruption charges, and the party also saw its support plunge during European elections.

The PSD has become increasingly reliant on an ageing, rural electorate with a record 650,000 votes being cast by Romanians abroad, a bloc that tends to favour liberal candidates.

In the first round, just three percent of them voted Dancila.

A total of 18.2 million Romanians are eligible to vote. Polling stations open at 07:00 local time (05:00 GMT) and close at 21:00 local time, shortly after which initial results will be released.

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