Both sides claim Romania poll win


Both candidates in Romania's presidential election claimed victory today after most early exit polls showed leftist challenger Mircea Geoana with a slim lead over centre-right incumbent Traian Basescu.

"Together, we won. This is a beautiful night for Romanian democracy,” said Mr Geoana.

But Mr Basescu said that "correct counting of votes" showed that he had defeated his rival in the tense runoff ballot.

Two exit polls broadcast after polls closed at 1900 GMT gave Mr Geoana the lead.

A survey by CURS agency for public television TVR said Mr Geoana had 50.8 per cent of ballots cast by 1700 GMT, versus 49.2 per cent for Mr Basescu. Another poll by agency INSOMAR showed Mr Geoana ahead 51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent.

Mr Geoana has won support from voters frustrated by clashes in parliament over Mr Basescu's drive to root out corrupt politicians.

Analysts see the vote as one of Romania's most important since the fall of communism, as the new president must steer long-delayed reforms that could decide whether the country of 22 million can resume its bid to catch up with the West.

He must also name a new prime minister after opposition parties toppled a centrist Basescu-allied cabinet in October, and address reforms prescribed by the International Monetary Fund to unlock a stalled €20 billion aid package.

Romania is the EU's second poorest state after neighbour Bulgaria. Its economy doubled in size from in the four years up to the end of last year, when the boom ended. Purchasing power per capita has stalled at 46 per cent of the EU average, and an estimated two million Romanians have left to work in countries across Europe.

Mr Basescu suffered a blow last week when television stations aired footage that appeared to show him hitting a 10-year-old boy in the face at a 2004 rally. He says the footage is fake.

Mr Geoana, a 51-year-old former foreign minister and envoy to Washington meanwhile, stumbled in a televised debate when he revealed he had gone to a media mogul's house for a private meeting this week. Mr Basescu said it showed he was under the thumb of oligarchs who grabbed wealth and power in the murky period after Ceausescu's fall.

Mr Geoana has blamed Mr Basescu for the political turmoil and indicated he will resist the IMF-backed austerity measures that sparked a strike by 800,000 state workers in October.