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Romanians Vote in Tense Runoff Ballot

Voters in Romania are going to the polls in the final round of a presidential runoff which will determine who will lead the former Communist nation into the European Union in 2007. The opposition is expressing concern about the fairness of the ballot.

The polls opened early Sunday for a presidential runoff which is being closely watched by the international community after human rights and non governmental groups reported "grave irregularities" during the first round of the election on November 28.

That round of voting was plagued by allegations that voters were able to cast several ballots in parts of the country, in favor of the government's presidential candidate, outgoing prime minister Adrian Nastase, who election officials claimed won with roughly 41 percent of the vote.

Following the example of neighboring Ukraine, people dressed in orange colors took to the streets of Bucharest this week to protest what they called a "fraudulent vote."

Mr. Nastase and his ruling former Communists turned Social Democrats have denied opposition charges that they encouraged the transport of supporters to multiple polling stations.

The 54-year-old prime minister is running against Traian Basescu, the 53-year-old popular Bucharest major who is backed by center and liberal parties of his Justice and Truth Alliance.

Both men have pledged to fight poverty and corruption, key issues that will have to be addressed for Romania to join the EU in 2007.

Millions of people still live up or below the poverty line in Romania where average monthly incomes hover around $150 and horse carts still compete with cars.

Opposition candidate Traian Basescu, a colorful former sea captain, has promised to become "the first president who will crush" what he called "the corrupt system and the mafia."

Prime Minister Nastase says he is the right man to become president, and already has experience in dealing with organizations such as the EU.

In an apparent effort to boost his election chances, the government announced this week it had successfully concluded Romania's negotiations on membership of the Union.

Whoever wins the ballot will replace Ion Illiescu, who led Romania through most of the 15 often turbulent years, since a bloody revolution ended decades of Communist dictatorship.

The new president will also appoint the next government. Mr. Nastase's Social Democrats, who slightly edged out the opposition in the November parliamentary election, announced they are prepared to form a coalition with a party representing Romania's up to two million ethnic Hungarians.

But with none of the parliamentary parties having an outright majority, difficult negotiations are expected.