Romanians were voting Sunday in an presidential election in which the clear favorite is centrist president Klaus Iohannis, who has vowed to continue to strengthen the rule of law and support anti-corruption measures that were rolled back by successive Social Democrat governments.
Iohannis, 60, a former physics teacher supported by the center-right Liberal Party, has been credited by the European Union with trying to protect the rule of law, in particular by challenging attempts to limit judges’ independence.
Prime Minister Ludovic Orban of the Liberal Party said he voted for „a normal Romania, a democratic Romania, (one that is respected) in the world where every Romanian has a chance of succeeding in life…. a Romania where state institutions serve citizens and where the law is for everyone.”
Iohannis scored 37.8% in the first round of voting on Nov. 10 while Dancila came second with about 22.3%.
Adrian Toma, a gynecologist, said he voted for Iohannis even if the Social Democrats had hiked medics’ salaries. „I voted for this country to change its direction, so we can get rid of the vestiges of Soviet communism once and for all.”
With two hours left until the polls close, more than 8.5 million Romanians had voted, representing 47.12% of the electorate, which was higher than in the first round of voting.
There was a record turnout abroad, with more than 850,000 Romanians casting ballots at more than 800 polling stations set up abroad. In Italy alone, 170,000 had voted by mid-evening, according to election authorities.
Parliament voted a new law for external voters in July which almost tripled the number of polling centers and extended voting to three days, after protests and chaos at polling stations abroad in the 2014 presidential runoff.
The president’s powers are mostly limited to nominating a prime minister on the basis of who can command a majority In Parliament, challenging laws in the Constitutional Court, and appointing heads of the intelligence services and some chief prosecutors.
The Social Democrats whom Iohannis opposes swept to power in late 2016 with more than 45% of the vote in parliamentary elections, and embarked on a contentious judicial overhaul which sparked the largest protests since the 1989 revolution.
Since then, Iohannis, a former mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, has regularly lambasted the Social Democrats and their efforts to weaken efforts to root out high-level corruption and attacks on the rule of law.
„We have to keep the Social Democrats far from power for years to come… to build a normal Romania where everyone feels at home,” he told supporters in a final rally Friday.
However, Iohannis has drawn criticism for refusing a one-on-one debate with challenger Viorica Dancila. Some say he lacks charisma and wasn’t active enough in his five-year term as president.
Some voters opted for Iohannis saying he was the lesser of two evils.
Diana Munteanu, a 30-year-old film director, said she voted for Iohannis “by default. I’d like to vote for a left-wing party, there is no real left and right in Romania, and there is a lack of transparency and we don’t know politicians’ real agendas.”
Dancila, whose government was toppled by a no-confidence vote last month, has appealed to voters pushing her Romanian credentials saying she believes in “family, God and the Romanian people.”
She won support from one cardiologist at the military hospital in Bucharest who is not allowed to publicly express an opinion. He said he’d voted for the former prime minister because “despite all the mistakes, the Social Democrats raised medics’ salaries,” he said, adding: “I don’t believe in all the political campaigns on Facebook. I was taught to be circumspect.”
Casting her vote early Sunday, Dancila said she voted for a Romania „which will go forward, not back to the times where we didn’t have rights and freedoms.”
The Social Democrats legal changes included increasing the burden of proof in corruption cases and the establishment of a special unit to investigate magistrates for potential abuses, a move widely seen as a way to intimidate magistrates. The moves drew rebuke from the European Union and Western allies.
Romania’s judicial reforms have been monitored by Brussels since it joined the EU in 2007. In October, Brussels said the reforms were going backwards.