Romanians began voting on Sunday in a hotly contested presidential runoff that could resolve almost two months of political crisis and unfreeze an international loan Romania needs to emerge from its worst recession since communism was overthrown in 1989.

Centrist President Traian Basescu, is running for a second five-year term. His main rival is former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, who heads the leftist Social Democrats and is head of the Senate.

Both candidates claim they will lift Romania out of its deepest political and economic crisis in 20 years, eradicate corruption and restore public trust. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT), with almost 18 million people eligible to vote.

Mr. Basescu cast his vote early and wished Romanians who are celebrating St. Nicholas Day a happy holiday.

The 58-year-old president styles himself a patriot with a deep respect for Romanian traditions and awareness of the concerns of average voters.

The former ship’s captain has seen his popularity drop this year due to the economic downturn and political feuding, but still enjoys wide support, especially in rural areas and among the working class.

He takes credit for raising Romania’s international profile by leading the country into the European Union in 2007, and hosting a major NATO summit in 2008 - the high point of his presidency.

Mr. Geoana, 51, who served as Romania’s ambassador to the U.S. and then as foreign minister, lacks Mr. Basescu’s popular appeal but is seen as a clever negotiator in Romanian politics. His Social Democratic Party, the successor to the Communist Party that ruled Romania for more than 40 years, has a strong grass-roots organization in both rural areas and cities.

Mr. Basescu accuses Mr. Geoana of being a pawn of media moguls and business players, a charge that has resonated with voters amid Romania’s economic woes.

Mr. Geoana, who polled slightly less than Mr. Basescu in the first round, said in a Friday interview with The Associated Press that Mr. Basescu has fomented political instability and used Romania’s secret services to monitor his opponents.

Analysts say the race is too close to call.

The latest opinion poll has Mr. Basescu trailing Mr. Geoana by 54 percent to 46 percent in an opinion poll taken during November 28-29 interviewing almost 11,971 people. The Insomar poll has a three percentage point margin of error.

Mr. Basescu’s chances were hurt after a video appeared of him appearing to punch a 10-year-old boy during an election rally in 2004. He initially denied it but in a televised debate on Thursday when he swore on the Bible, he seemed to hedge, saying he had not punched the boy either in the stomach or in the face. The president declined to state outright that he hadn’t hit the child as the interviewer had asked him to do.

Romania’s economy, already in a deep recession, is expected to shrink some 8.5 percent this year with unemployment at more than 7 percent, 3 percentage points higher than last year.

The country is seeking to unlock a euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) IMF bailout loan but is unlikely to get one this year due to the instability. The IMF says it will give the loan when Romania has a government in place and a budget for 2010. The freezing of the loan will force 1.3 million state workers to take eight days of unpaid leave in 2009.

Romania has been without a government since October 13 when Parliament dismissed Prime Minister Emil Boc, in a no confidence vote.

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