A presidential election aimed at helping Romania emerge from a political and economic crisis failed to produce a winner on Sunday, and the top two candidates will compete in a runoff next month, according to two exit polls.
If the exit polls are confirmed by official results on Monday, centrist President Traian Basescu, 58, will face socialist former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, 51, in the runoff on Dec. 6.
One exit poll said Basescu won 34.1 percent of the votes, compared to 30.9 percent for Geoana. The other said Basescu won 32.8 percent, compared to 31.7 percent for Geoana. Conservative opposition leader Crin Antonescu polled about 21 percent, finishing third in an election featuring a dozen candidates
Romania's government collapsed last month amid squabbling between the two-party coalition, and the International Monetary Fund has delayed access to a euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) IMF bailout loan while the country struggles to set up a new government.
A president is key to reviving the government because he nominates a prime minister, whom Parliament must then approve and who would be responsible for forming a new coalition.
Reports of possible fraud in Sunday's election emerged as far more people than normal cast ballots at 3,500 special voting centers that were set up for Romanians who need to vote outside their area of residence because they are traveling.
The Electoral Committee said more than 430,000 people voted at such locations, and witnesses claimed some were being bused there after already having cast ballots elsewhere. For instance, Economy Minister Adriean Videanu called for a halt to "electoral tourism" in Moara Vlasie, near Bucharest, saying election authorities there were overwhelmed.
Basescu and Geoana called the election one of the most important votes in Romania since 1989 and the fall of communism.
Basescu, who is running for a second five-year term as president, said the exit polls appeared to indicate that conservatives were growing in power in Romania.
Geoana, who heads the left-leaning Social Democrats and is the leader of the Senate, said: "We worked hard to get here. We will work even harder in the next two weeks, and on Dec. 6 we will win together."
More than 18 million Romanians were eligible to vote Sunday, and about 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots, according to the Electoral Committee.
Basescu, who no longer belongs to a political party because of constitutional requirements, has lost some public support because of his stormy relationship with Parliament and the country's deep economic crisis. Geoana favors a broad coalition government, while Basescu wants to form a government from the Democratic Liberal party he used to lead.
Romania's economy, already in a deep recession, is expected to shrink some 8.5 percent this year. The country needs the IMF loan to pay state salaries and pensions, but is unlikely to get it this year. That would force 1.3 million state workers to take eight days of unpaid leave in 2009. Unemployment in Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, already stands at 7.1 percent, up 3 percent in the last year.
Voters also were taking part in a referendum on Sunday asking if they want to reduce the number of lawmakers in Parliament and abolish one of its two houses.
Basescu, who called the referendum, wants a one-chamber Parliament with a maximum of 300 lawmakers, down from the current 471. Critics say a smaller parliament would lead to the president having too much power.
Parliament and the president now share power equally.
Associated Press writer Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest contributed to this report.