BUCHAREST (AFP) - Austerity-weary Romanians voted for a new parliament Sunday, with the centre-left ruling coalition on course for a large victory that was likely to trigger fresh tension between the party and rival president Traian Basescu. Voters had to brave pouring rain in the capital Bucharest and heavy snowfalls in the Carpathians mountains to reach the polling stations. Turnout was 4.52 percent at 08H00 GMT, slightly lower than the 4.87 percent four years ago. The ballot is Romania’s first national vote since a failed attempt by Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s ruling Social-Liberal Union (USL) to unseat centre-right Basescu this summer - a move that drew sharp rebukes from the European Union and the United States.
The USL, in power since May, is set to win between 48 to 61 percent of the ballot, opinion polls show.
This could give the USL a two-thirds majority in the 470-member parliament, allowing it to pass through constitutional changes.
But the coalition will be forced to cohabit with its arch-rival Basescu, whose term runs until 2014.
“We see another crisis looming”, Jean-Michel de Waele, an Eastern Europe specialist at Bruxelles University, told AFP.
Basescu repeatedly hinted that he could refuse to re-appoint Ponta, whom he called a “mythomaniac”, as prime minister, even if the USL wins the ballot.
The move seen as an “abuse of power” by many analysts could earn him a new suspension, the USL warned.
The Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which gathers parties close to Basescu’s camp, is trailing behind the USL in polls with between 16 and 23 percent.
The centre-right alliance was in power from 2008 until May 2012 when it fell on a no-confidence motion.
“Voters want to punish it for cutting public wages by 25 percent in 2010 as part of an austerity programme”, sociologist Vasile Dancu told AFP.
Despite being in power since May, the USL embodies change in the eyes of many voters as it has promised to roll back austerity cuts.
“Today Romania will close a chapter of its history and open a new one that will be better,” Ponta said after voting in his Targu Jiu southern constituency.
“I voted for the USL because Romania needs a change. The previous centre-right governments were too dishonest”, Mihai, a 31-year-old military police officer told AFP upon leaving a Bucharest polling station.
“I also suffered from the austerity measures. My salary was cut and I could not pay back the mortgage for my house,” he added.
But disenchanted with politicians in general, he warns: “If the new lawmakers do not care about us like it often happens here, I will vote them out in four years.”
At the Gemeni market in central Bucharest, Costel Bivol, who sells apples from his orchard, will vote ARD.
“We cannot blame them for the austerity measures. Romania was in a deep economic crisis and they had to do something,” he told AFP.
A populist millionnaire currently under trial for blackmail, Dan Diaconescu, hopes to tap into voters’ disappointment with traditional parties.
Campaigning at the wheel of his white Rolls Royce, the TV-station owner promises 20,000 euros to every Romanian starting a new business.
His party is polling at around 14 percent.
Investors and economic analysts have warned against the risk of fresh political turbulence after the vote, as Romania, the EU’s second-poorest member after Bulgaria, struggles to recover from one of Europe’s most painful austerity drives.
The average monthly wage currently stands at 350 euros ($450) and about three million Romanians have emigrated looking for jobs and better living conditions.
“Without political stability, there will be no engine for growth,” Romania’s foreign investors council recently stressed.
This year, Romania has lived through street protests against Basescu and austerity in January, three different governments and the worst political crisis since the return of democracy, this summer.
Meanwhile, the 2012 growth forecast was revised to 0.7 percent from 1.7 percent.
Romania hopes to negotiate a new agreement with the International Monetary Funds (IMF) in the coming months after getting a 20-billion-euro ($26-billion) lifeline in 2009 and a five-billion-euro precautionary loan in 2011.
Exit polls will be released immediately after the end of the vote. The first official results are not expected until Monday.