BUCHAREST - Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta looked set to win the first round of a presidential election Sunday, despite fears he could reverse reforms aimed at tackling the rampant corruption that blights one of Europe’s poorest countries.

The vote is seen as a crucial test for the former communist country, at a time when democracy has suffered setbacks in some neighbouring states such as Hungary, and as the Ukraine crisis has shaken relations between the EU and Russia. Romania’s election campaign has been marred by scandal, with numerous corruption probes including those aimed at allies of the prime minister, and a settling of scores between Ponta and his long-standing rival President Traian Basescu. Ponta, a social democrat, has been premier for two stormy years of cohabitation with Basescu.

, and is likely to face 55-year-old liberal Klaus Iohannis, from the German-speaking minority, in a November 16 runoff. ‘I am confident that 25 years after (the fall of the communist regime) we can complete Romania’s transition so that it becomes a truly democratic and European country,’ Ponta said after casting his ballot in Bucharest.

He leads the latest opinion polls on 41 percent, ahead of Iohannis on 30 percent and another 12 candidates. ‘I voted for a Romania of good work,’ said Iohannis, echoing his campaign slogan. The new president will face a number of pressing issues, including recession and persistent accusations of corruption and bad governance. The popular centre-right incumbent Basescu, who has accused Ponta of being a former spy, is ineligible to run for a third term.

Romania’s head of state is notably responsible for foreign policy and top-level appointments such as prosecutors in the second poorest country in the European Union after Bulgaria. ‘I think these elections can be a maturity test for Romania,’ said Corina Rebegea from the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington. The country needs ‘a president who can imprint a clear sense of vision about how we continue to build a democratic system of governance and rule of law, and proves that 25 years of transition are worth something.’