BUCHAREST: Romania's centre-left ruling coalition looked poised to win a substantial victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections, but analysts warn the party's continued cohabitation with its centre-right rival, President Traian Basescu, could trigger new political turmoil.
Despite bad weather, with heavy snow blocking dozens of roads, initial turnout was up slightly from four years ago, standing at 20.56 percent at 1200 GMT.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta's Social-Liberal Union (USL), in power since May, was on course 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 constitutional changes.
The USL is surfing a wave of discontent over the centre-right's four years in power, marked by a bitter austerity package and 25-percent cuts in public sector wages.
The Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which gathers parties close to Basescu's camp, trails far behind the USL, with polls showing support of between 16 and 23 percent.
"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 have voted for Romania to pursue its path towards the West," said Basescu, who accuses the USL leaders of driving the country away from the European Union, which it joined in 2007.
This is Romania's first national vote since a failed attempt by the USL this summer to unseat Basescu -- a move that drew sharp rebukes from the European Union and the United States.
"I voted for the USL because Romania needs a change.
The previous centre-right governments were too dishonest", said Mihai, a 31-year-old military police officer as he left a Bucharest polling station.
Despite holding power since May, many voters see USL as the party of change because it has promised to roll back austerity cuts.
"It's time to change the political class. Those who were in power until recently have disappointed me, that is why with my whole family we will vote to end theft and amateurism in this country," said Florentin Kovacs, a 45-year-old engineer who braved heavy snowfall in Timisoara to vote.
At the Gemeni market in central Bucharest, apple-seller Costel Bivol said he would vote ARD.
"We cannot blame them for the austerity measures. Romania was in a deep economic crisis and they had to do something," he said.
But even if it wins by a wide margin, the centre-left coalition will be forced to share power with Basescu, whose term runs until 2014.
Analysts warn this could bring about more instability.
Basescu repeatedly hinted he could refuse to re-appoint Ponta, whom he called a "mythomaniac", as prime minister.
The move, seen as an "abuse of power" by many analysts, could earn him a new suspension, the USL warned.
"While the USL looks set for a clear victory, there are two risks that could cause investor confidence to sour," a report by Capital Economics said, citing a resurfacing of tensions between the USL and Basescu and disagreements over fiscal policies, which could hold up negotiations on a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
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.
Romania's foreign investors council recently stressed that without political stability, there would be "no engine for growth" .
Meanwhile, the 2012 growth forecast was revised to 0.7 percent from 1.7 percent.
Romania hopes to negotiate a new deal with the IMF in the coming months after getting a 20-billion-euro lifeline in 2009 and a five-billion-euro precautionary loan in 2011.
Dan Diaconescu, a populist millionnaire on trial for blackmail, was hoping to tap into voters' disappointment with traditional parties.
Campaigning from his white Rolls Royce, the television station owner promised 20,000 euros to every Romanian starting a new business. His party was polling at around 14 percent.
Exit polls will be released immediately when the vote closes at 1900 GMT, though the first official results are not expected until Monday.