BUCHAREST Romanian voters went to the polls on Sunday in the first electoral test of the ruling leftists since they came to power on a wave of discontent over austerity measures in the European Union's second-poorest economy.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta will be particularly keen to capture powerful mayoral positions in a string of big cities, including the capital Bucharest, to build up his support ahead of a November parliamentary vote.
Thousands of county and municipal seats were also up for grabs in the ballot which started at 7 a.m. (12.00 a.m. EDT).
"I voted for what I think could be honest and diligent politicians," said 58-year-old teacher Mariana Stoiculescu at a downtown polling station in Bucharest. "We want better wages, better services and a better life for our children."
Police said they were investigating a number of fraud allegations during early voting, including accusations of bribery and attempts at multiple voting.
Ponta's Social Liberal Union USL alliance toppled the centre-right Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL) following a no-confidence vote in parliament last month. He promised to restore wages and cut some taxes, while sticking to an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.
The PDL cut public salaries and raised sales tax in 2010 as part of an austerity program. The party was so badly damaged it has struggled to hold on to second place ahead of the populist Dan Diaconescu, whose new party wants steep tax cuts.
"What matters to us is to get better wages, more jobs, and ... to see the government cares more about us," said Elena Constantinescu, 40, working at a cable company in the southwestern city of Pitesti.
The USL group is dominated by the PSD party, the reformed heir of Romania's pre-1989 communists.
Eighteen candidates have entered the race for Bucharest including incumbent USL-backed mayor Sorin Oprescu and PDL deputy Silviu Prigoana.
Most candidates have promised to tackle the city's chronic stray dogs problem. There are up to 40,000 strays in the streets of Bucharest, a problem exacerbated by late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who forced thousands of people move into apartments where they could not look after the animals.
Former premier Emil Boc, who rolled out the painful austerity cuts and tax hikes in 2010, is running to become mayor of the city of Cluj in Transylvania - his stronghold.
"It is a test day for those who had governed Romania at times of crisis," President Traian Basescu, a PDL ally, told reporters after casting his ballot.
Polling stations are due to close at 02.00 p.m. EDT when the first exit polls will be released. The Central Electoral Bureau may release final results as early as on Monday.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)