BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, the European Union member state's seventh free general election since the fall of communism in 1989.
The ruling leftist coalition government was favored to win, but arguments over naming a prime minister or forming a coalition could leave the country rudderless for several weeks and raise doubts over an International Monetary Fund loan deal.
* COUNTRY DETAILS:
GEOGRAPHY: The area is 237,500 sq km (91,710 sq miles). It is bordered to the north and northeast by Ukraine and Moldova, to the east by the Black Sea, to the south by Bulgaria, to the southwest by Serbia, and to the northwest by Hungary.
POPULATION: 19 million: (2011 census)
ETHNICITY: 88.6 percent ethnic Romanians, 6.5 percent ethnic Hungarians, 3.2 percent Roma. (2011 census) Unofficial estimates say the Roma could represent up to 10 percent of the population.
Roma are usually considered Romanian under the census. There are also smaller German, Ukrainian and other minorities.
RELIGION: Christian Orthodox (86.3 percent), Roman Catholic (4.5 percent), Protestant denominations (6.1 percent), Greek-Catholic (0.8 percent). There are also about 13,000 Jews.
LANGUAGE: The official language is Romanian but ethnic minorities typically speak their own languages, such as Hungarian and Romany.
* POLITICAL PARTIES
Polls put the popularity of Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) coalition at 48-60.5 percent, placing the centre-right Right Romania Alliance (ARD) second with 15-24 percent. They suggest the populist People's Party of media entrepreneur Dan Diaconescu enjoys support of 12-15 percent and that the ethnic Hungarian party UDMR would get around 6 percent.
Both the USL and ARD have committed to work with international lenders, but Diaconescu's policies - including steep wage hikes - will alarm the IMF, which has led a 5-billion-euro loan deal to shore up investor trust.
* CONTESTED POSTS
A total of 2,451 candidates were vying for the two-house parliament's 452 seats - 315 in the chamber of deputies and 137 in the senate. There were 18,762 polling stations including 306 abroad, mostly in Italy and Spain. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were to close at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT).
Under election law, 18 seats in the lower house will go to ethnic minorities whose parties do not meet a five percent threshold required for a political grouping to enter parliament.
* VOTING PROCEDURE
About 18.3 million Romanians were eligible in the December 9 ballot and the polls are valid irrespective of voter turnout.
Deputies and senators are elected in constituencies, through a combined first-past-the-post and proportional representation system. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in his constituency he/she automatically becomes an MP.
Mandates will be redistributed if there is no outright winner in a constituency, which could benefit larger parties.
* HOW A GOVERNMENT IS FORMED
After the constitutional court validates the ballot's final results, probably around December 12-14, President Traian Basescu will nominate a prime minister from the grouping which won an outright majority in parliament.
If no party wins an outright majority, the president - a political opponent of the USL and Prime Minister Victor Ponta - may nominate a premier from any party. The nominee will have 10 days to present a government program and a team of ministers before seeking parliament's backing.
The current government remains in power until the new cabinet is approved by parliament. Two failed attempts to form a government within 60 days of the first nomination automatically trigger early polls.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Andrew Osborn/Mark Heinrich)