Polls show incumbent center-right President Klaus Iohannis ahead with around 40%, followed by the center-left candidate Viorica Dancila, until last month Romania's prime minister, at 15-22%. Dancila's Social Democrat government was forced to step down after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament, amid corruption scandals and allegations it wanted close control of the judiciary.
Iohannis is a former leader of the National Liberal Party, which on Monday formed a minority government led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban. If no candidate wins more than 50% on Sunday, there will be a second round of voting on Nov. 24.
While lacking an executive role, Romania's president has significant decision-making powers, including on matters of national security and foreign policy, and can reject party nominees for the prime minister and government nominees for judicial appointments.
The president — elected for a 5-year term — can also return legislation approved by parliament, but has to ratify it if lawmakers back it a second time. Political analyst Andrei Taranu said campaigning has been "extremely bland" this time, due to the government crisis.
"Usually, campaigns are aggressive, emotional and lack any policy content," he said. "This time there wasn't even any emotion. Instead, everything was focused on the no-confidence vote." Romania, a member of the European Union since 2007, is plagued by widespread poverty with over 25% of its population living on less than $5.50 a day. Its state budget deficit is at 2.8 percent and is projected to reach 4.4% of GDP next year, according to European Commission forecasts, well above the EU limit of 3%.
And with some 4 million Romanians living abroad, the country faces an increased labor shortage. Other leading candidates in Sunday's vote include independent Mircea Diaconu, a former actor and theater director, and Dan Barna, who heads Romania's third-largest party, the center-right Union Save Romania.
Taranu said polarization over the political crisis has benefited the two top candidates. "This situation kept Klaus Iohannis and Viorica Dancila in the spotlight, while other candidates had no chance to rise on the political stage," he said.
Around 18.2 million people are eligible to vote, including Romanians living abroad. The election will be the costliest in Romanian history, with a price tag for taxpayers of around $35 million.