BERLIN, Germany — Secret agents, bribery, plagiarism, vote-rigging — on the face of it, the accusations surrounding Romania's presidential election on Sunday are providing more than enough thrills.
Behind the mudslinging, however, observers say the future of democratic institutions in one of Europe’s poorest countries is at stake.
With the frontrunner, the controversial Prime Minister Victor Ponta, now poised to take control of the presidency, critics worry the consolidation of power in the hands of his Social Democratic Party may hamstring a nascent battle against corruption and undermine Romania's commitment to European Union values.
The current president, Traian Basescu, a popular but also controversial former ship's captain, is unable to run for a third term.
A center-right independent, he has accused Ponta, his bitter rival, of illegally working undercover for the country's intelligence agency during his tenure as prosecutor in the late 1990s.
The late entry of former spy chief Teodor Melescanu has increased the atmosphere of intrigue, despite his small chance of winning.
Many voters are taking the spy stories as little more than campaign rhetoric, thanks to the well-known rivalry between Basescu and Ponta.
But the focus on scandal rather than substance is deflecting attention from the risk that Romania's commitment to European integration may decline, says Corina Rebegea of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
“In our regional context, the pressure is so high that it's probably a legitimate question to ask,” she says, pointing to other trouble spots, such as the crisis in Ukraine, Bulgaria’s drift toward Russia and the erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary.
“All of Romania's neighbors are somehow sliding in a direction that’s very worrisome,” she says.
Although it may be premature to liken Ponta or any of Romania's other presidential candidates to Hungary's Viktor Orban — who has openly declared he’s seeking to create an “illiberal” state — critics say the indicators don't look good.
Since his election in 2012, Ponta has drawn flak for allegedly politicizing the Romanian Cultural Institute and the country's state-owned television broadcaster.
The prime minister has dismissed EU criticism that he did not appear to respect the rule of law and democratic institutions, and denied allegations that he’s pressured judges.
Romania’s judicial system has been under special EU supervision since the country joined the bloc in 2007.
Ponta’s party is also implicated in an ongoing probe into vote-rigging during a failed 2012 bid to oust President Basescu through a public referendum.
“In the past, the social democrats and Ponta in particular haven't really respected the rule of law,” says Paul Ivan of the Brussels-based European Policy Center.
A savvy horsetrader accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, Ponta is tipped to breeze through the election’s first round on Sunday partly thanks to his successful appeals to Romanian nationalism, says Otilia Dhand of the political risk consultancy firm Teneo.
“It's not necessarily an anti-EU stance, it's more about Romanian nationalist feelings domestically and the return to religion that we have seen during the crisis,” she says. “The EU is an easy scapegoat.”
The merger of the two largest opposition parties gives their compromise candidate, Klaus Iohannis, a fighting chance in the second-round runoff vote scheduled two weeks later. A former justice minister and anti-corruption campaigner, Monica Macovei, also has potential as a dark horse.
Macovei, a Bacescu ally, is running as an independent and Iohannis — a liberal who was until recently the mayor of a tourist town in Transylvania — is a relative neophyte. If either makes it to the runoff, their prospects will hinge on uniting the fractured anti-Ponta vote.
All the main candidates say the most important element of Romania's security and foreign policy is its strategic partnership with the US and its membership in the EU. However, some commentators have expressed concern about Ponta's embrace of China and attempts to deepen Romania's relationship with Russia before Ukraine’s crisis erupted earlier this year.
Critics warn that a victory for Ponta would at the least threaten an ongoing attempt by the National Anti-corruption Directorate, the NAD, to crack down on graft, which they say Russia has exploited in Ukraine and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe in its bid to exert influence.
None of Romania's parties have a reputation for being squeaky clean, to be sure, and some Romanians believe recent high-profile corruption convictions represent little more than score-settling by Basescu instead of a real crackdown.
More from GlobalPost: Are Germans really obsessed with austerity?
But Ponta has actively opposed court actions of the sort that have prompted investigations into allegations that government officials skimmed as much as $20 million from a computer software licensing deal for schools that involved Microsoft and reseller Fujitsu Siemens, his critics say.
By winning control of the presidency as well as the prime minister's office, he would not only weaken the political motivation for such prosecutions, but also gain the power to appoint the chief and deputies of the NAD, as well as the justice minister, says Laura Stefan, a former official in the Justice Ministry.
“The big issue of this campaign is the independence of the justice system and the anti-corruption institutions,” she says. “For me, this is what is at stake.”