It was a pre-election showdown set in late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's cavernous palace. But it quickly degenerated into farce of the kind that has many Romanians disdainful of politics ahead of the presidential vote and western Europeans still suspicious of a nation that has joined the EU but remains mired in corruption, poverty and economic bungling. Standing at lecterns for their last televised debate, the two candidates in Sunday's ballot were asked to swear on a bright red Bible that they would be truthful.
Challenger Mircea Geoana swore he'd stand up to moguls and oligarchs, but then was caught out having had a secret meeting with one just the night before. Asked under oath to rebut accusations he hit a 10-year-old boy, incumbent Traian Basescu, despite earlier denials, merely mumbled that he didn't hit the boy with his fist and not in the stomach.
The Thursday night debate, watched by 5 million people, came as Romania grapples with its deepest political and economic crisis for years. Both men claim they have the solutions to lift Romania out of recession, form a government, eradicate corruption and restore public trust.
Basescu accuses Geoana, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, of being a pawn of media moguls and business players, a charge that has resonated with voters amid Romania's economic woes.
After Geoana swore on the Bible that he would be his own man, Basescu asked him what he was then doing at midnight in a secret meeting with Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, the owner of an influential television station whom Geoana had described as "malevolent" in an interview.
That has led to a countercharge from Geoana that Basescu is running a "Big Brother" state reminiscent of the communist era. On Friday, in an interview with The Associated Press Geoana said his phone is tapped and his movements and conversations monitored by the state.
"These are unhealthy, undemocratic attitudes ... I want Romania to breath in freedom," said the 51-year-old Geoana. Basescu's office called the accusations "absurd."
Basescu, 58, a former sea captain with a common touch, claims Geoana is weak, and owes to many favors to powerful business figures.
However, he's been caught in his own scandal involving a campaign rally in which he was caught on tape apparently punching a 10-year-old boy.