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By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The ethnic German mayor of a Transylvanian city has emerged as leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta's strongest challenger in a forthcoming Romanian presidential election, an opinion poll showed on Monday.
With less than four months before the Nov. 2 vote to replace President Traian Basescu, neither centre-right Sibiu Mayor Klaus Iohannis, nor Ponta have announced bids. But a challenge by Iohannis, supporter of economic reform backed by international lenders under Brussels umbrella, would focus attention on a German minority settled in the area since the Middle Ages.
The next president will play a pivotal role in appointing a new prime minister and a government lineup to oversee IMF-backed reform under a 4 billion euros standby deal - with the loan deal review now being postponed pending the ballot.
Apart from naming the prime minister at his will if no political grouping garners an outright majority in a parliamentary election, likely due in 2016, Romania's president also appoints judges and prosecutors.
Iohannis, 55, who has pledged to try to unite fragmented opposition forces, was overwhelmingly endorsed as head of Romania's second biggest party, the opposition Liberals, two weeks ago, after Crin Antonescu quit the post.
Observers attribute his fast rise to managerial skills as mayor since 2000 and a reputation for honesty in one of European Union's most corrupt member states.
A survey by pollster INSCOP ordered by daily Adevarul and conducted between July 1 and 6 with 1,055 respondents nationwide, showed both likely contenders would likely fail to garner enough votes to avoid a Nov. 16 runoff ballot.
The incumbent prime minister received 43.6 percent support, followed by Iohannis with 31.2 percent. A distant third was opposition leader and former prime minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu with 9.6 percent.
Ponta would win the presidential runoff with 52.8 percent, cementing his Social Democrat Party's dominance.
Analysts say no clear winner can be yet predicted but that the two will likely meet in the runoff.
"The battle will be tight. Iohannis also stands a chance if the premier starts making mistakes," said political analyst Mircea Marian who added that a surprise candidacy able to dilute the vote cannot be entirely ruled out.
Iohannis won praise for his management of restoration works as mayor of Sibiu, Hermannstadt in German. The medieval city was established by German settlers in the 12th century and was Europe's Capital of Culture in 2007.
Helped by successive IMF-backed aid deals since 2009 and by austerity policies, Romania has slowly emerged from recession to record one of the highest economic growth rates in the region and needs international backing to help underpin its credibility with foreign investors.
Ethnic Germans have had a strong presence in Transylvania - the northwestern part of Romania that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire - since the Middle Ages.
But mass emigration began in the early 1970s and continued after Romania's anti-communist revolution in 1989 that toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; editing by Ralph Boulton)