Romania’s pro-Europe President Klaus Iohannis has taken a big lead in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday, according to exit polls.
Two exit polls, issued shortly after voting ended at 1900 GMT, gave Iohannis 39 percent of the vote.
In the run-off he looks likely to face former Social Democrat (PSD) Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who is estimated to have won 22.5 percent of ballots cast.
Iohannis claimed victory in front of cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters.
“We have beaten the Social Democrats,” 60-year-old Iohannis said.
“But the war is not over, we have to take another step forward in two weeks,” he said, referring to the second round ballot on November 24.
Iohannis now appears well placed to win a second five-year term, potentially adding to a liberal fightback against the region’s prevailing nationalism.
Dancila meanwhile said she was “happy” with the result, adding: “We are present in the second round, I thank those who voted with their hearts.”
The PSD has become increasingly reliant on an ageing, rural electorate and had feared not making it to the second round, which would have been a first in Romania’s post-communist history.
That nightmare scenario for the PSD is still theoretically possible once the record number of 650,000 votes from Romanians abroad — who are not reflected in the exit polls and tend to favour liberal candidates — are counted.
Those votes could yet propel the third-placed candidate, Dan Barna from the recently-formed pro-EU Save Romania Union (USR) party, into the second round.
According to exit polls Barna has garnered 16 percent.
“We are still confident, Romanians abroad are still voting,” Barna said on Sunday evening after the exit polls were published.
Iohannis, who hails from the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL), repeatedly clashed with the beleaguered PSD government, which collapsed last month.
Dancila served as the last prime minister in that government, which took power in 2016.
The PSD government had engaged in a long battle with Brussels — and Iohannis who backed the EU– over allegations it was trying to push through controversial judicial reforms in order to neuter the judiciary and benefit PSD politicians.
Iohannis had made rule of law a central plank of his campaign, mirroring the message of Slovakian anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova, who won the presidential election in that country in March.
In Hungary too, the nationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a rare setback last month when centre-left candidate Gergely Karacsony united the opposition to wrest the mayoralty of the capital Budapest from Orban’s Fidesz party.
While nationalism has been less present in Romanian politics than in Hungary or Poland, the PSD had tried to frame its clashes with European Union institutions as evidence that the party was standing up for Romania.
However, as the German magazine Osteuropa pointed out in a recent editorial, at May’s European Parliament elections “while Fidesz and (Poland’s ruling) PiS party won on the back of anti-Brussels campaigns, Romanian voters punished the government and sent a pro-European signal”.
The heavy losses in the European polls added to a series of travails for Dancila’s government which eventually saw it brought down by parliament in a no-confidence vote last month.