Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban has claimed a parliamentary election victory seen as pivotal for the country's future in the European mainstream, although one exit poll showed his ruling Liberals (PNL) losing by a narrow margin.
A reform-minded fiscal conservative, Orban is expected to be asked to form the government, most likely with the small centrist USR-Plus grouping, even if final results show him slightly behind his rivals, the leftist PSD.
He quickly claimed victory on Sunday, with one exit poll giving him a narrow lead of 32 per cent versus the PSD's 28 per cent. Another exit poll put the PSD at 30.5 per cent and the PNL at 29.0 per cent.
"The PNL thinks it is the winner of this election," Orban told supporters in a quick speech.
He later said coalition talks could start as soon as Monday.
"TThis country needs a government as soon as possible," Orban said.
He has pledged to overturn years of efforts by a succession of leftist governments to suppress the independence of courts - a charge they denied.
In power for a year, Orban has been constrained by a PSD-controlled parliament, which has seen three prime ministers toppled since the last election in 2016 amid infighting over jobs.
The party's last government collapsed in late 2019 following the imprisonment of former leader Liviu Dragnea on corruption charges.
Campaigning on a promise to bring Romania closer to the European mainstream, Orban pledged to restore investor sentiment badly shaken by the PSD's fiscal populism and revive efforts to repair neglected infrastructure and public services.
The PSD saw a last-minute rise in polls after it accused him of botching Romania's approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has confirmed more than 500,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 12,000 deaths.
Australian Associated Press