Romania’s pro-Western President Klaus Iohannis appears to have won in a runoff as expected, with exit polls showing him easily beating Viorica Dancila, a leftist candidate who was prime minister until a month ago.
An exit poll conducted by the IRES pollster showed Iohannis garnered 66.5 percent followed by Dancila with 33.5 percent. Another pollster, CURS-Avangarde showed Iohannis winning with 64 percent.
According to the Central Election Commission, turnout on November 24 was around 50 percent of Romania's 18.2 million eligible voters.
A second term for Iohannis could help restore Romania's pro-European trajectory after years of leftist rule marked by rampant corruption and what many Romanians saw as an assault on the judiciary.
"The winner today is modern Romania, European Romania, the normal Romania," Iohannis said after polls closed. "I receive this victory with joy, thankfulness, modesty and with faith in Romania."
Iohannis, a former physics teacher and mayor of the central Romanian city of Sibiu, had urged Romanians to go to the polls in large numbers. "Dear Romanians, it's your chance to be champions today, use the vote stamp; you can all be champions," Iohannis said after casting his ballot in Bucharest.
Dancila, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) that many consider the direct heir to the communist nomenklatura, told the media that she had voted "for a Romania that goes forward, not backwards."
A record number of Romanians -- almost 700,000 -- have so far voted abroad. Voting for expats, which started on November 22, is taking place over three days, with the option of a postal vote also available.
An extended voting time was introduced for the presidential poll after thousands of Romanians queued for hours outside polling stations abroad during elections for the European Parliament in May.
Critics have said that the former PSD-led government had intentionally made the voting process more complicated for the more than 4-million-strong Romanian diaspora that has traditionally backed center-right candidates.
Iohannis and Dancila held competing, simultaneous press conferences this week after the front-running incumbent declined an invitation to a debate.
Iohannis's candidacy was backed by the ruling center-right National Liberal Party (PNL) that he once headed and which now leads the newly installed minority government of Prime Minister Ludovic Orban.
Collapse Of PSD-Led Government
Iohannis, who is an ethnic German, has been seen by many as the bulwark of resistance against the assault that the PSD-led coalition waged on the independence of the judiciary from early 2017 until last month, when Dancila's cabinet was finally toppled in a no-confidence vote in parliament.
The eventual collapse of the PSD-led government was also hastened by waves of mass demonstrations against its attacks on the rule of law, the last of which was violently repressed by riot police in August last year.
Iohannis, who famously joined the first anti-PSD protest sporting a red parka in January 2017, has said he wants to put an end to corruption -- Romania's endemic problem since the fall of communism three decades ago.
The developments and the wave of Romanian discontent alarmed officials in Brussels, where stalemates in Bucharest had already delayed some appointments including that of a top EU prosecutor.
The third-place candidate in the first round, center-right leader Dan Barna, had urged his supporters to back Iohannis this time around.
Romania and its roughly 19 million citizens continue to suffer economically despite gains since the former Eastern Bloc state joined the European Union in 2007.
In a report last month, the European Commission slammed Bucharest for backsliding on judicial reforms and fighting corruption.
Florin Citu, who took over as finance minister after a new government was sworn in on November 4, has accused Dancila's government of running parallel budgets "Al Capone"-style to finance what he described as "local barons."
The incumbent got nearly 38 percent of first-round votes versus Dancila's 22 percent in the first round on November 10.
The presidential race, which takes place at a highly symbolic moment for Romanians who are preparing to mark 30 years since they toppled the most repressive communist regime in the Eastern Bloc in a bloody revolt, should also hold clues to Romania's local and parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring and autumn of 2020.