The opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) was ahead with just short of 30% of votes in Romania's general election on Sunday, according to preliminary results published on Monday after over 90% of votes had been counted.
An earlier exit poll by CURS-Avangarde on Sunday put the party on an even keel with the ruling centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL), which is now on around 25% of ballots in the latest results.
But PNL intends to remain in power by allying itself with the reformists of the USR-Plus alliance, which were attributed nearly 15% in the partial vote count.
"The results of the ballot will only be known after the counting of the votes," tempered prime minister and PNL leader Ludovic Orban, assuring that negotiations for the formation of a liberal-led future government would begin soon.
"I am waiting for the resignation of Mr Orban, that's what the Romanians have asked through their vote," PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu said after initial results showed his party ahead in the count.
Only two other parties crossed the 5% threshold to enter Parliament: a nationalist party that has close ties to the Orthodox Church, AUR (9%), and the party of the Hungarian minority, UDMR (6%).
The latter, which has supported centre-right governments in the past, said it was ready to form an alliance with the PNL after Sunday's vote.
Turnout, which stood at around 33% inside the country, was six points lower than it was at the same time in the 2016 election when it was at 39%.
Four hours before polls were set to close, only a quarter of people registered to do so had voted.
Commentators put this down to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the country and voter fatigue, with a political class deemed incompetent.
More than 250,000 Romanians voted abroad, although polling stations in Western Europe and North America are still open.
The number of people who showed up to use their ballots was particularly weak in the countryside - a trend that could penalise the PSD, most of whose electorate lives in rural areas, according to analysts.
Cabinet shake-ups and no-confidence votes have marked a period of instability in a country with one of the European Union’s highest emigration rates.
Romania has had five prime ministers in as many years amid deep political uncertainty.
Around 18 million people were registered to vote at 18,000 polling stations across the country, but analysts had predicted turnout would be low.
Radu Magdin, a political analyst in Bucharest, told Euronews that turnout could be historically low, around 30% of total registered voters, compared to 39.5% in 2016.
That is partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also reflects a disappointment amongst voters in their choices.
According to most pre-election polls, the weekend vote was likely to favour reform-oriented politicians united in their resolve to keep Romania in step with the EU mainstream and away from the camp of other post-communist nations, such as Hungary and Poland, with their populist, eurosceptic leaders.
According to the polls, PNL appeared set to become the top vote-getter. But the mainstay party of Romania's EU-aligned, austerity-prone social conservatives are expected to fall far short of a parliamentary majority.
Its main rival, the left-leaning, populist PSD, won the last election in 2016 with over 45% of the vote, and ran through three prime ministers.
Then in 2019, the government collapsed, and Orban from PNL was appointed prime minister, heading a three-party coalition.
Click on the player icon above to hear from our reporter Marie Jeanne Ion in Bucharest and what Radu Magdin, a political analyst and twice former prime ministerial advisor, says about the AUR Party and the potential impact on Romanian politics.