BUCHAREST: Romania's ruling centrist Liberals emerged as the leading party in a municipal ballot on Sunday (Sep 27), including in the capital, exit polls showed, bolstering their chances of forming the next government after a Dec 6 parliamentary election.
The ballot is a popularity test ahead of the national vote for the minority cabinet of Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, which has been fighting the spread of the new coronavirus since its first day in office, and imposed a strict lockdown.
"This is a historical victory for our party, the most spectacular result in our 30 post-communist years. I thank Romanians for defending democracy by showing up to cast their ballots during pandemics," Orban said in a victory speech.
The opposition Social Democrats (PSD), lost power last year and have seen their popular support halve since a 2016 ballot and protests over attempts to politicise the judiciary.
"It's the first time we defeat the Social Democrats, and it's so decisively," Orban said. "This creates premises for a Liberal-led government for the next four years."
Citing incomplete data, Orban said his party won about 1,500 mayors across the country or about 50% of all localities.
Exit polls showed that mathematician Nicusor Dan, backed by the Liberals and an alliance of opposition parties USR-Plus, won Bucharest city hall with 47 per cent followed by incumbent PSD mayor Gabriela Firea with 39 per cent.
Until Sunday's vote the PSD had 55 per cent of Romania's mayors while Orban's Liberals controlled about 33 per cent of localities.
Political pundits have said the ballot has mobilised younger voters fed up with graft in Romania, a nation of 20 million people that joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.
Local elections matter in Romania, one of EU's poorest members, as municipal officials control a large chunk of budget revenues, and have access to EU development funds.
Spending that cash helps bolster public support for the party associated with mayors who manage it, analysts say.