Bucharest (AFP) - Romania's left staged an emphatic comeback in elections Sunday, a year after anger over a deadly nightclub fire forced them from office.
Mass protests in the EU's second-poorest country after the blaze on October 30, 2015 that claimed 64 lives drove premier Victor Ponta and his Social Democrats (PSD) to resign.
But exit polls on Sunday, 13 months later, put the PSD well ahead its rivals with around 45 percent of the vote, even better than expected.
The rival centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL) trailed on around 21 percent, while their allies the Save Romania Union (USR) was on nine percent.
The PSD's likely coalition partner, the ALDE party, looked to have won around 6.5 percent, meaning that between them they will have a majority in parliament.
However, it remains to be seen whether the PSD's leader Liviu Dragnea, 54, who is serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud, can become premier.
In theory this bars him from office under Romanian law and centre-right President Klaus Iohannis, 57, has refused to appoint anyone with legal problems.
This would also exclude a comeback by Ponta, 44, currently on trial for alleged tax evasion and money laundering, charges he denies.
Comments from Dragnea on Sunday evening suggested he wants the job.
"Romania is an island of stability. I want this stable democracy to remain in place," he said.
"This means that all politicians and institutions have to respect today's vote. We should all understand that Romania needs a competent, stable and responsible government."
Romania has been run since Ponta's departure by a caretaker government under technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, 47, a former European commissioner.
The PNL and the USR have said they would support Ciolos staying on but the PSD wants him gone.
- Corrupt officials -
The inferno inside the Colectiv club was blamed on corrupt officials turning a blind eye to a lack of fire precautions. Poor medical care exacerbated the death toll.
For many, it was the final straw, and the tragedy prompted a push to clean Romania up.
The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has been highly active and visible, bringing ministers, senators, lawmakers and other public officials to justice.
A recent survey suggested that 95 percent of Romanians want tackling corruption to be a priority for the next government.
But before the election there were worries this will not happen if the PSD returns to power.
The clean-up has "disproportionately hit the Romanian left," said Tsveta Petrova from risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
"As a result, should a left-led coalition come to power, it will try to slow down this campaign."
- Promises, promises -
But the PSD enjoys strong support among older Romanians and in rural areas of the southeastern European nation of 20 million people.
However, 27 years after the summary execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the end of Communism, voter apathy is rife, with turnout just 39.5 percent on Sunday.
Both sides, while trading insults and generally avoiding serious political discussion during the campaign, have pledged spectacular hikes in wages and pensions as well as tax cuts.
Such promises go down well in the EU's second-poorest nation where more than half of rural households have no running water and one in four people lives in poverty.
Three million people have emigrated.
At the same time, however, the nationalist and anti-EU rhetoric seen in other countries in the region like Hungary and Poland has been largely, if not entirely, absent.
"Our Romania is completely destroyed. We can't live here any more. There are no jobs, people are going abroad," Marin Oana, a voter in the poor southern village of Singureni, told AFP.
"I hope that (the politicians) grasp what the problems are in our society and invest in health care and education," said Denisa Grajdan, another voter in the same village.
Official results were expected on Monday morning.