Prime Minister Victor Ponta led the first round of Romania's presidential election, a step towards a victory that would consolidate his leftist party's hold on power but would also raise questions about judicial independence.
With nearly all ballots counted, Ponta, leader of the Social Democrats and a former prosecutor and amateur rally driver who became prime minister two years ago, had won 40.3 percent of the vote in Sunday's election. That compared with 30.4 percent for his nearest challenger, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German mayor backed by two centre-right parties.
The results make Ponta, who has consistently led opinion polls over Iohannis, the firm favourite to win a run-off vote on Nov. 16.
A Ponta presidency could bring more stability to the Black Sea country of 20 million, which endured a painful recession and spending cuts during the global slowdown and has made mixed progress in implementing reforms under an IMF-led aid deal.
As prime minister, Ponta often feuded with his bitter rival, outgoing President Traian Basescu - who served as president for a decade - often slowing policymaking.
However, without the check on power hitherto provided by Basescu, Ponta's rise has raised concerns that he might tighten political control over the judiciary and anti-corruption prosecutors.
Ponta rebuffed EU criticism in 2012 that he did not appear to respect the rule of law and democratic institutions, denying allegations that he had put pressure on judges.
The results were announced with 98.3 percent of polling stations counted, and broadly reflected exit polls released on Sunday evening. They showed a turnout of 53 percent.
Many Romanians living abroad could not vote on Sunday as polling stations ran out of ballot-related paper, sparking protests outside the foreign ministry in Bucharest. Many also complained of long queues as they waited to vote. Tempers flared at the Romanian embassy in Paris, which called in the French police for help, according to an election bureau spokesman.
Ion Tiriac, a former French Open tennis doubles winner and one of Romania's richest businessmen, said he flew to Bucharest to vote after long queues prevented him from doing so in Paris.