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[BUCHAREST] Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Sunday conceded defeat in a presidential runoff he had been widely expected to win, after early exit polls showed he was neck-and-neck with his conservative opponent Klaus Iohannis.
"I congratulated Mr Iohannis for his victory. The people are always right," Mr Ponta said.
The prime minister, who had been the overwhelming favourite to win the race, was slightly ahead according to two exit polls which gave him 50.7 per cent and 50.9 per cent of the vote. But three other surveys put Mr Iohannis narrowly in the lead.
The exit polls do not take into account the votes cast in the second-round runoff by Romanians abroad, seen as more likely to vote for Mr Iohannis.
The election is seen as pivotal for one of the poorest countries in Europe which has struggled to combat an entrenched culture of corruption.
Mr Ponta, 42, had hoped to become Romania's youngest ever president and cement his Social Democrat party's hold on power in the former communist state.
"I voted so that our parents can live in a better country and our children have a future here in Romania," Mr Ponta said earlier on Sunday as he cast his vote, with his wife and two children in tow.
In the first round on November 2, Mr Ponta took 40 per cent of the vote against 30 per cent for Mr Iohannis.
But 46 per cent of the ballots cast abroad were for Mr Iohannis compared to just 16 per cent for Mr Ponta.
According to exit polls, some 61 percent of voters turned out for the election, a record in a formerly communist country plagued by voter apathy.
Experts had earlier said that a high turnout could well tilt the balance in Mr Iohannis's favour.
First official results are expected overnight from the seventh presidential election since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu 25 years ago.
"The vote has been phenomenal. The turnout was huge," Mr Iohannis told supporters at his campaign headquarters, though he stopped short of claiming victory.
Mr Iohannis, 55, from Romania's ethnic German minority, seems uncomfortable in front of the cameras and has faced accusations he is a not a "real Romanian".
Rodica Avram, a 56-year-old teacher, said after casting her ballot in Bucharest that she had voted for change.
"For the past 25 years we have heard nothing but lies and promises that weren't kept," she said. "I hope we'll finally have a president who respects people and does what he promises."
Mr Ponta's main support base comes from the hugely influential Romanian Orthodox Church, as well as his party's traditional electorate of the rural population, small business employees and the elderly and has been able to count on generally steady economic progress.
However, the economy fell into recession in the second quarter of 2014, although the government is forecasting 2.2 per cent growth over the year.
"The key of the second round is getting out the vote," said Christian Ghinea of the Romanian Centre for European Politics.
"If the voters in the big cities, who tend to favour the opposition, are mobilised, Iohannis has a chance," Mr Ghinea told AFP.
Also crucial is the vote of the diaspora, which numbers about three million.
Only 160,000 were able to cast their ballots in the first round, due to an insufficient number of polling stations in countries including France, Germany and Britain.
On Sunday, long queues of people snaked outside polling stations in Paris, London and several other cities, according to pictures shown on Romanian television.
In the evening, thousands were still waiting to vote in some European cities, sparking renewed anger at the way the vote has been organised.
In Bucharest, several thousand people again took to the streets in solidarity with the expatriates they said were "prevented from voting".
Despite progress in reforming the justice system - which has even seen a former minister jailed for corruption - many were fearful of a backlash if Mr Ponta became president.
On what was dubbed "Black Tuesday" in December last year, Mr Ponta's government passed a series of new laws granting immunity to elected officials.
The changes were ultimately blocked but Mr Ponta's critics said the episode served as a wake-up call.
Mr Iohannis has centred his campaign on the fight against corruption and pledges of economic reform in the country of 20 million people.