BUCHAREST, Romania — In a surprising turnaround, Prime Minister Victor Ponta conceded Romania’spresidential runoff election late Sunday night to the center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu.
When the last votes were cast at 9 p.m., exit polls had the election too close to call, but soon after 11, Mr. Ponta told reporters, “I called Klaus Iohannis to congratulate him for his victory.” He added, “The people are always right.”
Official results were not expected before Monday morning.
Mr. Ponta, 42, had long been the favorite. He led Mr. Iohannis, 40 percent to 30 percent, in the first round, but with no one winning a majority in a field of 14 candidates the race went into a runoff.
The outcome of the runoff seems to have hinged on the large Romanian diaspora, estimated to number four million. In the first round of the election, which took place on Nov. 2, a large number of Romanians living abroad were unable to vote despite waiting in line for hours.
Protests followed, and last Monday the foreign minister, Titus Corlatean, was forced to resign. Yet starting early Sunday morning, long lines formed outside embassies and consulates across Europe. The number of people voting abroad doubled between the two rounds, and some were left waiting for hours and were still unable to vote.
“After nine hours and 10 minutes of waiting I gave up,” Ancuta Iordachescu, a photographer who tried to vote at the embassy in Paris, wrote in an email.
In reaction, thousands of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities in protest, blaming Mr. Ponta for the delays and waving banners that read “Let them vote” and shouting “Ponta resign!”
“Ponta is breaking the rules — Romanians outside the country must be allowed to vote,” said Andrea Beltic, who stood outside the main government building.
Mr. Iohannis, 55, an ethnic German, ran what many considered a lackluster campaign. Yet voters seem to have decided that he was the better option.
“Ponta tried to present himself as a progressive leader, but he failed to convince people,” said Cristian Ghinea, director of the Romanian Center for European Policies, a research group.
Mr. Ponta tried to make an issue of his opponent’s religion — Mr. Iohannis is an Evangelical Lutheran in a country that is largely Orthodox — and that he and his wife had decided not to have children.
“Iohannis did a poor job in the two debates, but Ponta mobilized the people against himself,” Mr. Ghinea said. “He ran a dirty campaign which blew up in his face.”
In the first round, 52 percent of the 18 million eligible voters voted. It was estimated that around 62 percent voted this time, which according to Mr. Ghinea was the highest turnout in the last three presidential elections.
Romania’s president is responsible for foreign policy, defense and the naming of key prosecutors. Mr. Iohannis has vowed to make corruption a priority.
The current president, Traian Basescu, appointed Laura Codruta Kovesi to lead Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate, and her office has successfully prosecuted many luminaries of Romania’s political class, including a former prime minister who had been considered Mr. Ponta’s mentor. Some had feared those efforts would be hindered if Mr. Ponta won.
Mr. Ponta’s party, the Social Democrats, has a working majority in Parliament, and he remains prime minister, so he and Mr. Iohannis will have to try to find a way to work together, probably until the next parliamentary elections in 2016.
“I see a difficult cohabitation between Ponta and Iohannis going forward,” Mr. Ghinea said.