Romania's liberal Prime Minister Ludovic Orban resigned Monday after a disappointing showing for his pro-European National Liberal Party (PNL) in elections on Sunday -- but the PNL still seems to be on track to lead the next government at the head of a centre-right coalition.
Orban said in a televised statement that his resignation had "a defined purpose: enabling the start of talks on the formation of the next government".
Defence Minister Nicolae Ciuca has been named interim prime minister.
Analysts see Orban as taking the rap for the fact that the PNL came in second on 25 percent compared to 30 percent for the left-wing opposition Social Democrat Party (PSD).
The PSD has dominated Romanian politics since the collapse of communism but its last spell in government was overshadowed by street protests and clashes with the European Union and President Klaus Iohannis over judicial reforms.
Speaking earlier in the evening, Iohannis had made clear his preference for a PNL-led government.
"It’s clear that centre-right parties got over 50 percent of the votes (...) This way, the PSD will remain outside political decision-making", Iohannis said in a televised statement.
The PNL had campaigned on a modernising, pro-European platform and had been ahead in pre-election opinion polls.
But Iohannis -- who was formerly in the PNL and openly campaigned for them -- explained the party's result by saying "many Romanians are unhappy with... the political parties and with the measures" taken to combat the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic crisis.
The PNL will however still have the best chance of finding allies to build a majority in parliament.
It is expected to work with the centre-right USR Plus alliance, which won 15.5 percent, as well as the UDMR party representing the Hungarian minority, which won six percent.
Romania is one of the EU's poorest countries, and four million of its citizens have left in recent years to seek better lives, in particular in western EU member states.
While overall turnout was at a record low for a parliamentary election, many more expatriate Romanians turned out than in the last such election in 2016, voting mostly for USR-Plus and the PNL.
- 'Fragile majority' -
Orban's resignation should make the task of negotiating a coalition easier, as USR-Plus had made it clear it wanted "credible figure" and a "breath of fresh air" as prime minister.
But even so, it will not all be plain sailing.
"The majority which will no doubt be formed around the PNL will be extremely fragile," political scientist Adrian Taranu told AFP.
He cited as an example the fact that USR-Plus is more radical in its suggestions for anti-corruption measures than the PNL or UDMR.
The only other party to make it into parliament will be the nationalist AUR, close to the country's Orthodox Church, which is likely to be shunned by other parties.
For its part the PSD said on Monday it had won the right to return to office.
"We see how a gang of losers want to confiscate the election result," former PSD Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told reporters on Monday, adding his party was ready to "serve the country".
According to Taranu, despite having no hope of a parliamentary majority, the PSD may well put forward a candidate for prime minister "so that they can put Iohannis in an awkward position".
Under the constitution Iohannis has to convene talks among political parties to see which of them is best able to command a majority among parliament's 465 MPs and senators.
After three years where he clashed repeatedly with three successive PSD governments, Iohannis said he does not want the party to return to office during his current term, which ends in 2024.
Iohannis' campaigning for the PNL drew criticism from the OSCE Monday, which noted in an election monitoring report that he made partisan statements "while performing his official duties during the campaign period, at times blurring the line between his official duties and the campaign, at odds with international standards".
The PSD won the 2016 election in a landslide but its proposed reforms of the judicial system sparked the biggest protests the country had seen since the fall of communism in 1989 and it was forced from office in a no-confidence vote at end of 2019.