By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's leftist Social Democrats (PSD) won most votes in countrywide local elections on Sunday, according to an exit poll, putting them in a strong position before a parliamentary election later this year.
The Social Democrats won a projected 37.5 percent of the vote, the exit poll showed.
The leftists resigned from government in the European Union member state last year after massive street protests in the wake of a deadly night club fire that raised concerns over corruption in public administration.
A cabinet of technocrats is in charge until a parliamentary vote in November or December.
Roughly a quarter of a million people in a country of 20 million sought to become mayors and city or county councillors.
Local administrations control a budget of 67 billion lei ($16.84 billion) this year, or roughly a third of consolidated budget revenue, as well as access to EU development funds.
The exit poll, conducted by pollster Curs-Avangarde for private television station Romania TV, showed the Liberal Party in second place on 28 percent. Official countrywide results will only come in on Monday.
Observers said the PSD, traditionally supported by poorer and older Romanians, benefited from public sector wage hikes and value added tax cuts they introduced shortly before resigning and which went into effect in 2016.
"The Social Democrats confirmed they remain Romania's leading party in terms of electoral discipline," said Radu Magdin, a political consultant.
"The leftists' clear national victory gives them the pole position for autumn's parliamentary race."
Mayors are vital for parties in getting the vote out for parliamentary elections, handing an advantage to whichever party gets most mayors.
In the capital Bucharest, several exit polls showed leftist Gabriela Firea won the citywide mayor’s seat. The party also won at least five of the capital's six districts.
Nicusor Dan, leader of the Save Bucharest Union (USB), a newly formed grouping of a non-governmental organisations fighting to preserve the capital's historical landmarks, ranked second with roughly 30 percent.
Dozens of Sunday's candidates are subject to graft investigations, and while they were officially entitled to run pending final verdicts, their decision to run pointed to a reluctant but broad acceptance of corruption in Romanian society. Many have publicly denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors have won praise from the EU for their crackdown on high-level graft, which saw lawmakers, cabinet ministers, mayors and others convicted.
But anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International still rates Romania as the EU’s third most corrupt state after Bulgaria and Italy and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring. An EU report this month mentioned it as one of three hotspots for fraudulent claims on EU funds.
Observers had also raised concerns that candidates were insufficiently screened to ensure they met the criteria to run. The Central Election Bureau said local offices were in charge of ensuring candidates' paperwork checked out.
($1 = 3.9796 lei)
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Adrian Croft)