CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Near-final results gave a pro-European Union candidate a comfortable lead in the runoff vote for mayor of Moldova's biggest city Sunday, in an election seen as a test of whether the former Soviet republic moves closer to the EU or to neighboring Russia.
With over 99 percent of the votes counted, incumbent Dorin Chirtoaca had 53.44 percent of the vote with pro-Russian challenger Zinaida Greceanai, a former prime minister, trailing at 46.56 percent.
Moldova, which declared independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke up, is located between Romania and Ukraine. Last year, it signed an association agreement with the 28-nation EU, angering Russia, which then banned some of its fruits and vegetables. That hurt the largely agricultural nation, one of Europe's poorest.
A victory for Chirtoaca would boost Moldova's pro-European parties, who hold a slim margin in Parliament and struggle to remain united.
Fireworks exploded in the capital just before midnight when it looked like Chirtoaca would win another four-year mandate. He has been mayor since 2007 of this city of 1 million.
Earlier, the 38-year-old Chirtoaca said he was confident of victory because votes from the suburbs which are traditionally pro-European had not come in yet.
"I hope we will clarify things ... and build something that is certain, definitive, irreversible, for the future of Chisinau and Moldova," Chirtoaca said after voting.
Greceanai, 59, is a former member of the Communist Party who later joined the pro-Moscow Socialists' Party.
Greceanai thanked her voters and said she would continue to fight for the interests of Chisinau residents, without outright acknowledging defeat.
However, leader of the Socialists' Party, Igor Dodon, claimed the ballot was flawed by irregularities. He said the pro-Europeans were "celebrating too soon. We don't recognize the result of the elections. There were too many irregularities," he said early Monday
Turnout was 47.5 percent when polls closed at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), slightly lower than in the first round on June 14. However, turnout in the capital was 48.8 percent, higher than in the first round.
Greceanai said "residents have a great desire to see deeds and not just statements."
Interim Prime Minister Natalia Gherman, who is pro-European, voted in Chisinau, saying: "I voted for a city to look like Stockholm, Brussels or Vienna."
Runoffs were being held in 458 towns in this country of 4 million and results were expected late Sunday. Some 348 seats were already decided in the first round.
Renato Usatii, a pro-Russian businessman, won outright on June 14 in Moldova's second-largest city, Balti, and pro-Russian businessman Ilan Shor won in the eastern town of Orhei.
Moldova's currency has lost 20 percent of its value this year against the euro.
Moldovans earn an average monthly salary of only $250. Some 600,000 Moldovans work abroad and send remittances home, which make up 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Moldovan officials, meanwhile, have been investigating the disappearance of $1.5 billion from state-owned and private banks before the parliamentary election last November, and Shor is being investigated in that probe.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.