By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - A presidential election in Moldova is likely to go to a second round, after voting on Sunday appeared to give a pro-Russian socialist candidate just short of sufficient support to achieve all-out victory.
After counting 95 percent of votes, the central election commission said candidate Igor Dodon, who wants to reverse Moldova's course towards European integration, had won 49.4 percent of the votes.
Dodon needs 51 percent to avoid a run-off and commentators said he would likely face a second round of voting on Nov. 13 against pro-European candidate Maia Sandu, who is his closest challenger with 37.4 percent.
"The winner will be determined in two weeks at the second round, when all pro-European forces must help to secure the victory of the pro-European candidate," said Liberal Party challenger Mihai Ghimpu.
Dodon said it was still possible he could win after this round as a few large districts had yet to be counted.
The election commission will announce the preliminary results of the full vote-count at 1000 on Monday (0800 GMT).
The ex-Soviet republic of 3.5 million, squeezed between Ukraine and European Union member Romania, plunged into turmoil in 2015 after the disclosure that $1 billion had disappeared from the banking system. Street protests erupted and the International Monetary Fund and the European Union froze aid to Moldova.
Former prime minister Vlad Filat - one of five prime ministers in three years - was implicated, handcuffed live on TV in parliament and later jailed. But many Moldovans believe other members of the pro-EU elite were complicit in the scam.
"More than ever Moldova needs a president who represents all and doesn’t divide citizens of the country into supporters and opponents of integration in the European Union," said Alexandra Sveichina, a 64-year-old pensioner. "The new president should reject geopolitics completely and focus on improving the lives of simple people."
Sandu, a former World Bank economist and education minister, has warned against allowing the country, which relies heavily on energy supplies from Russia, to fall back into Moscow's orbit.
If he wins, Dodon wants to call a referendum to extricate Moldova from a political and trade agreement signed with the EU in 2014 and join a Eurasian Customs Union dominated by Moscow, turning back the clock on years of closer ties with the West.
That would play into the hands of Russia in its tussle for influence over eastern European states, including Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
The final days of the campaign have bordered on farce. Sandu and Dodon each accused the other of being in the pocket of Vlad Plahotniuc, the country's most powerful businessman, who critics say wields an outsize influence on Moldovan politics.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Williams; Writing by Matthias Williams and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Richard Balmforth, Larry King and Nick Zieminski)