CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Moldova's presidential election appeared to be headed toward a runoff after a pro-Russia candidate's lead slipped to just under a majority Sunday, according to near-complete results.
The margin was too close to say whether Igor Dodon would win in the first round. His victory would be a big blow to the pro-Western government, many of whose leading members have been tainted by corruption allegations.
Dodon, who favors closer ties with Moscow, tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with high-level graft under the pro-European government that came to power in 2009. A former Communist Party member, he has pledged to "restore broad and friendly ties with Russia."
With about 95 percent of the votes counted, Dodon had 49.29 percent of the vote, election authorities said. If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff on Nov. 13 between the top two candidates.
Dodon said he was hopeful that he would still win in the first round when all the votes were counted.
"I consider our victory inevitable and everyone should understand this including our political opponents," he told reporters at the Socialist Party's headquarters in the capital Chisinau hours after polls closed.
Maia Sandu, an ex-World Bank economist and a pro-European figure who has vowed to be tough with endemic corruption, was in second place with 37.42 percent of the vote. Nine candidates ran for the post, the first time Moldovans have elected a president in 20 years to lead the ex-Soviet republic.
"Whatever the results, we want to change the political class and we will continue with this project," Sandu said, speaking to reporters at the offices of the Action and Solidarity Party which she leads. "When I say change I mean real change. Let's get rid of all the corrupt people and bring new people with integrity."
Dodon also has vowed to federalize Moldova to include the breakaway eastern region of Trans-Dniester, which gets military and economic support from Russia.
But analysts say there is unlikely to be major shifts in foreign policy even if Dodon wins. Moldova's president has limited powers and all major policies must be approved by Parliament, which is dominated by pro-European parties. The popular election, however, could bring the post more influence and authority.
Both the European Union, together with the U.S. and Russia, seek to have more influence over the impoverished agricultural nation of 3.5 million. Moldova is landlocked between EU member Romania and Ukraine.
Election authorities said turnout was 48.92 percent when polls closed at 1900 GMT (3 p.m. EDT).
Moldova was thrown into political turmoil in 2014 with the disappearance of more than $1 billion from the banking system. Weeks of street protests followed and six prime ministers took office in one year.
"This day is important for Moldova. It will be a new beginning. I voted against those who have been in power for seven years, against the oligarchs and the looting of the banking system," Dodon said.
Andrei Boico, a 53-year-old worker, said he thought that if Dodon was elected, Moscow would lift a trade embargo on fruit, vegetables and wine that it placed on Moldova in 2014 in retaliation after it signed an association agreement with the EU.
"I think we need to revise our relations with Russia," Boico said. "Without good relations ... we can't have economic growth."
Sandu is the preferred option for those who want Moldova to join the European mainstream.
Valentina Cretu, a 41-year-old businesswoman, said she supported Sandu because she had pledged to fight corruption and move closer to the EU.
"Without the EU, Moldova can't get rid of poverty and corruption," Cretu said.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.