Chisinau (AFP) - A pro-Russia candidate came out top in Moldova's presidential election, according to incomplete results issued early Monday which left it unclear whether he could beat his pro-EU rival in the first round.
Ex-Soviet Moldova went to the polls Sunday in its first popular presidential election since the 1990s, seen as a tug-of-war between supporters of closer relations with Russia and those seeking EU integration.
With more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, pro-Moscow candidate Igor Dodon was well ahead, on 49.2 percent, teetering on the brink of an outright win which would avoid the need for a run-off second round vote.
His main rival, the pro-European Maya Sandu, was on 37.5 percent while none of the other seven candidates had crossed the five percent threshold, according to the incomplete results.
Less than half of registered voters -- 48.97 percent -- cast their ballot, the electoral commission said after polling booths closed at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT).
"I would like to thank the voters for their active participation in the election. The main conclusion is that voters no longer believe in this government (...) Our victory is inevitable," Dodon, 41, said at a press conference.
The crisis-hit country of 3.5 million wedged between Ukraine and Romania is the poorest in Europe and has struggled with a string of high-profile corruption scandals which have overshadowed the vote.
The presidential candidates presented diametrically opposed visions for the country's future: calling for deeper ties and boosting trade with Moscow, or committing to the path toward Europe.
Voters are leaning in opposite directions as well.
"We can't be without Russia, that's our export market" that could provide cheap gas, said Igor Lopukhov, 66, a Russian-speaking pensioner who voted for Socialist Party candidate Igor Dodon, a leader in opinion polls who has vowed to restore cooperation with Moscow.
Former education minister Sandu, a strong proponent of EU integration who is supported by younger Western-leaning Moldovans, thanked her supporters and predicted a second-round run off between her and Dodon.
"See you at the second round," she said, after the polling stations closed but before any results were announced
The complete election results are not expected until later Monday. A second round vote, if required, will take place on November 13.
- Widespread poverty -
Forty-one percent of the population live on less than $5 (4.6 euros) a day while the monthly average salary is $240, according to World Bank figures.
Many Moldovans make ends meet only through remittances sent by relatives working abroad, which make up nearly a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP).
"My daughter sends me money (for food) from Italy," said 70-year-old Zinovia Ilonel, who also voted for Dodon. "She's never coming home."
Moldova last elected a president by popular vote in 1996, after which members of parliament chose the head of state due to a constitutional amendment from 2000.
A constitutional court decision earlier this year re-established the popular vote.
The central election commission in Moldova said voting was monitored by over 3,200 Moldovan observers and 562 more from abroad.
Moldova has been rocked by protests and political turmoil since the mysterious disappearance of $1 billion from three banks last year, which undermined people's support for the ruling pro-Western coalition.
A total of nine candidates took part in the ballot after ruling party candidate Marian Lupu withdrew from the race, endorsing Sandu on Wednesday.
- 'Corruption, poverty, theft' -
Despite the geopolitical divisions, Sandu, who launched a new party this year called Action and Solidarity, tried to focus her campaign on fighting corruption.
"We should not be afraid, we must prove to the thieves and corrupt (officials) that there are more of us," she said Sunday. "Together we must bring order to Moldova."
EU officials have admitted that Europe has lost much of its appeal in the scandal-weary ex-Soviet republic as no successful reforms have been seen through, while east-west rhetoric is often used to gloss over deeper issues.
Some in Moldova have lost faith in their nation entirely.
"We have to admit that the project called Republic of Moldova is bankrupt," said Vasile Prodan, an activist supporting candidate Mihai Ghimpu of the Liberal Party, who calls for joining neighbouring Romania.