Moldova’s presidential election appears to be headed toward a runoff, preliminary results showed early on October 31.
With nearly 99 percent of votes counted, pro-Moscow candidate Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party is winning with 48.7 percent.
He needed to win an outright majority to avoid a runoff on November 13.
Dodon's main pro-EU challenger, Maia Sandu of the Party for Action and Solidarity, has 37.9 percent.
The Our Party candidate, Dmitri Ciubasenco, was far behind with 6 percent of the votes.
Turnout was almost 49 percent -- well above the 33 percent mark needed to make the election valid.
The October 30 election contest -- the first time Moldovans have directly elected a president by popular vote in 20 years -- is widely seen as pitting those who support integration with the European Union against those who want closer ties with Russia.
Dodon, a 41-year-old economist, has said he wants to throw out Chisinau's 2014 EU Association Agreement and join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Sandu, a former education minister and head of the Party for Action and Solidarity, wants instead to build on Brussels' Association Agreement with Chisinau by pushing ahead with reforms the EU says are necessary to strengthen its chances for membership.
"Whatever the results, we want to change the political class and we will continue with this project," Sandu told reporters at the offices of her party in the capital, Chisinau, hours after polls closed on October 30.
"When I say change I mean real change," she added.
The Central Election Commission in Moldova said voting was being monitored by more than 3,200 Moldovan observers and 562 more from abroad.
But Pavel Postica, from the monitoring mission of the Moldovan NGO Promo-lex, which promotes democratic values, said monitors had not been able to observe the voting process in about a dozen polling stations.
"The thing we are most worried about is that in over 13 polling centers, our monitors or the monitors of other organizations had problems observing the voting process," Postica told reporters.
"In other 2,017 polling centers, where we have monitors, there were no problems," he said.
Some residents of Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniester also voted in the October 30 poll by crossing into Moldova proper to vote in some 30 polling stations.
RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service reports that some 3,500 voters from the self-declared Transdniester separatist state had voted by mid-afternoon local time, most of them in the village of Varnita.
All residents of the self-declared entity are considered Moldovan citizens by Chisinau and many continue to hold Moldovan passports.
Russia has thousands of troops stationed ostensibly as peacekeepers in the mainly Russian-speaking territory of Transdniester, which broke away in 1990 following a short war that killed several hundred people.
Ahead of the October 30 vote, leading candidate Dodon received an unusual endorsement from one of Moldova's leading church figures.
Metropolian Vladimir of the Moldovan Orthodox Church publicly backed Dodon in a sermon on October 28 -- the first time in years that the church has waded into electoral politics at this level.
Though Moldovans are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, the Moldovan Orthodox Church competes for influence in the country with the Romanian Orthodox Church, a rivalry that mirrors the country's linguistic, ethnic, and cultural divides.
Also lurking in the background is tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc, who is considered Moldova's most powerful businessman and whom critics say has outsize influence on domestic politics.
Plahotniuc is the chief financial backer of the majority ruling Democratic Party, whose candidate Marian Lupu dropped out of the race just days ahead of the vote.
Plahotniuc gave no hint of whom he voted for in a post on his Facebook page that showed him dropping his ballot in the box. He wrote, "I voted for the candidate who does not need my support."
Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries and has been hit by a string of high-profile corruption scandals.
Polls show the 2015 banking crisis sapped many Moldovans' enthusiasm for European integration. It also prompted the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to suspend financial aid, though the fund recently said it would resume its program.
The October 30 election marks the first time since 1996 that the country's president is not being chosen by parliament.
The move to a direct popular vote for president follows a ruling by Moldova’s Constitutional Court earlier this year.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service, Reuters, AFP, and AP.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.