Preliminary results from Moldova's presidential election point to a runoff vote next month between a pro-Russia socialist and a pro-European Union reformist as the country tries to scramble out of its political and economic malaise.
But analysts say that Socialist former Trade Minister Igor Dodon's commanding lead in the first round leaves the second-place former education minister, Maia Sandu, with a huge amount of ground to make up before the November 13 second round.
With 99.5 percent of the ballots counted on October 31, Dodon was leading with 48.23 percent of the vote, just short of the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff.
Sandu, of the Party for Action and Solidarity, was in second place with 38.42 percent.
Dodon, who has questioned Moldova's reorientation toward the European Union since the Communists' grip on power was loosened in 2009, said early on October 31 that a second-round victory was "inevitable" and that "voters no longer believe" in the country's pro-EU government.
The 41-year-old economist says he wants to throw out Chisinau's 2014 EU Association Agreement and has hinted at joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
'Secret Deal' Accusation
On October 31, Dodon called for other pro-Russian parties and candidates in the first round to join forces behind his candidacy.
But the second-most successful pro-Russian candidate in the race, Dmitri Ciubasenco, rejected Dodon's call -- accusing Dodon of making a "secret deal" with the Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, a deputy leader of Moldova's ruling Democratic Party who is widely regarded as pro-EU.
Dodon's strong showing in the first round reflects dissatisfaction and anger that many voters feel about a series of pro-EU governments that have been in office since 2009.
In particular, pro-EU authorities have been accused of covering up the loss of more than $1 billion -- about one-eighth of the country's gross domestic product -- that went missing from the country's banking system in 2014. Revelations in 2015 about those losses led to widespread street protests and plunged the country into turmoil.
Although former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was implicated and jailed, many Moldovans believe that other pro-EU authorities were involved in the scandal.
Sandu has campaigned on reforms that would break up the power of oligarchs in the country.
She wants to build on the EU deal by pushing ahead with reforms that Brussels says are necessary to strengthen Moldova's chances of EU membership.
VOX POP: EU Or Russia -- What's Best For Moldova?
But the first-round results suggest many voters remain wary of a pro-EU agenda.
The vote tally for the other seven candidates on October 30 was split almost equally between those with pro-Russian and pro-EU platforms, seemingly leaving front-runner Dodon in the driver's seat with two weeks to go before the runoff.
Turnout on October 30 was 49 percent of eligible voters, well above the required 33 percent.
Political analysts said that in order to stand a chance in the second-round vote, Sandu needs to encourage a higher turnout from young pro-EU voters who did not cast ballots on October 30.
'Difficult' To Close Gap
Doru Petruti, director general of the Institute of Marketing and Polling in Chisinau, told RFE/RL that it will be "very complicated" and "difficult" for Sandu to close the 250,000-vote gap in a country with about 2.9 million eligible voters.
"She will have to ensure the support from all the other pro-European candidates, but first of all, she will have to persuade many center-right voters who don't necessarily like her to come out and vote for her in the second round," Petruti said.
Petruti said that voter turnout on November 13 would have to reach about 60 percent, with most of the extra votes going to Sandu, to give her a chance.
"Her chances were slim from the very beginning," Peruti added.
Sandu has said she thinks she can make up the difference with a strong turnout in the second round from younger voters.
"The young had a small turnout," Sandu, who warned before the vote of "risks of massive fraud."
On the subject of why the young didn't turn out in big numbers, she said: "I think it happened because the authorities impeded them from doing so. We will do everything to remove such obstacles in the second round so that [young people will] come to vote in larger numbers."
Although Moldova's Communist Party leadership called for its members to boycott the October 30 vote, political analysts said it appeared that many of them turned out to vote for Dodon.
Meanwhile, Dodon is expected to gain backing on November 13 from many of the voters who supported the two other pro-Russian first-round candidates, Ciubasenco and Maia Laguta.
Ciubasenco, from Our Party, took third place with 6.03 percent of the first-round vote, while Laguta won 0.75 percent as an independent.
The five others competing in the first round, all pro-EU candidates, won a combined total of 6.65 percent.
They included former Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, of the Pro-European Coalition, with 3.11 percent; former interim President Mihai Ghimpu of the Liberal Party with 1.8 percent; and independent candidate and former parliamentary deputy Valeriu Ghiletchi with 1.08 percent.
Pro-EU candidate Silvia Radu won 0.4 percent, while Ana Gutu won 0.17 percent of the vote.
WATCH: Moldovans Vote For President In Pivotal Election
International observers from the ODIHR mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on October 31 that the presidential election was "competitive" and that "fundamental freedoms had been respected."
It said "the election process has so far confirmed that Moldova has an adequate legal framework for holding democratic elections," but added that the country still needs to "address inconsistences in areas such as signature collection for candidate registration" and ensuring proper penalties were imposed against those who violate campaign rules.
The OSCE observers raised concerns about strong associations between media outlets and major political parties. They said the concentration of media ownership in Moldova "diminished political pluralism on television" and there was "clear political bias in the campaign coverage of major broadcasters."
The OSCE mission also said that Moldova's Central Election Commission, which is responsible for campaign-finance oversight, lacked the resources needed to properly monitor new laws on campaign finance reporting and on campaign spending limits.
With additional reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP