CHISINAU -- Moldova's pro-Western presidential candidate Maia Sandu has won a surprise victory in the first round of a presidential election that now heads to a runoff against pro-Russian incumbent, Igor Dodon.
With 99.81 of the ballots counted on November 2, Central Election Commission data showed Sandu winning 36.1 percent compared with Dodon’s 32.66 percent.
A candidate needed to win more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright to avoid a November 15 runoff.
Sandu’s lead raised eyebrows after exit polls from the November 1 election had shown Dodon ahead by about 10 percentage points.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced overall approval of the election process, saying on November 2 that the campaigning was competitive, "fundamental freedoms were respected," and the electoral authorities "organized technical aspects of the election professionally."
In 2016, Dodon defeated Sandu in a second-round runoff by less than 5 percent in an election that was marred by allegations of fraud.
With a population of about 3.5 million, Moldova is one of Europe’s poorest countries and is sharply divided between those who support closer ties with Russia and those who advocate links with the European Union and, especially, neighboring Romania.
Most of Moldova was part of Romania until World War II, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, and a majority of its population is ethnic Romanian.
The country's Moscow-backed breakaway Transdniester region has been de facto independent since a separatist war in the 1990s.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, would like to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence, especially with the current wave of political unrest sweeping across several other former Soviet-aligned countries.
A former World Bank economist and prime minister, the 48-year-old Sandu has campaigned against corruption and called for closer ties with the European Union.
If elected, she has promised to secure more financial support from Brussels.
Dodon says he wants to reach a settlement next year for the Transdniester region
Dodon has run largely on a platform calling for “stability” and has promoted his record of securing loans and other economic favors from Moscow.
He has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, during which more than 55,000 Moldovans have been infected and more than 1,300 have died.
Our Party leader Renato Usatii, the mayor of Balti, Moldova's second-largest city, came third with almost 17 percent of the vote.
Turnout in the first round of voting was 42.7 percent.