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Moldova faces presidential runoff

Moldova's pro-Russia candidate has garnered less than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff with an ex-education minister. The vote marked the former Soviet nation's first direct presidential election in 20 years.

Moscow-friendly Socialist Igor Dodon on Sunday garnered nearly 49 percent of the vote in Moldova's first direct presidential election in decades, according to official preliminary results.

Igor Dodon

Igor Dodon

Voter turnout was 48.92 percent, reported the electoral commission after polling booths closed at 9:00 p.m. (1900 UTC).

"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 prior to Sunday's results.

His main rival is former Education Minister Maia Sandu, an ex-World Bank economist. Sandu picked up more than 38 percent of the vote, pitting her against Dodon in the runoff.

Moldova's nine presidential candidates presented opposing visions for the country's future - calling either for deeper ties with Moscow or the European Union.

Dodon, a 41-year-old pro-Moscow figure who heads the Socialists' Party, was favored to win Sunday's polls. His campaign tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with the pro-European government, which has been in office since 2009.

First direct election in decades

Moldova last directly elected a president in 1996, after which members of parliament chose the head of state from 2000 onwards due to a constitutional amendment.

A constitutional court decision earlier this year re-established the popular vote. The central election commission in Moldova said the poll would be monitored by more than 3,200 local observers and 562 international ones.

A string of high-profile corruption scandals preceded Sunday's vote. The unexplained disappearance of $1 billion (915 million euros) - about an eighth of the country's GDP - from local banks over the past few years has weakened people's trust in the country's ruling coalition.

Moldova, which has a population of just 3.5 million, is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with 41 percent of people living on less than $5 a day, according to World Bank figures.

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ls,rs/ss (AP, AFP, dpa)