World Bulletin / News Desk
Pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon was on the brink late Sunday of being declared winner of Moldova's presidential runoff, viewed as an East-West choice in the impoverished ex-Soviet country.
With 97 percent of ballots counted, Socialist Party chief Dodon had 55.3 percent of the votes, according to the electoral commission, with pro-European rival Maia Sandu on 44.7 percent.
"We have won, everyone knows it," Dodon told a late-night press conference.
Official results were due to be announced at 0800 GMT on Monday.
The vote marks the first time in 16 years that Moldova -- wracked by corruption scandals in recent years -- is electing its leader by national vote instead of having parliament select the head of state.
Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the tiny nation of 3.5 million people is caught in a political tug-of-war between Russia and the West.
Dodon had come out top in the first round of voting on October 30 with 48 percent ahead of Sandu, a centre-right former education minister who worked for the World Bank, with 38 percent.
The two candidates have diametrically opposed visions for Moldova's future.
Dodon -- who served as economy minister under a communist government between 2006 and 2009 -- is calling for deeper ties and boosting trade with Moscow.
Sandu meanwhile urged a path towards Europe, calling for the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from the Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniester, which broke away in the early 1990s after a brief civil war.
Moldova signed a historic EU association agreement in 2014, and half of its exports now go to the bloc.
The move was bitterly opposed by Russia, which responded with an embargo targeting Moldova's crucial agriculture sector.
"I and all my friends voted for Igor Dodon since he promises to restore the strategic partnership with Russia," said Vasilii Blindu, a 70-year-old pensioner in the northern town of Balti.
But Chisinau student Marcel Pruna, 22, said he backed Sandu because she will "carry out reforms in practice, not just in words".
Both candidates criticised the vote as badly organised, highlighting the shortage of ballot papers for overseas voters. More than 4,000 Moldovan and international observers were on hand to monitor the vote.
Turnout was 53.3 percent, the electoral commission said.
The vote comes as a Moscow-friendly general also claimed victory in ex-communist Bulgaria's presidential election Sunday, prompting Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to announce his resignation as his nominee was dealt a crushing defeat.
Speaking at a polling station earlier Sunday, Dodon had described his campaign as "against the oligarchs, against those who have robbed our country and want to destroy it".
Sandu had meanwhile pledged to appoint "honest, decent, non-corrupt specialists".
Moldova has been rocked by corruption scandals and political turmoil in recent years.
In 2014, $1 billion (920 million euros) mysteriously disappeared from three banks, prompting huge street protests and the arrest of the former prime minister Vlad Filat, who has since been convicted of corruption and abuse of office.
A recent report published by Transparency International Moldova called the country "the regional launderer for money of dubious origin".
Moldova's current Prime Minister Pavel Filip, who has served since January, is pro-European and introduced political changes including the direct presidential vote.
Moldova is considered by some international organisations to be Europe's poorest country.
Forty-one percent of the population live on less than $5 (4.6 euros) a day while the average monthly salary is $240, according to World Bank figures.
"No matter who wins the elections, citizens will be very disappointed," said Vitaliy Andrievskiy of the Institute for Effective Policies think tank.
"The president has very limited powers -- he cannot decide anything without the parliament and government."