CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova opposition candidate Maia Sandu, who favours closer ties with the European Union, promised to unite the country and tackle corruption as she looked on course to beat pro-Moscow incumbent Igor Dodon in a presidential run-off on Sunday.
Workers at Sandu's campaign office chanted "victory" after the former World Bank economist won 53.38% of votes compared to 46.62% for Dodon, with 96.55% of ballots counted. An exit poll had put Sandu on 54.8% of votes compared to 45.2% for Dodon.
The West and Russia vie for influence in the former Soviet republic of 3.5 million, which is one of Europe's poorest nations and has suffered a sharp economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We need the state to work for citizens, not for thieves and corrupt officials," Sandu said.
Dodon, who on Friday had called on supporters to take to the streets if he felt the election was stolen from him, on Facebook said: "I urge everyone to calm, regardless of the election results."
Opinion polls had put the rivals neck-and-neck before the election run-off. Sandu finished ahead in the first round two weeks ago with a late surge in support from voters living abroad, but failed to secure enough votes for outright victory.
Known for her tough stance on corruption, Sandu led a short-lived government last year that was felled by a no-confidence vote.
Sandu, 48, has said she would secure more financial support from the EU as president. Dodon, 45, has been in power since 2016 and has said he will roll out a settlement next year for the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniestria.
"I voted for the development of the economy, for a balanced foreign policy," Dodon said after casting his ballot. "I don't want Moldova to be used in geopolitical games."
If Sandu wins, she is likely to seek a snap parliamentary election to consolidate power because parliament is controlled by the Socialists, Dodon's former party.
Moldova, squeezed between Ukraine and EU-member Romania, has suffered political instability in the past decade.
"A victory in the second round by Maia Sandu would mean a period of tough political confrontation for Moldova," said independent analyst Corneliu Ciurea.
The EU forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with Moldova in 2014, but became increasingly critical of its record on reforms.
Sandu has received messages of support from German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and former European Council President Donald Tusk. Some of Dodon's supporters denounced such support as an attempt to destabilise Moldova.
Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia's SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, accused the United States last month of plotting to instigate mass protests against Dodon as punishment for him fostering good relations with Moscow.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv: Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Chris Reese)
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