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Moldova: Pro-Russia presidential candidate declares victory

Associated Press Associated Press 13/11/2016 By CORNELIU RUSNAC, Associated Press
Socialist Party presidential candidate Igor Dodon gestures during a press briefing in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. Dodon, the pro-Moscow candidate for president, has over 50 percent of the vote in Moldova's election Sunday and said he was headed to victory, with just under 98 percent of the vote counted.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) © The Associated Press Socialist Party presidential candidate Igor Dodon gestures during a press briefing in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. Dodon, the pro-Moscow candidate for president, has over 50 percent of the vote in Moldova's election Sunday and said he was headed to victory, with just under 98 percent of the vote counted.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

CHISINAU, Moldova — A pro-Russia candidate has declared victory in Moldova's presidential election, opening up a commanding lead in the former Soviet republic with nearly all the votes tallied.

Igor Dodon, who has promised to restore closer ties with Moscow and made comments in Russian immediately after the polls closed Sunday , had just over 54 percent of the votes, with more than 98 percent of the ballots tallied. His rival Maia Sandu, an ex-World Bank official who ran on an anti-corruption platform, had nearly 46 percent.

"Everyone understands that I have won," he said later in Romanian just after midnight. He thanked Sandu for waging a "tough but good fight" and said he would be a president for all Moldovans.

Dodon tapped into popular anger over corruption under the pro-European government that came to power in 2009, particularly over the approximately $1 billion that went missing from Moldovan banks before the 2014 parliamentary elections.

As results came in, Dodon urged Moldovans to be calm.

"We don't need destabilization and we don't need confrontation, which somebody is trying to do," he said, speaking in Russian after polls closed. "We're all living in one country, in Moldova. The next president should find this balance."

Dodon has pledged to restore trade and political relations with Moscow which cooled after Moldova signed a trade association agreement with the European Union. Russia punished Moldova by placing an embargo on imports of Moldovan fruit, wine and vegetables. He was able to appeal to many older Moldovans who are nostalgic for the former Soviet Union.

Sandu, a former education minister who heads the Action and Solidarity Party, said the former Soviet Republic would have a more prosperous future in the EU.

She needed a high turnout to stand a chance of winning. The final turnout was 53.3 percent, more than 4 percentage points higher than in the first-round of the election, but a discouraging result for Sandu.

Sandu called for the resignation of authorities organizing the vote and said the elections had been badly organized.

"Hundreds of people were not able to vote. Hundreds of citizens that traveled a long journey, that waited in the cold and rain and were not able to vote," she said after polls closed. "Moldovan authorities didn't respect the constitutional right of Moldovan citizens of Moldova to be able to vote."

She said she would speak further on Monday.

In an unusual development, 9,000 people voted in the separatist pro-Russian region of Trans-Dniester, where residents usually do not vote in Moldovan elections.

Moldovans lined up for hours to vote in Paris, Milan, Dublin and the London borough of Stratford, where about 700 Moldovans were unable to cast ballots. Election authorities said ballots had run out in Stratford, Bucharest, Moscow and Bologna, Italy. One electoral official in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, Sergiu Gurduza, apologized that some people had not been able to vote.

Dodon, who nearly won the election outright in the first round two weeks ago, has also pledged to seek good relations with Moldova's neighbors, Romania and Ukraine. But he has been criticized in Ukraine for saying Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, is Russian territory.

Many Moldovans believe they need the Russian market for their agricultural exports. About half of the 800,000 Moldovans working abroad live in Russia and send remittances home.

Moldova also depends on Russian gas, although not as much as before. There are plans to extend a pipeline to transport Romanian gas to Chisinau.

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Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.

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