CHISINAU, Moldova— Near-final results gave the pro-European candidate a comfortable lead in the runoff for mayor of Chisinau on Sunday, in an election seen as a test of whether the former Soviet republic moves closer to the European Union or to neighboring Russia.
With 95.78 percent of the votes counted, incumbent Dorin Chirtoaca, had 52.43 percent of the vote with his pro-Russian challenger Zinaida Greceanai trailing with 47.57 percent.
Fireworks went off in the capital just before midnight when it looked like Chirtoaca would win another four-year mandate.
Earlier, the 38-year-old Chirtoaca, mayor since 2007 of this city of 1 million, said he was confident of victory because votes from the suburbs which are traditionally pro-European had not come in yet. Greceanai, 59, is a former prime minister of the Communist Party.
Turnout was 47.5 percent when polls closed at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), slightly lower than in the first round on June 14. However, turnout in the capital was 48.8 percent, higher than in the first round.
“I hope we will clarify things … and build something that is certain, definitive, irreversible, for the future of Chisinau and Moldova,” Chirtoaca said after voting.
Greceanai said “residents have a great desire to see deeds and not just statements.”
Interim Prime Minister Natalia Gherman, who is pro-European, voted in Chisinau, saying: “I voted for a city to look like Stockholm, Brussels or Vienna.”
Runoffs were being held in 458 towns in this country of 4 million and results were expected late Sunday. Some 348 seats were already decided in the first round.
Renato Usatii, a pro-Russian businessman, won outright on June 14 in Moldova’s second-largest city, Balti, and pro-Russian businessman Ilan Shor won in the eastern town of Orhei.
Moldova, which declared independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke up, is located between Romania and Ukraine. Last year, it signed an association agreement with the 28-nation EU, angering Russia, which then banned some of its fruits and vegetables, hurting the largely agricultural nation.
Moldova’s currency has lost 20 percent of its value this year against the euro.
Moldova is one of the poorest nations in Europe with an average monthly salary of $250. Some 600,000 Moldovans work abroad and send remittances home, which make up 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Moldovan officials, meanwhile, have been investigating the disappearance of $1.5 billion from state-owned and private banks before the parliamentary election last November, and Shor is being investigated in that probe.