Moldova's pro-European presidential challenger came from behind to secure a surprise lead Monday against the pro-Russia incumbent leader, suggesting a tight second round later this month.
The tiny ex-Soviet nation voted under the watchful eye of Moscow, which wants the polarised country to remain in its orbit amid political and security crises on Russia's borders.
After trailing earlier on Sunday, Maia Sandu won 35 percent of the vote against rival Igor Dodon's 33 percent, the central election commission said.
With almost all the votes counted the result points to a tight contest when the pair go head-to-head in a second-round vote on November 15.
The impoverished country of 3.5 million has long been divided between those favouring closer ties with the EU and those who cling to Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
Although part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, the country between Ukraine and Romania has close historic ties with Romania and its main language is Romanian.
Many voters, wearing masks against the coronavirus, expressed disappointment with politicians as they cast their ballots in the rainy capital Chisinau.
"We have been waiting for a change for 30 years," Vasile Mardare, a 64-year-old physical education teacher, told AFP.
"I voted for the candidate who will bring Moldova closer to Western living standards."
In recent years, Moldova has been rocked by multiple political crises and a $1 billion bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15 percent of the country's GDP.
- Belarus scenario? -
Some voters raised fears of post-election unrest such as in fellow ex-Soviet republic Belarus, where protesters have mounted weeks of demonstrations after strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an August election.
"We don't want things to happen like in Belarus, but if it continues like this I don't think there will be any another solution," said Maria Turcanu, a 55-year-old doctor in Chisinau, who said she was ready to protest.
Casting his ballot with his wife Galina, Dodon said the country was tired of upheaval.
"More than ever, Moldova must keep away from chaos," he said. "I have voted for a strong Moldova, for economic development and political stability."
After polls closed, he praised Moldova's voters and said the election was "correct, free and democratic".
Dodon, 45, came to power after beating Sandu in a 2016 election and is hoping to defeat her again.
Sandu is a 48-year-old centre-right politician who worked for the World Bank and briefly served as prime minister between June and November 2019.
"I voted for a state which works for its citizens, which creates employment opportunities and improves living conditions," she said while casting her vote.
"But for that we must drive out the corruption and incompetence of the presidency."
Six other candidates are contesting the vote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed hope that Moldovan voters would back Dodon, noting their country's economy -- battered by the coronavirus outbreak -- is firmly linked to Russia.
With Lukashenko facing unprecedented protests in Belarus, Moscow is keen to avoid any further chaos among allies on its western borders, experts said.
- Russia's 'strategic partner' -
Valeriu Pasa, an analyst with the think tank WatchDog Moldova, compared the polls to a "referendum on Dodon's mandate" and said Moscow was seeking to maintain the status quo.
"The current regime is fully subordinate to the Kremlin," Pasa told AFP.
Dodon, who served as economy minister under a Communist government between 2006 and 2009, has promised continued close ties with "strategic partner" Moscow and has said the Russian language should become compulsory in schools.
The economy relies in large part on remittances sent home by people working abroad.
Russia last week accused the United States of preparing a "revolution" in Moldova.
The head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Sergei Naryshkin alleged that Washington was inciting the Moldovan opposition to take to the streets after the vote to denounce its validity and demand a re-run.
Russia has troops in Moldova's Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, which broke away after a brief civil war following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and is not internationally recognised.