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    Update: Opposition hopeful challenges Transdnestr vote results

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    Transdnestr's election commission said earlier Monday incumbent President Igor Smirnov, who has served three consecutive terms as leader of the post-Soviet de facto independent republic, had won 82.4% of the vote.

    (changes headline, recasts throughout, updates figures, adds reaction)

    TIRASPOL, December 11 (RIA Novosti) - An opposition candidate in Sunday's presidential election in Moldova's breakaway region said Monday the official preliminary results differ dramatically from exit poll data, and suggested they were rigged in the incumbent leader's favor.

    Transdnestr's election commission said earlier Monday incumbent President Igor Smirnov, who has served three consecutive terms as leader of the post-Soviet de facto independent republic, had won 82.4% of the vote.

    Andrei Safonov, editor of the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said exit polls showed the president had received the backing of around 63.4% of voters.

    Safonov also said exit poles gave him 8.6% of the vote, rather than the official figure of 3.2%.

    "We have expressed our distrust with the official [preliminary] results of the presidential elections announced by the election commission," Safonov said. "We consider these figures to be very strange, and the noticeable difference between the [official and exit poll] data on the votes garnered by the incumbent president of the Transdnestr region suggests that the possibility of ballot-rigging cannot be ruled out."

    The commission said turnout was 66.1%; elections require a turnout of more than 50% to be valid. 1.6% voted against all candidates.

    The other two contenders for the leadership were Nadezhda Bondarenko, the editor of a Communist newspaper, and Pyotr Tomaily, a lawmaker.

    Safonov and Bondarenko have been in opposition to the Moscow-backed leader, accusing him of corruption, non-democratic practices, and a lack of progress in talks with Moldova, which seeks to regain control of the region.

    "The incumbent authorities have built an authoritarian oligarchic government," Safonov told Russian daily Kommersant earlier. "It cannot not advance Transdnestr's development. We cannot be between war and peace for ever."

    The largely Russian-speaking Transdnestr region broke away from Moldova in 1991 following a bloody military conflict. The truce has been maintained by Russian peacekeepers and international mediators.

    Smirnov, who has ruled the republic since 1991, organized a plebiscite in September that reaffirmed the drive for independence and joining Russia.

    The referendum results have not been recognized internationally. Russia, which acknowledges the right to independence for breakaway republics in the former Soviet Union, has not made official signals that it is willing to admit Transdnestr.

    The European Union and Moldova said Monday they did not recognize the vote in the breakaway region or its results.

    The Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, also urged for the resumption of talks on the region's status, which stalled after Ukraine backed Chisinau earlier this year by banning Transdnestrian exports without customs clearance in Moldova.

    The move, which Transdnestr qualified as a trade blockade, dealt a severe blow to the struggling economy of the region, many of whose residents earn their living working in neighboring former Soviet states.

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