By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldovans go to the polls on Sunday in a presidential race that could propel a pro-Russian Socialist candidate to power after disclosure of a billion dollar corruption scandal that has sapped trust in politicians favouring closer ties with the West.
The ex-Soviet republic of 3.5 million, squeezed between Ukraine and European Union member Romania, was plunged into turmoil in 2015 following disclosure of the banking scam which triggered street protests and caused the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to freeze aid.
Former prime minister Vlad Filat - one of five prime ministers in three years - was implicated, handcuffed live on TV in parliament and later jailed, but many Moldovans believe other members of the pro-EU elite were complicit in the scam.
Socialist Igor Dodon, who wants to reverse Moldova's course towards European integration, leads opinion polls but may have to contest a run-off on Nov 13.
His closest challenger is pro-European candidate Maia Sandu, a former World Bank economist and education minister, who has talked up the dangers of allowing the country, which relies heavily on energy supplies from Russia, to fall back into Moscow's orbit.
If he wins, Dodon wants to call a referendum to extricate Moldova from a political and trade agreement signed with the EU in 2014 and join a Eurasian Customs Union dominated by Moscow, turning the clock back on years of closer ties with the West.
That would play into the hands of Russia in its tussle for influence over eastern European states including Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
Natalia Morari, a prominent television journalist, says the seven years after pro-European forces came to power had seen "the same corruption, the same schemes, the same monopolies."
Candidates like Sandu "are entering a field with lots of trash left by so-called pro-European parties which ruled the country for the last seven years," she said.
"Now it's a very complicated job for them to convince people that Europe doesn't mean corruption."
The final days of the campaign bordered on farce as both Sandu and Dodon accused each other of being in the pocket of Vlad Plahotniuc, the country's most powerful businessman whom critics say wields an outsize influence on Moldovan politics.
The ruling Democratic party's candidate Marian Lupu bowed out of the race on Wednesday, calling it a tactical move to boost the chances of keeping Moldova on a pro-European path, but Sandu said the move was a ploy to boost Dodon's chances.
Though the IMF and the EU froze aid in the wake of the banking scandal, the new government, which came to power in January amid street protests, expects to receive aid worth around $180 million from the IMF shortly, which it says is a vindication of its reform measures.
(Writing and additional reporting by Matthias Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth)