Polling stations in Moldova opened Sunday morning with voters eager to elect the new parliament after the previous one was dissolved by new president Maia Sandu to bolster her position against pro-Russian forces.
Polling stations opened shortly after 7:00 AM (04:00 GMT) on Sunday and closed at 9:00 PM. The first results are expected a few hours later.
Sandu, who wants to bring Moldova into the European Union, defeated Kremlin-backed incumbent Igor Dodon in November on a pledge to fight corruption in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, has long been divided over closer ties with Brussels or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
With lawmakers loyal to Dodon blocking Sandu’s reform promises, the former World Bank economist dissolved parliament in April and scheduled the quick vote.
“This Sunday we have to finish what we started and take the second step. This is an opportunity for each of us to elect an honest and responsible leadership,” Sandu said in a statement ahead of the vote.
“It’s time to cleanse the country of clans, corrupt officials and manipulators,” said Sandu, who wants to overhaul the judiciary, raise salaries and pensions and change the constitution to make it easier to punish corruption.
The slogans resonate with many Moldovans, who in recent years have seen their country shaken by political crises, including a $1 billion bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
“She really wants to change the country for the better,” Natalia Cadabnuic, a young resident of Chisinau, told the AFP news agency.
Sandu, who also briefly served as prime minister, has become “a symbol of change” for many Moldovans, said Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country’s ex-ambassador to the United Nations.
He added that Moldovans are tired of corrupt politicians, saying that Sandu is the first to reach the top while “maintaining the reputation of honesty”.
Russian influence on the game
Twenty parties and two electoral blocs are participating in Sunday’s elections. They must exceed the threshold set at 5 percent and 7 percent of the vote respectively to gain seats in the unicameral meeting.
The 101 legislators are elected for a four-year term.
The party of Ilan Shor, a businessman convicted of fraud and money laundering in connection with the $1 billion banking scandal, is also one of more than 20 parties and blocs – including independents – contesting the election. Shor denies wrongdoing.
In the vote, Sandu’s center-right party Action and Solidarity (PAS) led.
The latest polls showed PAS had 35-37 percent of the vote, against 21-27 percent for the party’s rivals from the coalition of socialists and communists led by Dodon and former president Vladimir Voronin.
Those numbers only take into account voters who live in the country of 2.6 million people.
Analysts say the diaspora, which makes up more than a third of Moldova’s eligible voters and who already supported Sandu during the presidential polls, could hold the key to the outcome.
According to estimates, the diaspora could bring Sandu’s party another 10-15 percentage points.
Analysts say the election is likely to be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain within its sphere of influence.
“The majority will be pro-European and Russia’s influence will diminish,” said Sergiy Gerasymchuk, a Kiev-based expert on Moldovan politics.
Sandu has already annoyed the Kremlin by proposing to remove the Russian military garrison based in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway state on the country’s eastern border with Ukraine.
Pro-Russian Dodon accused authorities on Friday of preparing “provocations” and urging his supporters to be ready to protest to “defend” his bloc’s victory.