Polling stations in Moldova opened on Sunday morning with voters keen to choose the new parliament after the previous one was dissolved by new president Maia Sandu to strengthen her position against pro-Russian forces.
Polling stations opened shortly after 7:00 a.m. (04:00 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 9:00 p.m., with the first results expected a few hours later.
Sandu, who wants to bring Moldova into the European Union, defeated outgoing Kremlin-backed President Igor Dodon in November by pledging to fight corruption in one of Europe’s poorest countries .
Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova has long been divided over closer ties with Brussels or over maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
With Dodon-loyal lawmakers blocking Sandu’s reform promises, the former World Bank economist dissolved parliament in April and scheduled early voting.
“This Sunday we have to finish what we started and take the second step. This is an opportunity for each of us to choose honest and responsible leadership, ”Sandu said in a statement ahead of the vote.
“It is time to rid the country of clans, corrupt officials and manipulators,” said Sandu, who wants to reform the justice system, increase salaries and pensions and amend the constitution to make it easier to crack down on corruption.
The slogans resonate with many Moldovans who in recent years have seen their country rocked by political crises, including a billion dollar bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15% 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 AFP news agency.
Sandu, who was also briefly prime minister, has become for many Moldovans “a symbol of change,” said Alexei Tulbure, political analyst and the country’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
Adding that Moldovans are tired of corrupt politicians, he said Sandu was the first to reach the top while “maintaining a reputation for honesty”.
Russian influence at stake
Twenty parties and two electoral blocs are vying for Sunday’s elections. They must cross the threshold set at 5% and 7% of the votes respectively to obtain seats in the unicameral assembly.
The 101 lawmakers will be elected for a four-year term.
The party of Ilan Shor, a businessman convicted of fraud and money laundering in the billion dollar banking scandal, is also part of more than 20 parties and blocs – including independents – who stand for election. Shor denies any wrongdoing.
Before the vote, Sandu’s center-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) party was in the lead.
The latest polls showed the PAS with 35 to 37% of the vote against 21 to 27% for the party’s rivals from the coalition of Socialists and Communists led by Dodon and former President Vladimir Voronin.
These figures only take into account voters living in the country of 2.6 million people.
Analysts say the diaspora, which represents more than a third of eligible voters in Moldova and has already supported Sandu in the presidential elections, may hold the key to the outcome.
It is estimated that the diaspora could bring Sandu’s party an additional 10 to 15 percentage points.
Analysts believe the elections will likely be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence.
“The majority will be pro-European and Russia’s influence will wane,” said Sergiy Gerasymchuk, a Kiev-based expert on Moldovan politics.
Sandu has previously angered the Kremlin by offering to remove the Russian military garrison based in Transdniestria, a pro-Russian separatist state straddling the country’s eastern border with Ukraine.
The pro-Russian Dodon on Friday accused the authorities of preparing “provocations” and urged his supporters to be ready to demonstrate to “defend” the victory of his bloc.