Polling stations in Moldova opened on Sunday morning with voters eager to choose the new parliament after the previous one was dissolved by new President Maia Sandu to shore up her position against pro-Russia forces.
Polls opened shortly after 7am (04:00 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 9pm, with initial results expected a few hours later.
Sandu, who wants to bring Moldova into the European Union, in November defeated Kremlin-backed incumbent Igor Dodon on a pledge 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 maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
With lawmakers loyal to Dodon blocking Sandu’s promises of reform, the former World Bank economist dissolved parliament in April and scheduled the snap vote.
“This Sunday we have to finish what we started and take the second step. This is an opportunity for each of us to choose an honest and responsible leadership,” Sandu said in a statement ahead of the vote.
“It’s time to clear the country of clans, corrupt officials and manipulators,” said Sandu, who wants to overhaul the judicial system, increase salaries and pensions and amend the constitution to make it easier to punish corruption.
The slogans resonate with many Moldovans, who in recent years have seen their country rocked by political crises, including a $ 1bn 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 Chisinau resident, told the AFP news agency.
Sandu, who also served briefly as prime minister, has for many Moldovans become “a symbol of change”, said Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country’s ex-ambassador to the United Nations.
Adding that Moldovans are tired of corrupt politicians, he said Sandu is the first to make it to the top while “maintaining a reputation for being honest”.
Russian influence at stake
Twenty parties and two electoral blocs are running in Sunday’s elections. They must cross the threshold set at 5 percent and 7 percent 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 connection with the $ 1bn bank scandal, is also among more than 20 parties and blocs – including independents – contesting the election. Shor denies wrongdoing.
Going into the vote, Sandu’s centre-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) party was leading.
The latest polls showed PAS with 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 figures only account for voters living in the country of 2.6 million people.
Analysts say the diaspora, which is more than a third of Moldova’s eligible voters and already threw its support behind 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 will likely be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence.
“The majority will be pro-European, and the influence of Russia will weaken,” Sergiy Gerasymchuk, a Kyiv-based expert on Moldovan politics, said.
Sandu has already irritated the Kremlin by proposing to remove the Russian military garrison based in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway state straddling the country’s eastern frontier with Ukraine.
Pro-Russia Dodon accused authorities Friday of preparing “provocations” and urged his supporters to be ready to protest to “defend” his bloc’s victory.