Moldovans have started voting in a presidential election that pits pro-Russian incumbent President Igor Dodon – who is bidding for a second term – against former Prime Minister Maia Sandu – who wants to pull the country closer to the European Union.
Despite its small size, politics in tiny Moldova, which is wedged between Ukraine and NATO-member Romania, have long been deeply sensitive.
The country of 3.5 million has been divided between those favouring closer ties with the European Union, in particular Romania, and those who cling to Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
The election takes place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic that has pushed one of Europe’s poorest countries into a sharp economic downturn.
Dodon took power in 2016 after pro-Western political forces became mired in scandals. He has led opinion polls against seven other candidates going into Sunday’s vote, but may not win outright, which would lead to a runoff.
He said his politically volatile country was tired of upheaval and urged people to vote for “peace, stability, and development”.
“Enough of squabbles and conflicts,” Dodon, 45, said ahead of the election.
Sandu, a Harvard-educated former World Bank economist known for her tough stance on corruption, led a short-lived coalition government last year that was brought down by a no-confidence vote within months.
If elected, she has promised to secure more financial support from Brussels, while Dodon has pledged to roll out a settlement next year for the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniestria.
Many voters said they had grown tired of politicians’ quarrels and just wanted a better life.
“We want better living conditions, schools for children and, above all, peace,” said Marin Ioan, a pensioner in the northeastern town of Soroca.
Analysts predict a second-round runoff on November 15 as neither Dodon nor Sandu is expected to secure an outright majority on Sunday.
As well as the two front-runners, six more candidates are contesting the vote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed hope that Moldovan voters will back Dodon, noting their country’s economy is firmly linked to Russia.
Valeriu Pasa, an analyst with the WatchDog Moldova think-tank, compared the polls to a “referendum on Dodon’s mandate” and said Moscow was keen to maintain the status quo in Moldova.
“The current regime is fully subordinate to the Kremlin,” Pasa told AFP news agency.
The EU in 2014 forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with the ex-Soviet republic but became increasingly critical of Chisinau’s track record on reforms.
Sandu has received messages of support from German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and former European Council President Donald Tusk.
A group of Dodon’s supporters denounced the messages as an attempt to destabilise the country.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, last week accused the United States of plotting to instigate mass protests against Dodon as punishment for him fostering good relations with Moscow.
Naryshkin similarly accused Washington of fomenting revolution in Belarus, where Moscow-backed President Alexander Lukashenko has battled months of protests following a contested election.
Russia keeps troops stationed in Moldova’s Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, which broke away after a brief civil war following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. It is not internationally recognised.
The first election results are expected overnight.