Moldovan opposition candidate Maia Sandu, who favours closer ties with the European Union, looks on course to win the second round of Moldova’s presidential election, with preliminary results showing her well ahead of the pro-Russian incumbent with almost all ballots counted.
The former prime minister was leading on Sunday night with 57 percent of the votes over Igor Dodon’s 44 percent, with 99 percent of ballots counted, according to the central election commission’s website.
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Full results are expected on Monday.
An exit poll had put Sandu on 54.8 percent of votes compared with 45.2 percent for Dodon.
The West and Russia vie for influence in the former Soviet republic of 3.5 million, which is one of Europe’s poorest nations and has suffered a sharp economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As results came in on Sunday night, celebrations broke out in front of the opposition headquarters in the centre of the capital Chisinau, with supporters chanting: “President Maia Sandu” and “a country for young people”.
Speaking to supporters, Sandu promised to unite the country and tackle corruption.
“We need the state to work for citizens, not for thieves and corrupt officials,” she said.
Dodon, who on Friday had called on supporters to take to the streets if he felt the election was stolen from him, on Facebook said: “I urge everyone to calm, regardless of the election results.”
Opinion polls had put the rivals neck-and-neck before the election runoff. Sandu finished ahead in the first round two weeks ago with a late surge in support from voters living abroad, but failed to secure enough votes for outright victory.
On Sunday, more than 200,000 Moldovans living overseas had voted by the early evening, compared with a total of 150,000 in the first round.
Known for her tough stance on corruption, Sandu led a short-lived government last year that was felled by a no-confidence vote.
Sandu, 48, has said she would secure more financial support from the EU as president. Dodon, 45, has been in power since 2016 and has said he will roll out a settlement next year for the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniestria.
“I voted for the development of the economy, for a balanced foreign policy,” Dodon said after casting his ballot. “I don’t want Moldova to be used in geopolitical games.”
If Sandu wins, she is likely to seek a snap parliamentary election to consolidate power because parliament is controlled by the Socialists, Dodon’s former party.
Moldova, squeezed between Ukraine and EU-member Romania, has suffered political instability in the past 10 years. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was “happy” with Sandu’s first-round victory, while Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Moldovans last month to cast their votes for Dodon and there were long lines at polling booths in Moscow on Sunday.
The EU forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with Moldova in 2014 but became increasingly critical of its record on reforms.
Sandu has received messages of support from German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and former European Council President Donald Tusk. Some of Dodon’s supporters denounced such support as an attempt to destabilise Moldova.
Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, accused the United States last month of plotting to instigate mass protests against Dodon as punishment for him fostering good relations with Moscow.
“A victory in the second round by Maia Sandu would mean a period of tough political confrontation for Moldova,” independent analyst Corneliu Ciurea told the Reuters news agency.