CHISINAU (Reuters) – Moldovan voters will decide on Sunday whether to give pro-Moscow President Igor Dodon four more years in office or hand power to Maia Sandu, a former prime minister who favours closer ties with the European Union.
The central election commission said voting began in more than 2,000 polling stations in the country and abroad.
Opinion polls put the rivals neck-and-neck before the election run-off. Sandu finished ahead in the first round two weeks ago with a late surge in support from diaspora voters, but failed to secure enough votes for outright victory.
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.
A former World Bank economist who takes a 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.
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 decade.
“A victory in the second round by Maia Sandu would mean a period of tough political confrontation for Moldova,” said independent analyst Corneliu Ciurea.
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.
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Stephen Coates)