CHISINAU -- Maia Sandu, a former World Bank economist who favors closer ties with the European Union, is ahead of pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon in the second round of Moldova's presidential election, partial preliminary results show.
Data from the Central Election Commission shows Sandu has 52.03 percent of the votes in the November 15 runoff with Dodon at 47.97 percent, after 94 percent of the ballots had been counted.
Voters turned out in high numbers, with a turnout of more than 52 percent -- nearly 10 percentage points higher than the final turnout recorded during the first round (42.74 percent).
The runoff is the latest chapter in a tug-of-war over the former Soviet republic’s political future: whether it moves closer to the European Union or is drawn more tightly into Moscow’s orbit.
It’s also the latest rematch between Dodon and Sandu, who won a surprise victory in the first round of the election on November 1 but failed to cross the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.
Participation was particularly high among the Moldovan diaspora, with more than 210,000 votes cast by 6 p.m. -- well above the 150,000 recorded during the November 1 vote.
Long lines have been reported outside polling centers in London, Berlin, and across Italy. In Frankfurt, voting was interrupted for an hour after German police received a false bomb alert.
Polls published in the run-up to the election showed Sandu and Dodon in a tight race that could be decided by the diaspora, which voted massively for Sandu in the first round.
In the first round of voting, which Western election observers largely praised, she came out on top, but failed to cross the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.
In 2016, Dodon defeated Sandu by less than 5 percentage points in an election that was marred by allegations of fraud.
"Today, you have the power to punish those who robbed you, who reduced you to misery and forced you to leave your home," Sandu said after voting in the capital, Chisinau, in a reference to her rival, who has been accused of corruption while in office.
Sandu also called for "maximum vigilance" against possible fraud.
Dodon, meanwhile, said he "voted for peace," "social justice," and "Christian values" after casting his vote in the capital.
"We must maintain good relations with the European Union and with Russia," he said.
Moldova, with a population of about 3.5 million, is one of Europe’s poorest countries and is sharply divided between those who support closer ties with Russia and those who advocate links with the European Union and, especially, neighboring Romania.
“If Dodon wins the presidency, everyone will leave Moldova because, as you can see, Moldovans’ life under his government is very difficult. We need a change. We need to elect another president,” one woman in Singerei, a city north of the capital, Chisinau, told RFE/RL on November 8.
“What I liked about Dodon these four years is that he traveled the world. Dodon traveled throughout the regions of Moldova. He visited the people, the whole country,” a man in Singerei told RFE/RL. “Dodon has done a lot of things: just consider relations with Russia, which is the main market Moldovan products.”
Most of Moldova was part of Romania until World War II, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, and a majority of its population is ethnic Romanian.
Hampered by a creaky economy and rampant corruption, the country is also hobbled by the unresolved status of Transdniester, a breakaway region that has been de facto independent since a separatist war in the 1990s.
Transdniester is backed economically and politically by Moscow , which wants to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence, especially with the ongoing wave of political unrest sweeping across other former Soviet republics.
“What has been done? What changes were there? What has Dodon done as a president? I do not see anything,” said Vera Florea, a Moldovan teacher who has lived in Moscow for more than 30 years.
“Only the process of receiving Russian citizenship for Moldovans has become easier, but this is on the political side. On the economic side, I do not see any changes. I do not notice any Moldovan products in the Russian shops. Only at the market, I can barely see some Moldovan apples or plums. Our wines are also rarely seen on the Russian shelves,” she told RFE/RL by phone on November 11.
Dodon has run largely on a platform calling for “stability” and has promoted his record of securing loans and other economic favors from Moscow.
He has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, during which more than 89,000 Moldovans have been infected and more than 2,000 have died.
Hundreds of supporters from Dodon’s Socialist Party rallied in Chisinau on November 13, the last day of campaigning before the runoff, carrying signs that read: “No School Closures, No District Liquidations” and “President Dodon.”
The 48-year-old Sandu, a former prime minister who heads the Party of Action and Solidarity, has campaigned against corruption and called for closer ties with the European Union.
Moldova’s internal struggle between the West and Russia echoes that of other former Soviet republics -- for example Ukraine and, more recently, Belarus. And Moscow has repeatedly asserted that the West was meddling -- and tried to argue Russia was not -- in the countries’ domestic affairs.
President Vladimir Putin recently referenced this in comments to a grouping of ex-Soviet countries and China, known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
“Efforts to exert foreign pressure" on Moldova, as well as Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, are "unacceptable,” Putin said on November 10.