Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s pro-European party was leading on July 11 as counting got under way in snap parliamentary elections that are likely to weaken Russia's influence and push Europe's poorest country toward further integration with the continent.
Sandu’s Party Of Action and Solidarity (PAS) was leading with more than 44 percent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC), with over 40 percent of the ballots counted.
Sandu’s main rivals, the Russia-friendly Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, had nearly 33 percent of the votes.
The CEC said voter turnout was around 50 percent, slightly higher than in parliamentary elections in 2019.
Some 3.2 million people, including a sizable diaspora abroad, were eligible to vote.
More than 20 parties and coalition blocs were in the running. However, only the PAS and the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists were seen as locks to enter the 101-seat parliament.
Each was predicted to get up to 37 percent of the vote, according to polls conducted before the election, although most surveys had Sandu's bloc coming out on top, potentially with an outright majority of 51 seats or more.
Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova has long been divided over closer ties with Brussels or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
A victory by Sandu's coalition would give her a friendly legislature to work with as she tries to put the country on the track toward European integration.
"You decide who will be part of the next parliament and government," the 49-year-old former World Bank official wrote on social media as the campaign period came to a close. "It is up to you how quickly we can save the country from corruption and poverty."
A win by the Russia-friendly Electoral Bloc and other Moscow-friendly parties would maintain close ties to Moscow fostered by former President Igor Dodon, whose fellow Socialists in parliament have stymied Sandu's reform program.
"Only our team is able to end the chaos in the country, ensure social protection of people, restore the economy, and strengthen statehood," Dodon said this week.
The snap elections were the result of a lengthy political battle following Sandu's runoff victory over Dodon in November.
That vote was also seen as a referendum on Moldova's future, but the Socialist-controlled legislature continued to exert its influence, including boosting the body's power by voting to transfer control of intelligence agencies from the president to parliament.
The move was met in December with mass protests calling for early elections, followed later that month by the resignation of the country's pro-Russia prime minister and his cabinet just before Sandu's inauguration.
After Sandu's attempts to replace the prime minister were exhausted, parliament was dissolved in April and the snap elections were set in motion.
The run-up to the vote had been plagued by conflict over the number of polling stations both abroad and in the Russia-backed breakaway Transdniester region.
After a lengthy back-and-forth, the number of polling stations in Transdniester, where voters traditionally support closer ties to Moscow, was set at 41.
Moldovans living outside the country, who were expected to be mainly in Sandu's camp, were able to vote at 150 polling stations abroad, including 12 in neighboring EU-member Romania.
The vote was held with restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with voters required to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
Aside from the two main blocs, the Eurosceptic SOR and the pro-European Dignity And Truth Platform party were seen as contenders to pass the threshold needed to enter parliament.
The new parliament will be seated on August 27, the 30th anniversary of Moldova's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.