Pro-Western President Maia Sandu's party has scored a clear victory in Moldovan snap parliamentary elections that Western observers called "smooth" and "peaceful," a result likely to weaken Russia's influence in the country.
With nearly all ballots counted from the July 11 elections, Sandu's center-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) had just under 53 percent of the vote, while its main rival, former President Igor Dodon's Moscow-friendly Socialists and Communists (BECS) bloc, had a little more than 27 percent.
PAS appears poised to win some 63 seats -- an outright majority in the 101-seat parliament and almost double the 32 mandates projected for BECS -- a result that will help push one of Europe's poorest countries away from Moscow's sphere of influence and toward closer integration with the European Union.
A joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament hailed the vote as "competitive and well-run" despite some shortcomings.
"Moldova's early parliamentary elections were well managed amidst an improved legal framework and voters were offered a wide choice of alternatives, but concerns over the impartiality of the election authorities undermined trust while inadequate campaign finance rules left potential breaches unaddressed," PACE said in a statement characterizing the assessment.
It cautioned that "further improvements are needed, particularly to legislation dealing with complaints and appeals, as well as campaign finance oversight."
"Today, a new process begins," said Ditmir Bushati, special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission. "We now look forward to working closely with our colleagues in the new Moldovan parliament to find solutions to the shortcomings we have identified and deliver concrete results for the people of Moldova."
Moldova's election commission said that more than 48 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Some 3.2 million people, including a sizable diaspora abroad, were eligible to vote.
Earlier vote results showed that PAS won a vast majority of diaspora ballots, as expected. More that 212,000 Moldovans -- almost half of them under 40 -- voted abroad.
Partidul Sor, the party of convicted businessman Ilan Shor, was only the third party to enter parliament, with 5.75 percent of the vote. Shor was convicted of fraud and money-laundering. He denies any wrongdoing.
Parties needed to receive at least 5 percent and coalitions need 7 percent to enter parliament.
Sandu's supporters celebrated at her campaign headquarters in the capital, Chisinau.
"I hope that today will be the end of a difficult era for Moldova. I hope that today will be an end to the rule of thieves over Moldova," Sandu said in a Facebook statement.
Sandu also thanked members of the Moldovan diaspora, who turned out in large numbers at voting stations across Western Europe, and vowed to strengthen Moldova's institutions and rule of law.
"We need strong institutions that will respect and safeguard the people's free choice," she wrote.
Official estimates say more than 1 million Moldovans have left the country in search of a better life.
Sizable Moldovan diasporas can be found in Western Europe, Russia, and Romania, with which Moldova shares a common language and culture.
Sandu pledged that the party will try to form a government as soon as possible after the final count of votes.
Earlier, when she cast her vote in the capital, Sandu told reporters that she had "voted for an honest parliament to work with, for a parliament that will appoint honest people, competent people."
The 49-year-old Sandu, a former World Bank economist who also served briefly as prime minister, has become "a symbol of change" for many in the country.
The election commission chief said no serious violations were reported during the July 11 vote. But Dodon told reporters late on July 11 that he would "decide whether to protest the election results" after investigating possible violations.
A win by Dodon's BECS and other Moscow-friendly parties would have meant a further boost for Russia's influence in the former Soviet republic sandwiched between EU member Romania and Ukraine.
The early elections were the result of a lengthy political battle following Sandu's runoff victory over Dodon in November on a reform and anti-corruption ticket.
Sandu, whose reforms had been constantly blocked by a parliamentary majority elected in 2019 and aligned with Dodon, dissolved parliament in April and triggered early elections.