The days ahead of Moldova's parliamentary elections have been described as the calm before the storm. But the months leading up to the vote have been more like a steady stream of thunderstorms ahead of a hurricane.
The vote arrives on July 11 after an arduous journey that featured an ugly constitutional crisis, street protests, the election of a Europe-leaning president, and ultimately the dissolution in April of the Russia-friendly parliament.
More than 20 parties and blocs are running in the election, but only two -- the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) founded by President Maia Sandu, who was elected late last year, and the Russia-friendly Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BeCS) -- look certain to enter parliament.
A win by PAS, which the latest polls showed leading with about 33 to 37 percent of the vote, could provide Sandu the outright parliamentary majority she needs to push through a reform program intended to put the country firmly on track for European integration.
A win by the BeCS, which is polling at 25 to 37 percent of the vote, and other parties aligned with former pro-Moscow President Igor Dodon would be seen as a return to the status quo that has kept the Eastern European country in Russia's orbit for the past three decades.
How Did We Get Here?
Momentum for early elections has been building for months and is connected closely to Sandu's election in November.
That presidential contest followed an ugly constitutional crisis that stemmed from the 2019 parliamentary elections and featured deadlock in parliament, the suspension of Dodon's presidential powers, and competing claims to the posts of prime minister and speaker of parliament.
The second-round victory by Sandu, a former prime minister and World Bank economist, signaled that the scales might be tilting to a more Western orientation. But while the 49-year-old Sandu soundly defeated the incumbent Dodon, her reform agenda faced considerable opposition from his allies in the legislature.
In early December, lawmakers passed a bill that transferred control of the country's intelligence agency from the president to parliament, a move seen as a power grab that led some 20,000 Sandu supporters to take to the streets of Chisinau to demand early elections.
In a way, [the vote] will draw the line on 30 years of post-Soviet blindness -- years of poverty and exodus, of endless thieves, of violation of human dignity, of disregard for national values."-- Commentator Vitalie Ciobanu
Then, on the eve of Sandu's inauguration and the same day that parliament was to debate a PAS-sponsored no-confidence motion against the government, the prime minister and his cabinet resigned.
With the pro-Russia prime minister's resignation, Sandu was in a position to dissolve parliament if there were two failed attempts to find a successor within three months. Those failed attempts materialized, and in April the Constitutional Court ruled that all avenues to form a new government had been exhausted.
On April 28, Sandu dissolved parliament by decree, and the date was set for early elections that could change the balance of power and establish a working majority in parliament.
Timing Is Everything
The elections will take place weeks before Moldova marks 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union. But with poverty and corruption plaguing the country, which is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, many of its more than 3.2 million registered voters are in no mood to celebrate.
"In a way, it will draw the line on 30 years of post-Soviet blindness -- years of poverty and exodus, of endless thieves, of violation of human dignity, of disregard for national values," commentator Vitalie Ciobanu wrote in a commentary for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "It is time to remember the founding acts of the Republic of Moldova, a state that wanted the expression of freedom of its citizens but ended up with a kleptocracy."
The vote on July 11, Ciobanu said, "will decide whether to end this sad history, no matter how long and difficult the road that awaits us."
In an interview with RFE/RL, the historian Gheorghe Cojucaru also noted that the new parliament will begin its term on August 27, three decades to the date after Moldova declared independence following the failed hard-line coup in Moscow that accelerated the Soviet collapse.
Cojucaru said that he expects the future parliament to "reflect realities and trends in society."
"If, according to the latest opinion polls, a majority of over 60 percent clearly wants European integration, this desire must be revealed in the vote count," he said.
Considering last year's election of a president with a pro-European stance, plans for reform, and support from the European Union, Cojucaru said "it is natural" that the pro-Western current will win and ensure the promotion of Sandu's course of European integration.
The latest polls generally support that assessment, with the Public Opinion Barometer on July 5 forecasting that PAS would receive 33.7 percent of the vote compared to 25.2 percent for the BeCS.
The Association of Sociologists and Demographers, meanwhile, predicted that PAS would take 37.4 percent and the BeCS 37.1 percent.
Other parties seen as having a good shot at gaining seats are the Eurosceptic SOR and the pro-European Dignity and Truth Platform party.
Various scenarios include the PAS gaining an outright majority with up to 55 seats -- or falling just short of the 51 needed and entering a coalition with Dignity and Truth.
The Diaspora Question
With about 800,000 of its citizens living out of the country, the Moldovan diaspora is expected to have a huge impact on the vote in favor of pro-European parties.
To help get in the vote, Moldova has set up 150 polling stations abroad, including 12 in neighboring EU-member Romania.
An official at the Moldovan Embassy in Bucharest, Emil Jacota, told RFE/RL that it was not known precisely how many Moldovan citizens live in Romania, but approximately 20,000 Moldovans voted at polling stations in Romania during the 2020 presidential election.
The Transdniester Question
One of the bigger controversies heading into the vote involved voting in the Moscow-backed breakaway Transdniester region.
Voters in the territory, which hosts Russian troops that Sandu has said should be withdrawn, tend to support stronger ties with Moscow, and pro-European parties have expressed concerns that the polling stations could be used for electoral fraud favoring pro-Russia parties.
On July 8, a court decision obliged the Central Election Commission (CEC) to cut the number of polling stations in Transniester from 41 to 12, prompting Dodon to call on his supporters to prepare to protest the move.
After the CEC appealed, the Supreme Court ruled on July 10 that the number of polling stations would remain at 41, a decision welcomed by Dodon.
The organized transportation of voters to polling stations in Transdniester has also drawn attention, with pro-European camps calling for the process to be banned, as it was in the presidential vote. Such "electoral tourism" is seen as a Russia-backed maneuver employed to limit the chances of pro-European parties.
On July 7, the CEC failed to adopt the ban.
The coronavirus has been a constant throughout Moldova's recent political discord, with the elections called just after the country's highest court abolished a state of emergency imposed to help stop the pandemic.
Dodon had earlier vowed to use "all legal means" to prevent elections from being held during the pandemic, but as recently as late June was on hand for a "vaccination marathon" in Chisinau. On July 8, Dodon said talks were under way to purchase up to 1 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, while saying it was also necessary to buy the Western Pfizer vaccine.
To date Moldova has reported more than 257,000 COVID cases, with more than 6,200 deaths.
The July 11 elections will be held with health restrictions in place, including requirements that voters wear masks, maintain social distancing, and that polling stations are well ventilated and disinfected.
West Versus East
As has become routine, the election process is accompanied by the influence of both the West and Moscow.
In 2014, when a pro-European coalition was in charge, Moldova inked a deal on closer political and economic relations with the European Union. But Brussels has since become more critical of the pace of reforms. While the EU has earmarked $710 million to help Moldova's ailing economy recover from the pandemic, the money is contingent on Chisinau adopting judicial and anti-corruption reforms.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, has accused the United States and the European Union of interfering in the Moldovan elections, without providing evidence or detail.
"We regret to point out that Moldova’s election campaign is accompanied by an unprecedented interference in the country’s domestic affairs by U.S. and EU representatives," ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing on July 9.