CHISINAU -- Moldovan President Maia Sandu declared victory for her pro-Europe party after the nation’s snap parliamentary elections, a result likely to weaken Russia's influence and push Europe's poorest country toward further integration with the continent.
With 97 percent of the vote counted early on July 12, Sandu's center-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) party was leading with nearly 49 percent of the vote.
The PAS's main rivals from the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BeCS), led by the Kremlin-backed former President Igor Dodon, had about 30 percent. Nearly 20 parties and coalitions split the rest of the vote.
AFP reported that, as the early votes were announced, 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 posting.
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."
In pre-election polls, the PAS and the Socialist-Communist coalition were each forecast to get up to 37 percent of the vote, although most surveys had Sandu's bloc coming out with the most seats in parliament, possibly with a majority of 51.
The party of businessman Ilan Shor also appears close to winning seats in the parliament.
Parties must receive at least 5 percent and coalitions need 7 percent to win seats in the 101-member assembly.
"There is no more intrigue. Sandu's party will get the majority," Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country's former ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted by AFP as saying.
The 49-year-old Sandu, a former World Bank economist who also served briefly as Moldova’s prime minister, has become "a symbol of change" for many in the country, Tulbure added.
The election commission said more than 48 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Some 3.2 million people, including a sizeable diaspora abroad, were eligible to vote.
Earlier vote results showed that PAS won a vast majority of diaspora ballots, as expected.
Dodon told reporters late on July 11 that he would "decide whether to protest the election results" after the voting was analyzed and possible violations were investigated.
The chief of the country's electoral commission said no serious violations were reported during the July 11 vote.
A win by the Russia-friendly Electoral Bloc and other Moscow-friendly parties would have meant the maintaining of close ties with Russia fostered by 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 the social protection of people, restore the economy, and strengthen statehood," Dodon said last 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.