CHISINAU: Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks with journalists outside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Chisinau yesterday. – AFP

CHISINAU: Voters headed to the polls to elect a new parliament in Moldova yesterday after President Maia Sandu dissolved the previous assembly to shore up her position against pro-Russia forces. Casting her ballot in the capital Chisinau, Sandu said she had voted for change in the small ex-Soviet country beset by poverty and corruption.

“I voted so we could put things in order in our country and to get rid of those who robbed our country for so many years,” said Sandu, a 49-year-old former World Bank economist who has pledged to bring Moldova into the European Union. Her predecessor Igor Dodon, a Kremlin-backed politician she defeated last year, warned against voting for those who will “hand over the country to external control” as he cast his ballot.

Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, the country of about 2.6 million has long been divided over closer ties with the European Union or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow. With lawmakers loyal to Dodon blocking Sandu’s promises of reform after her election win in November, she dissolved parliament in April and scheduled the snap vote.

“I voted for an honest parliament to work with, for a parliament that will appoint honest people, competent people… so that we can all work together for the benefit of our citizens,” Sandu told journalists after voting. Promises of honesty and competence will resonate with many Moldovans, who in recent years have seen their nation rocked by political crises, including a $1 billion bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15 percent of gross domestic product.

Nataliya, a 29-year-old voting in central Chisinau, said she had backed Sandu’s centre-right Action and Solidarity (PAS). “After so many years, this country has some kind of hope to drive out the thieves who are sitting here for Russian money and to choose those who serve the country honestly,” she said.

‘Symbol of change’
Sandu, who also served briefly as prime minister, has for many Moldovans become “a symbol of change”, said Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country’s ex-ambassador to the United Nations. At polling stations, voters had to wear masks and have their temperature taken in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Twenty parties and two electoral blocs are running in the election. They must cross thresholds set at five percent and seven percent of the votes respectively to obtain seats in the unicameral assembly, where 101 lawmakers are elected for four-year terms. Sandu’s PAS appeared to be leading ahead of the vote, with the latest polls giving it a 35-37 percent share.

Its main rivals from the coalition of socialists and Communists led by Dodon and former president Vladimir Voronin were polling at 21-27 percent. Analysts say the diaspora-which accounts for more than a third of Moldova’s eligible voters and widely backed Sandu during the presidential vote-could hold the key and bring the PAS another 10-15 percentage points this time round. Long queues formed outside the polling stations abroad and some voters-particularly in Germany and France-reserved a seat from Saturday evening, media in Moldova reported.

Irritating the Kremlin
Observers say the election will likely be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence. “The party of pro-Russian ex-president Igor Dodon will finally lose control of the central government in the country, and allies of President Maia Sandu will form a mono-majority,” the independent Ukrainian news website Yevropeiska Pravda said in an editorial Saturday.

Sandu has already irritated the Kremlin by proposing to remove the Russian military garrison based in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway state straddling the country’s eastern frontier with Ukraine. On Friday, Dodon, 46, accused authorities of preparing “provocations” and urged his supporters to be ready to protest to “defend” his bloc’s victory.

In Chisinau, Lyudmila, a 70-year-old pensioner, said she supported the Communists and socialists because “life was better” under their rule. “There was order under the Communists,” she told AFP after casting her vote. Polls were due to close at 9:00 pm local time (1800 GMT), with results expected within a few hours. – AFP