A member of a local electoral commission carries a ballot box at a polling station ahead of the presidential election in Chisinau, Moldova, October 29, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)
People in Moldova have started casting their ballots in the country’s first presidential election in two decades, in what is viewed as a battle between supporters of closer ties with Russia and those seeking integration with the European Union.
Approximately 2,000 polling stations opened across the country at 07:00 local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 21:00 local time (1900 GMT).
Moldova last elected a president by popular vote in 1996, after which lawmakers chose the head of state.
The country of 3.5 million, which is wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, is one of the poorest states in Europe
and has struggled with a string of high-profile corruption scandals.
The central election commission said the vote will be monitored by more than 3,200 Moldovan observers and 562 international ones.
Nine candidates are competing in Sunday’s election in the ex-Soviet republic, with polls showing a possible run-off between the pro-Russian Socialist Party’s Igor Dodon and the pro-European Action and Solidarity’s Maia Sandu.
Sandu, a former education minister, has vowed to fight fraud and push for EU integration.
“We advocate European integration because we see true democracy and prosperity for workers in the EU,” Sandu said ahead of the polls.
However, Dodon, who is leading in opinion polls, has pledged to push for new parliamentary elections if he wins the election.
Igor Dodon, Socialist Party leader and Moldovan presidential candidate, addresses his supporters during his campaign in Drochia, Moldova, October 25, 2016. (Photo by AFP)
“What have we received from Europe? Nothing,” said Dodon, noting that he would “restore a strategic partnership with Russia.”
The president in Moldova appoints judges and sets out foreign policy. He can also dissolve the legislature in certain situations and appoint the prime minister.
Moldova plunged into political turmoil last year with the disappearance of about $1billion from the banking system.
The theft, equal to an eighth of Moldova’s economic output, undermined people’s support for the ruling pro-Western coalition and forced the authorities to seek international aid to avert bankruptcy.
People held street protests for weeks while six prime ministers took office in just one year.