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article imageMoldovans face 'East-West' choice in presidential runoff

By Anatol Golea (AFP)     Nov 13, 2016 in Politics

Moldovans were voting Sunday to choose between pro-Moscow and pro-European candidates in a runoff vote for the next president of the impoverished ex-Soviet country.

It marks the first time in 16 years that Moldova -- wracked by corruption scandals in recent years -- is electing its leader by national vote instead of having parliament select the head of state.

Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the tiny nation is caught in a political tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

By 1200 GMT on Sunday, around 34 percent of the electorate had voted, according to the central electoral commission. There is no minimum threshold for the vote to be valid.

Elections chief Alina Russu told a news conference "no incidents or serious violations have been reported".

The election marks the first time in 16 years that Moldova will elect its leader by national vote in...
The election marks the first time in 16 years that Moldova will elect its leader by national vote instead of having parliament select the head of state
Daniel Mihailescu, AFP/File

In the first round of voting on October 30, Igor Dodon, the pro-Moscow head of the Socialist Party, came out on top with 48 percent, followed by pro-European Maia Sandu, a centre-right former education minister who worked for the World Bank, with 38 percent.

The two runoff candidates have diametrically opposed visions for Moldova's future.

Moldova signed an historic EU association agreement in 2014 despite bitter opposition from Russia, which has responded with an embargo targeting its key agriculture sector.

Dodon -- who served as economy minister under a communist government between 2006 and 2009 -- is calling for deeper ties and boosting trade with Moscow.

Speaking at a polling station on Sunday, he said: "I'm sure we'll win victory with a good margin," describing his campaign as "against the oligarchs, against those who have robbed our country and want to destroy it".

Vasilii Blindu, a 70-year-old pensioner who voted in the northern town of Balti, said: "I and all my friends voted for Igor Dodon since he promises to restore strategic partnership with Russia."

Sandu, on the other hand, is urging a path towards Europe.

Presidential candidate of the center-right opposition  Maia Sandu is urging a path toward Europe as ...
Presidential candidate of the center-right opposition, Maia Sandu is urging a path toward Europe as "the basis for the country's development"
Daniel Mihailescu, AFP

"We have proved that there are many of us and we are strong," she told journalists at a polling station on Sunday.

"I intend to appoint honest, decent, non-corrupt specialists," she said. "That's how we'll show that our country exists for its citizens."

She is calling for the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from the Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniester, which broke away in the early 1990s after a brief civil war.

Chisinau student Marcel Pruna, 22, said he backed Sandu because she will "carry out reforms in practice, not just in words".

- Corruption scandals -

The country of 3.5 million has been rocked by corruption scandals and political turmoil in recent years.

In 2014, $1 billion (920 million euros) mysteriously disappeared from three banks, prompting street protests and the arrest of the former prime minister Vlad Filat, who has since been convicted of corruption and abuse of office.

A recent report published by Transparency International Moldova called the country "the regional launderer for money of dubious origin".

Moldova's current prime minister, Pavel Filip, who has served since January, is pro-European and introduced political changes including the direct presidential vote.

Analyst Anatol Taranu of think tank Politicon said that while Dodon had 140,000 more supporters in the first round, Sandu could draw on a reserve of people who initially did not turn out to vote, particularly young people.

Moldova is considered by some international organisations to be Europe's poorest country.

Forty-one percent of the population live on less than $5 (4.6 euros) a day while the average monthly salary is $240, according to World Bank figures.

The polls will close at 1900 GMT with a preliminary count to be announced early on Monday.

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