Pro-European challenger Maia Sandu has won the second round of Moldova’s presidential election and is well ahead of the pro-Russian dominant with almost all votes counted, according to the Central Election Commission.
The former prime minister led Sunday night with 57 percent of the vote over Igor Dodon’s 44 percent, with full results expected on Monday.
With 99 percent of the vote by Sunday, according to Moldova’s central election commission, Sandus’ expected victory could be poorly received in Moscow.
The small ex-Soviet nation is under the watchful eye of Russia, which wants polarized Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence at a time when several Kremlin governments are outraged by political unrest.
The celebration broke out overnight in front of the opposition headquarters in the center of the capital Chisinau, with supporters singing: “President Maia Sandu” and “a country for young people”.
In the first ballot earlier this month, the 48-year-old center-right politician won a surprise victory over Dodon.
Earlier on Sunday, when the polls closed, she said she was “convinced that the nation’s voice will be heard”.
She added that “today you have the power to punish those who robbed you, who reduced you to misery and forced you to leave your home”, a clear allusion to her rival who has been accused of corruption.
The appeal resonates in one of Europe’s poorest countries, where as many as 40 percent of citizens are estimated to have traveled abroad to work.
Sandu, who worked for the World Bank and briefly served as prime minister, also called for “maximum vigilance” against possible fraud.
However, Dodon said he “voted for peace”, “social justice” and “Christian values”.
“We must maintain good relations with the European Union and with Russia,” he said.
Dodon was shaken by the election defender in the first round and urged his supporters at a meeting on Friday to vote and take to the streets after Sunday’s vote to “protect our victory”.
The Kremlin-backed candidate, reportedly aided by Russian advisers, had intensified his rhetoric against Sandu.
“If we show weakness, we will lose our country,” Dodon said at the meeting.
Sandu, who heads the Party for Action and Solidarity, has vowed to wage a fight against endemic corruption in the country of about 3.5 million gaps between Ukraine and EU member Romania.
Moldova has been shaken by several political crises and a $ 1 billion bank fraud equivalent to almost 15 percent of annual economic output.
The slide shows up
Measurements published before Sunday’s vote showed the two candidates in a close race that could be determined by the diaspora, which local media reported had appeared in large numbers.
More than 200,000 Moldovan residents abroad had voted early in the evening, compared to a total of 150,000 in the first round.
In the village of Varnita, police clashed with pro-Sandu protesters who had tried to block a road to prevent voters from leaving the nearby breakaway Moscow-backed region of Transnistria.
“Let it not get any worse,” said Vladimir Andriouchko, a 70-year-old from Transnistria, where Russian troops support separatists.
“One is doing his best for Russia, the other for NATO, so there is a bloodbath here,” he told AFP as he stood in a long line to vote in Varnita.
While those from Transnistria were largely expected to vote for Dodon, five of the six voters with whom AFP spoke in Chisinau said they voted for Sandu.
“Igor Dodon’s campaign focused on stability. I have the impression that Mr Dodon wants stability when it comes to corruption, said the 47-year-old computer specialist Aleksandr.
‘There will be protests’
Moldova has close historical ties with neighboring Romania and they share a common language. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was “pleased” with Sandus’ first victory.
Russia, which is facing several protest movements this year targeting allies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, will look closely at Sunday’s vote.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the Moldovans to cast their ballots for Dodon, and there were long lines at the polls in Moscow on Sunday.
A victory for Dodon could trigger protests from Sandus’ supporters, especially if the result is close.
“Whether Sandu or Dodon wins, there will be protests,” said Sandra, a 56-year-old saleswoman in Chisinau, adding that she would vote for the incumbent.