Moldova votes in showdown between Russia, EU support
Ex-Soviet Moldova went to the polls yesterday in its first popular presidential election since the 1990s, seen as a tug-of-war between supporters of closer relations with Russia and those seeking EU integration. The crisis-hit country of 3.5 million wedged between Ukraine and Romania is the poorest in Europe and has struggled with a string of high-profile corruption scandals which are overshadowing the vote.
Presidential candidates are presenting diametrically opposed visions for the country’s future: calling for deeper ties and boosting trade with Moscow, or committing to the path toward Europe. Voters are leaning in opposite directions as well. “We can’t be without Russia, that’s our export market” that could provide cheap gas, said Igor Lopukhov, 66, a Russian-speaking pensioner who voted for Socialist Party candidate Igor Dodon, a leader in opinion polls who has vowed to restore cooperation Moscow. Dodon’s main rival in the polls is former education minister and proponent of EU integration Maya Sandu, who is supported by younger Western-leaning Moldovans. “We have to build Europe at home,” said Ion Lupusor, a 27-year-old who had studied in Europe before going back to his home country. “If we don’t vote, pensioners will decide the country’s development, and they vote for going ‘Back to USSR’,” he said.
Forty-one percent of the population live on less than $5 (4.6 euros) a day while the monthly average salary is $240, according to World Bank figures. Many Moldovans make ends meet only through remittances sent by relatives working abroad, which make up nearly a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). “My daughter sends me money (for food) from Italy,” said 70-year-old Zinovia Ilonel, who also voted for Dodon. “She’s never coming home.”
Moldova last elected a president by popular vote in 1996, after which members of parliament chose the head of state due to a constitutional amendment from 2000. A constitutional court decision earlier this year re-established the popular vote. The central election commission in Moldova said voting was monitored by over 3,200 Moldovan observers and 562 more from abroad. Some 950,000 voters cast their ballots by 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), the commission said, or 35 percent of the total.
Moldova has been rocked by protests and political turmoil since the mysterious disappearance of $1 billion from three banks last year, which undermined people’s support for the ruling pro-Western coalition. A total of nine candidates remain on the ballot after ruling party candidate Marian Lupu withdrew from the race endorsing Sandu on Wednesday. The main showdown between her and Dodon, who wants to throw out Chisinau’s 2014 EU Association Agreement and join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, could lead to a runoff election. Pre-vote opinion polls indicated around 40 percent supported Dodon, and up to 25 percent supported Sandu. “I am sure Moldova will turn a page in its history today,” Dodon said as he cast his ballot yesterday.
‘Corruption, poverty, theft’
Despite the geopolitical divisions, Sandu, who launched a new party this year called Action and Solidarity, tried to focus her campaign on fighting corruption. “We should not be afraid, we must prove to the thieves and corrupt (officials) that there are more of us,” she said yesterday. “Together we must bring order to Moldova.” EU officials have admitted that Europe has lost much of its appeal in the scandal-weary exSoviet republic as no successful reforms have been seen through, while east-west rhetoric is often used to gloss over deeper issues. — AFP