“This election is important because it will test the sustainability of the EU’s popularity in Moldova, or it could revive the Russian influence.”
Moldova, nestled between Romania and Ukraine in south-east Europe, is heading to the polls this Sunday (February 24).
Who are the key parties?
Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM): The party — led by the controversial oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc — came fourth in Moldova’s last general election but ended up governing by joining with liberals and some former communists. Critics say its claim to be pro-European is not reflected by its actions.
Socialists: The party promotes closer ties with Russia but its unofficial leader, Igor Dodon, also Moldova’s president, has softened this line, according to expert Victoria Bucataru. She says Dodon favours Moldova choosing what is best itself, rather than choosing between the European Union or Russia.
ACUM: This is the pro-EU alliance that brings together Dignity and Truth Platform Party, headed up by Andrei Năstase, and Party of Action and Solidarity, led by Maia Sandu.
Who is leading in the polls?
An opinion poll, released on February 18, had the Socialists leading on 33.8% followed by the Democrat Party on 25.2% and ACUM 21.8%
“It’s practically impossible to say what will happen,” said Bucataru, executive director of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova.
“I think what we have to look for is to see if the elections were free and fair. The Democratic Party practically owns half of the media here. Radio, television and online. They’re using it massively to defame the opposition parties and this from the very beginning is not creating equal opportunities for the candidates.”
Earlier this week, Facebook said it had disrupted attempts to influence voters in Moldova and that the government was involved in some of it.
Facebook said it dismantled scores of pages and accounts designed to look like independent opinion pages and to impersonate a local fact-checking organisation ahead of Moldova's elections later this month.
Authorities in Chisinau denied knowledge, reported Reuters.
Why should the rest of Europe care?
Moldova, like many other former Soviet Union countries, is a battleground for influence between Brussels and Moscow.
“This election is important because it will test the sustainability of the EU’s popularity in Moldova,” said Dionis Cenusa, an expert on Moldova from the University of Giessen. “Or it could revive the Russian influence.”
Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014 but full membership is likely to be on the backburner until the frozen conflict in Transnistria is resolved.
But Bucataru believes the election is less about a Brussels-Moscow battle for influence and more about sorting out the country’s internal problems.
She says the Democratic Party — led by oligarch Plahotniuc who is said to own 70% of the Moldovan media — have captured the state and its institutions.
NGO Transparency International considers Moldova one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.
“Being a country that is more authoritarian than democratic and being a captured state reveals more vulnerabilities for Moldova to be used by third actors in order to do illegal business here,” she said.
“I wouldn’t put so much accent on the involvement of Russia here. The fact is the local political elites are behaving in an undemocratic way and are corrupted and are using the system to serve their personal or party interests.”
What are the key issues for voters?
Bucataru said choosing between Moscow or Brussels used to be the key issue on voters’ minds at election time.
But, now, that has been superseded by concern over jobs and welfare.
“People are really frightened in Moldova. They are threatened to lose their jobs if they don’t vote for a certain political party.
“Maintaining jobs is very important because the standard of living in Moldova is very low in terms of salaries but the prices are very huge, sometimes they can be compared with those in the European Union.
“This is why the threat of losing their jobs is one of the biggest now. When people go to vote they are alone with the bulletin and nobody knows if you will vote for one party or the other. But people are asked to take pictures and to bring them back to their bosses just to show them they have voted for one particular party.”
How will you vote in Moldova's election?
We spoke to voters in the Moldovan capital Chisinau to find who they would choose on Sunday and why.
You can watch them give their responses in the video, above, or read more below:
Anastasia, 23, student: "This year I will not vote, just like the previous years, because I'm afraid that my vote will be rigged and given to a different candidate. I don't want to support anyone because I do not see worthy candidates in my country."
Zhorzheta Gordelean, 78, pensioner: "My husband and I will be voting for the socialist party and for Igor Dodon. If the communists were in power I would have voted for them. I'm very much disappointed with the parliament that we have now."
Anzhela, 50, housewife: "I will be voting for PAS (Action and Solidarity Party) because out of all the parties that exist I think that this is the only party that tells the truth. The media is pouring dirt at them constantly that's why I will vote for them."
Octavian Yatsky, 20, student: "I'll vote for the parties that support European integration because we will have Romanian citizenship and will have more workplaces and people will be able to get proper jobs and not to stay here working for small salaries."
Vitalii Girbea, 35, a construction worker: "I'll vote for Maia Sandu, for the European integration so we can have a better life in our country, so we could join Romania easier."
Violeta, 39, accountant: "I'll vote for the Socialist party. Why? I don't know. There is no particular reason, but I don't trust any other candidates. I got disappointed in the Democratic party, so, for now, we have only the Socialist party to vote for."