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Moldova election: Could pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu oust Putin's pick Igor Dodon on Sunday?

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Challenger Maia Sandu and incumbent president of Moldova, Igor Dodon
Challenger Maia Sandu and incumbent president of Moldova, Igor Dodon   -   Copyright  Roveliu Buga/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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The people of Moldova returned to the polls on Sunday to decide whether President Igor Dodon will get to stay in the presidential palace in Chisinau for the next four years - or whether he will have to hand over the keys to his rival and political nemesis, former prime minister Maia Sandu.

The counting of votes begins at 10 pm CET with the result expected to be announced on Monday, although exit polls may suggest a winner earlier.

The two candidates advanced to the second round on November 1 paving the way for a re-run of the 2016 election in Moldova, when Dodon beat Sandu by just 70,000 votes. But Sandu took a slim lead over Dodon a fortnight ago, winning 35.77% to his 32.87%.

Dodon blamed the diaspora for his loss to Sandu in the first round, arguing that between 1.2m and two million Moldovans living outside of the country are a “parallel electorate”. Diaspora Moldovans voted overwhelmingly for Sandu on November 1.

But rather than make a final pitch for votes ahead of the second round, Dodon said he had no reason to apologise, pointing out that diaspora Moldovans voted for Sandu in 2016 and he won.

Sandu’s slim lead was unexpected, with most analysts expecting her to suffer because of the number of pro-European candidates running, but other than Renato Usatîi - who came in third place with 17% of the vote - no other candidate got more than 7%.

Usatîi, the pro-Russian, populist mayor of Bălți, was a major competitor to Dodon and in the days since the election has thrown his weight behind Sandu. It remains to be seen who his voters will opt for in the second round.

Europe vs Russia

Outside of Moldova, the election has been interpreted as a referendum on the country’s direction, with Dodon representing closer links with Russia and Sandu with the EU. In recent days, Vladimir Putin endorsed Dodon, who has visited Russia dozens of times since 2016.

But in Moldova - and in the diaspora - the major election issues have been economic rather than geopolitical. Like the rest of Europe, the country has been battered by the coronavirus and the restrictions imposed to prevent its spread have dealt a heavy blow to its economy.

A poll on 9 November by CBS Research, and cited in Smartlink Communication’s latest Moldova report, revealed that 33% of voters intended to vote for Sandu, with 31.1% for Dodon. A further 15.6% said they had not decided and 20% refused to answer.

Close, but not that close, said Radu Magdin, a political analyst: “Sandu is likely heading for a victory,” he added.

The candidates are unlikely to meet to debate prior to the election. Dodon has claimed that Sandu has refused to debate him because she is afraid, while Sandu said she would not engage with the Moldovan president because he was not really interested in debating her.

Transnistria

There is certainly no love lost between the two candidates. Dodon triumphed over Sandu by just 70,000 votes in 2016 amid allegations that voters were transported from the breakaway region of Transnistria to vote for him.

Transnistria, which declared its independence from Moldova in 1992 and fought a war with the country in 1994, is heavily subsidised by Moscow, which has thousands of peacekeepers in the country. Around 350,000 of its residents have Moldovan citizenship and can vote in Moldova.

In 2016 and in parliamentary elections in 2019, tens of thousands of voters were transported across the Dniester River - which separates Moldova from Transnistria - to vote for pro-Moscow parties.

Both sides have raised the spectre of foreign interference in Moldova’s poll, with Sandu warning on a repeat of voter fraud and Dodon warning that western governments were looking to destabilise the country and support protests such as in Belarus.

Putin did more than endorse Dodon, he warned that Russia would not tolerate any attempt to interfere in Moldova’s election. Speaking about Belarus, where protests continue against the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, he said: “Belarusians must alone, in peace solve their problems. [...] The same applies to the internal political struggle in Moldova.”

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