Moldova goes to the polls: Pro-EU parties square off against pro-Russian socialists

Moldova goes to the polls: Pro-EU parties square off against pro-Russian socialists
Moldova’s Socialist party is leading in the Sunday poll with 21 percent of the votes, followed by the rival Liberal Democrats with 19 percent, preliminary results say. Liberal parties pushing for integration with the EU are expected to form a bloc.

With 86 percent of the votes counted, the pro-Russian Communist party has moved down to third place, with 17 percent, and the pro-EU Democrats have garnered 15 percent of the votes, the country’s Election Commission has announced.

While the ruling bloc has been pushing for an EU-bound future for Moldova, Socialists have been outspoken supporters of joining the Eurasian Customs Union bloc, led by Russia.

The country’s election campaign, labeled in the media as a fight between “pro-Russian” and “pro-EU” parties, has been marred by scandals and accusations of outside meddling.

The poll was declared valid, with a final turnout of more than 51 percent, of the 3,3 million electorate.

The vote had been conducted in the shadow of events in neighboring Ukraine, with the governing center-right parties promising EU membership by 2020.

“We are voting for a prosperous future for our elders and children, for freedom and for rights,” said prominent pro-Western politician Mihai Ghimpu as he cast his ballot in central Chisinau.

This June, Chisinau concluded a free trade agreement with the European Union, similar to that signed by Kiev, which has been ratified by both sides. Moscow has reacted to the implied snub by banning agricultural imports from Moldova, with which is does not share a border. On the eve of the elections, pro-European former president Vlad Filat accused the Kremlin of “trying to destabilize the situation in the country” and force “post-Apocalyptic scenarios like the annexation of Crimea.”

Vlad Filat.(Reuters / Fredrik Sandberg)

READ MORE: EU Parliament gives nod to Moldova trade agreement

In contrast, left-wing opposition parties say that opening the economy to the West will wreak havoc upon Moldova, which lacks the natural resources that have softened the post-Soviet transition elsewhere. Instead, communists and socialists have argued for closer ties with Moscow, and used Soviet-era images to hark back to a time of supposed stability and prosperity. The opposition parties have also dangled the prospect of reunification with the breakaway Transnistria, a Russian-speaking sliver of land in the east of the country, which did not go to the polls on Sunday.

People walk near a pre-election poster for the Party of Socialists, with a picture of party members meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Chisinau November 29, 2014. (Reuters / Gleb Garanich )

“We can create new workplaces in the country only if we enter the Russian market, and Transnistria will return to us, but only return to us, if we become members of the Eurasian customs union,” said Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon on the eve of the elections, referring to the free trade zone created by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

While the battle lines between the political parties fighting for seats in parliament – which also elects the prime minister – are ideological, the campaign has been rife with petty mud-slinging and alarming controversies.

Just two days before the vote, the electoral commission disqualified Patria – a party led by Renato Usatii, a pro-Moscow politician – for receiving nearly $500,000 in donations from outside the country. The Russia-based Usatii, a virtual unknown only two months ago, rose to prominence by staging a series of concerts by prominent Russian pop stars. Usatii, whose party was predicted to obtain up to 15 percent of the vote – enough to give him the decisive role in forming a coalition – promptly fled to Moscow before he could be arrested. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has condemned Usatii’s prosecution as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, only five polling stations have been opened in Russia, where at least 700,000 – and perhaps as many as one million – Moldovans currently work. Contrastingly, 25 polling stations were set up in Italy, where 150,000 of the presumably more pro-European voters currently reside. There were queues stretching for hundreds of yards outside the Moldovan embassy in Moscow throughout Sunday, with local television reporting that voters were chanting “Together with Russia!”

Officials said that only 5,000 of the foreign-based voters had participated in the election by early evening.

The fact that more than 600,000 Moldovan citizens currently in Russia were not able to take part in the election could have had an impact on the results, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RIA Novosti.

“Of course, it could have affected the results of the vote, but let's wait for the outcome. I hope the results will be published tomorrow night,” he said.

Moldovan communists have also accused the incumbent parties of using “voter carousels” – groups of paid voters being bussed to various polling stations to cast multiple ballots – though the electoral commission has not confirmed the violations.

To top the sense of fragility surrounding the elections, the electronic voter register – which was being used in the country for the first time – went down for several hours during the vote, and continued to exhibit “localized” problems throughout Sunday.

The first results about which parties passed the six percent threshold for the 101-seat assembly will be available in the early hours of Monday.