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Moldovans vote in presidential elections amid political turmoil

Moldova has held its first election for president in 20 years. The vote has pit pro-Moscow candidates against those advocating closer ties with the EU.

Polls in the former Soviet republic of Moldova closed on Sunday night as voters took part in the first popular presidential election held in the impoverished country since 1996.

The renewed direct election comes after the country's constitutional court this year yielded to popular pressure and gave the vote back to the people, following two decades in which the parliament had decided on who to appoint to the top office.

Sunday's vote has been preceded with a string of high-profile corruption scandals. Among other things, the unexplained disappearance of $1 billion (915 million euros), about an eighth of the country's GDP, from local banks over the past years has weakened people's trust in the ruling pro-Western coalition, triggering protests and political turmoil.

The poll is being seen as a vote on the country's political course, with the nine presidential candidates putting forward radically different scenarios for Moldova's future. Some are calling for a deeper partnership with the former Soviet ruler, Moscow, while others advocate a move toward Europe, a position also held by the current government.

Pro-Russian socialist Igor Dodon is the apparent favorite according to opinion polls, but observers predict that the election will see a close race between him and pro-EU liberal Maia Sandu from the center-right opposition. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, there should be a run-off election.

Torn between two poles

The central election commission in Moldova said the poll will be monitored by more than 3,200 local observers and 562 international ones.

Moldova, which has a population of just 3.5 million, is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with 41 percent of people living on less than $5 a day, according to World Bank figures.

Russia has traditionally been an important market for Moldovan agricultural products, and Moldova's economy has also received a considerable boost from remittances from its citizens who work there. Moscow's role has, however, been weakened somewhat by Russia's own recession.

Support for the EU, in its turn, has been undermined by the failure of recent pro-Western governments to bring the faltering economy under control. The suspension of EU aid following the banking scandal has further detracted from the popularity of the bloc.

Polls are to close at 9:00 pm local time (1900 UTC), with first results expected later in the evening.

rs, tj/jlw (AFP, dpa)

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