By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) -Backers of Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s drive to join the European mainstream expressed confidence as counting was underway in local elections after a campaign in which she accused Moscow of meddling in the poll.
The candidate from Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) appeared well placed to take on the incumbent in a run-off in the capital Chisinau, and Sandu’s allies were buoyant about the party’s overall chances. A pro-Russian party was barred from the race two days before the vote.
This is the last national vote before presidential elections in November 2024, as the ex-Soviet state tries to advance its bid to join the European Union and leave Russia’s orbit.
Sandu has denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and accused Moscow of plotting to oust her in a coup. This week, she accused Russia of “buying” voters by funnelling $5 million over two months to “criminal groups” led by fugitive businessman Ilan Shor.
The election to pick 12,000 officials pits dozens of parties against each other, including Sandu’s ruling PAS and the pro-Russian Revival party linked to Shor, who has been convicted in absentia for fraud.
On Friday, the Chance party, also associated with Shor, was barred from the vote on security grounds. Disqualified Chance candidates urged voters to back candidates deemed independents.
Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban was leading PAS candidate Lilian Carp, but could fall short of the 50% needed for outright vitory. Ceban, who used to hold a pro-Russian position, set up a pro-European party in 2022, though PAS still regards him as a potential Moscow ally.
“The PAS candidate showed in this election that Chisinau needs a pro-European mayor,” parliament Speaker Igor Grossu said at PAS headquarters.
Moldova’s second city, Balti, was likely to be won by the another opposition party linked to Shor but allowed to run. PAS activists were hopeful the party would reach its goal of having pro-European administrations in 15 of Moldova’s 31 districts.
Election officials put the turnout at 41.41%, exceeding the 25% mininum and meaning most races should be declared valid.
Sandu voted in central Chisinau after queuing patiently outside a polling station and then defended the ban on the party linked to Shor, imposed two days before the vote.
“Everyone must abide by the law on party financing and legislation on national security,” she told reporters.
“No one is above the law, not even those with billions of (Moldovan) lei, whether it comes from Russia or elsewhere and is used to distort the election and its outcome.”
The Chance party filed a complaint on voting day against the bar on its participation.
The election is important test of Sandu’s course – particularly in smaller towns and villages – after her landslide victory in 2020.
Responding to Sandu’s comments last week, Russia’s foreign ministry called the Moldovan president a “disgrace” and said she was trying to distract attention from her government’s failings.
The national security service has accused Shor of helping funnel 1 billion Moldovan lei ($55.60 million) into Moldova to stage anti-government protests during the war in Ukraine and to “buy” voters.
Shor said he was sending the money to help pensioners, finance social infrastructure projects and some politicians. He denied the funds were linked to Russia.
Shor was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in April for his role in a $1 billion bank corruption scandal. A party bearing his name was banned by the Constitutional Court in June and the Chance Party was set up to circumvent the ruling.
($1 = 17.9850 Moldovan lei)
(Writing by Yuliia Dysa and Tom Balmforth and Ron Popeski; Editing by Ros Russell and Richard Chang)