- Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova has long been divided over closer ties with Brussels or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow
CHISINAU: Polling stations in Moldova opened Sunday morning with voters eager to choose the new parliament after the previous one was dissolved by new President Maia Sandu to shore up her position against pro-Russia forces.
Sandu, who wants to bring Moldova into the European Union, in November defeated Kremlin-backed incumbent Igor Dodon on a pledge to fight corruption in one of Europe's poorest countries.
Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova has long been divided over closer ties with Brussels or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
With lawmakers loyal to Dodon blocking Sandu's promises of reform, the former World Bank economist dissolved parliament in April and scheduled the snap vote.
Polls opened shortly after 7 am (0400 GMT) and will close at 9 pm.
"We have a chance to get rid of thieves and choose a holistic and good government," Sandu said in a video address Thursday, speaking in Moldova's main language Romanian.
In another speech in Russian -- the ex-Soviet country's second language -- she said: "The time for change is coming in Moldova."
The slogans resonate with many Moldovans, who in recent years have seen their country rocked by political crises, including a $1 billion bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15 percent of the country's GDP.
"She really wants to change the country for the better," Natalia Cadabnuic, a young Chisinau resident, told AFP.
Sandu, who also served briefly as prime minister, has for many Moldovans become "a symbol of change", said Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country's ex-ambassador to the United Nations.
Adding that Moldovans are tired of corrupt politicians, he said Sandu is the first to make it to the top while "maintaining a reputation for being honest".
Twenty parties and two electoral blocs are running in Sunday's elections.
They must cross the threshold set at five percent and seven percent of the votes respectively to obtain seats in the unicameral assembly.
The 101 lawmakers will be elected for four-year terms.
Going into the vote, Sandu's centre-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) party was leading.
The latest polls showed PAS with 35-37 percent of the vote against 21-27 percent for the party's rivals from the coalition of socialists and communists led by Dodon and former President Vladimir Voronin.
Analysts say the diaspora, which is more than a third of Moldova's eligible voters and already threw its support behind Sandu during the presidential polls, could hold the key to the outcome.
According to estimates, the diaspora could bring Sandu's party another 10-15 percentage points.
Analysts say the election will likely be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence.
"The majority will be pro-European, and the influence of Russia will weaken," Sergiy Gerasymchuk, a Kiev-based expert on Moldovan politics, said.
Sandu has already irritated the Kremlin by proposing to remove the Russian military garrison based in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway state straddling the country's eastern frontier with Ukraine.
Pro-Russia Dodon accused authorities Friday of preparing "provocations" and urged his supporters to be ready to protest to "defend" his bloc's victory.