Moldovan President Maia Sandu pledged an "end to the rule of thieves" Sunday as her pro-European party looked set to win snap parliamentary elections she called to shore up her position against pro-Russia forces.
Sandu's centre-right Action and Solidarity (PAS) party was leading with more than 47 percent of the vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted as of 11:45 pm (20:45 GMT), according to the electoral commission.
"I hope that today will be the end of a difficult era for Moldova. I hope that today will be an end to the rule of thieves over Moldova," she said in a statement on Facebook.
With ballots still being counted, Sandu's supporters were celebrating at her campaign headquarters in the capital Chisinau, an AFP correspondent saw.
"There is no more intrigue. Sandu's party will get the majority," Alexei Tulbure, a political analyst and the country's former ambassador to the United Nations, told AFP.
The PAS's main rivals from the coalition of socialists and Communists, led by former Kremlin-backed president Igor Dodon and former president Vladimir Voronin, picked up about 31 percent of the votes.
Casting her ballot in Chisinau, Sandu said she had voted for change in the small ex-Soviet country beset by poverty and corruption.
"I voted for an honest parliament to work with, for a parliament that will appoint honest people, competent people," Sandu told journalists after voting.
Her predecessor Dodon, whom she defeated last year, warned against voting for those who will "hand over the country to external control" as he cast his ballot.
Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, the country of about 2.6 million has long been divided over closer ties with the European Union or maintaining Soviet-era relations with Moscow.
With lawmakers loyal to 46-year-old Dodon blocking Sandu's promises of reform after her election win in November, she dissolved parliament in April and scheduled the snap vote.
- 'Beautiful future' -
The 49-year-old former World Bank economist's promises of honesty and competence resonated with many Moldovans, who in recent years have seen their nation rocked by political crises and corruption scandals.
"Maybe we will have a parliament that will think about our Moldova. For the sake of our children, for a beautiful future," Ana Olari, a 40-year-old confectioner, told AFP.
Sandu, who also served briefly as prime minister, has for many Moldovans become "a symbol of change", Tulbure said.
More than 48 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the election. That represented a higher turnout than the first round of the presidential vote but lower than in the second round-run off at 53 percent.
At polling stations, voters had to wear masks and have their temperature taken in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Twenty parties and two electoral blocs ran in the election.
They must cross thresholds set at five percent and seven percent of the votes respectively to obtain seats in the unicameral assembly, where 101 lawmakers are elected for four-year terms.
The diaspora -- which accounts for more than a third of Moldova's eligible voters and widely backed Sandu during the presidential election -- cast more than 200,000 votes compared to the record figure of 262,000 in the second round of the presidential election.
With 30 percent of its votes tallied, the PAS had picked up 76 percent of the diaspora ballots to 9 percent for the Communists and socialists.
- Irritating the Kremlin -
Observers say a win for Sandu's party will likely be a blow to Russia, which wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence.
But "even with a parliamentary majority, it will not be easy to carry out her grandiose plans for in-depth change," independent analyst Victor Ciobanu said.
"There will be severe opposition" from the pro-Russian side, he added.
Dodon told journalists Sunday evening that he would "decide whether to protest the election results" after all electoral violations were analysed, with Moldovan police saying they had received 242 such reports.