CHISINAU, Moldova — Moldovans returned to the polls Sunday for a presidential runoff, facing a stark choice between the staunchly pro-Russian incumbent and his popular challenger, a pro-Western former World Bank economist.
The challenger, former Prime Minister Maia Sandu, beat the odds to win the first round on Nov. 1, which narrowed the field from eight to two candidates. Sandu won over 36% of the vote, leaving the incumbent, President Igor Dodon, behind by over 3.5 points.
The election is perceived as a referendum on two divergent visions for the future of the small Eastern European nation sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania.
Dodon, who Russian President Vladimir Putin has identified as his preferred candidate, and Sandu have been rivals since he narrowly defeated her in the 2016 presidential race.
Ever since gaining independence in 1992 after the Soviet collapse in 1991, Moldova has been divided between those favoring closer relations with the European Union and those who prefer stronger links with Moscow.
In 2014, while run by a pro-European coalition, the country of 3.5 million people signed a deal on closer political and economic ties with the EU, now a bloc of 27 nations. However, Brussels has since been increasingly critical of Moldova's progress on reforms.
Sandu, a former World Bank economist, promised during the campaign to secure more financial support from Brussels if she becomes president.