In the first round vote earlier this month, the pro-European Maia Sandu – a 48-year-old center-right politician – won a surprise victory.

Moldova will take part in the second round of a highly competitive presidential election on Sunday, in which a pro-European challenger competes against the country’s Moscow-backed incumbent.

The tiny ex-Soviet nation is voting under the watchful eye of Russia, which wants polarized Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence as political unrest rattles multiple Kremlin-aligned governments.

In the first round vote earlier this month, the pro-European Maia Sandu – a 48-year-old center-right politician – won a surprise victory.

Opinion polls put the rivals on par before the election campaign [Sergei Gapon/AFP]Sandu, who worked for the World Bank and served briefly as prime minister, won more than 36 percent of the vote against the 33 percent of pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon.

Dodon was surprised by the election setback and at a rally on Friday urged his supporters to stand for the vote and take to the streets after the vote on Sunday to “protect our victory”.

The Kremlin-backed candidate, who is reportedly backed by Russian advisors, has stepped up rhetoric against Sandu, saying his opponents have crossed the red lines.

“If we show weakness we will lose our country,” said Dodon at the rally on Friday.

Sandu, leader of the Party for Action and Solidarity, has promised to wage a fight against endemic corruption in the country which, between Ukraine and EU member Romania, comprises around 3.5 million people.

Moldova has been rocked by multiple political crises and a $ 1 billion bank fraud program, equivalent to nearly 15 percent of the country’s annual production.

“Time to live better”

“Moldova can be a good country, a state without corruption. A state where thieves are punished. And decent people have good jobs, wages and pensions. A country where children grow up with their parents, ”said Sandu recently in a post on Instagram.

The appeal is resonating in one of the poorest countries in Europe, where an estimated 40 percent of Moldovan citizens have traveled abroad to work.

Polls released in the run-up to the vote on Sunday showed the two candidates were in a close race for the diaspora to decide.

“We’re one big family that is scattered around the world,” said Sandu. “It’s time to live better wherever we are.”

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was “happy” with Sandu’s win in the first round.

In light of the numerous protest movements against its allies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan this year, Russia will closely monitor the vote on Sunday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last month called on Moldovans to cast their votes for Dodon, pointing out strong economic ties between the countries.

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), recently claimed that Washington induced the Moldovan opposition to take to the streets after the vote to denounce its validity and demand a rerun.

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