_ A pro-reform party seeking closer ties for Moldova with the European Union appeared to be heading to a clear majority in Sunday's snap parliamentary elections, according to early results.
The election was called by President Maia Sandu, who sought to gain a parliament made up of pro-EU reformists in the former Soviet republic.
Voter turnout in the nation of 3.5 million people _ Europe's poorest country, landlocked between Ukraine and Romania _ was just over 48%.
Sandu, a former prime minister who used to lead the pro-reform Party of Action and Solidarity, or PAS, promised to clean up corruption, fight poverty and strengthen relations with the EU.
``I hope today will be the end of a hard era for Moldova,'' Sandu, a former World Bank official, wrote online after polls closed. ``I hope today will be the end of the thieves' reign over Moldova ... People must soon feel the benefits of a clean parliament and a government that actually concerns population problems.''
Moldova signed a deal in 2014 with the EU on forging closer ties, but high levels of corruption and lack of reform have stunted development in the country, which ranked 115th out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2020 Corruption Perception Index.
In last year's presidential election, Sandu beat Moscow-friendly incumbent Igor Dodon, the current leader of the Socialists, who campaigned on high social spending, traditional family values and a distrust of closer ties with the West.
Dodon said Sunday's vote could decide ``whether there will be peace and order in the country or permanent conflict and chaos.''
Dionis Cenusa, an analyst at the Chisinau-based think tank Expert Group, told The Associated Press that a parliamentary majority for PAS would mean ``critical anti-corruption (efforts) can be implemented without resistance from parliament or the executive.''
``This will also mean that dialogue with the EU and other Western partners will increase their assistance for the internal reforms in the country,'' he said.
Voters chose between more than 20 parties, but the early results suggested that only three had won enough support to enter the country's 101-seat legislature. Votes for parties that don't meet the parliamentary threshold will be distributed among the parties that did.
The election was called in April by Sandu after the country's Constitutional Court abolished a state of emergency that was introduced to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
For Ilinca Mazureac, a third-year biology student at Harvard University, a PAS victory would mean ``hope after so many disappointments in the previous elections.''
``With a clear pro-European majority in the parliament and a very skilled president, I am very optimistic about the future of my country,'' she told AP. ``I hope that the new majority will start by tackling corruption in the justice system so that people can finally regain trust in the authorities..''
Vadim Pistrinciuc, executive director of Chisinau-based Institute for Strategic Initiatives, and a former lawmaker, told AP that a PAS win would mean ``immediately a much better relationship with the EU.''
Radu Magdin, an analyst at Smartlink Communications, said that ``with great power and great expectations, comes great responsibility.''
``PAS got, in the year when Moldova turns 30 (since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991), the highest score for a pro-EU party ever,`` he said.
``Swift and decisive action in the health, economy, and judicial fields is key.''