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Moldovans protest after court voids mayoral election result

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldovans are staging daily protests in the capital Chisinau to demand the reversal of a court ruling invalidating the election of a pro-European candidate in the city’s mayoral race.

FILE PHOTO: Moldova's media tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc attends an interview with Reuters at his office in Chisinau, Moldova, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Matthias Williams/File Photo

The June 19 ruling has drawn a sharp rebuke from the United States and the European Union.

It also spells more political turmoil for a country that plunged into crisis following a $1 billion banking fraud in 2015, enduring successive government collapses and frequent conflict between the president and the government.

Graft scandals in the ex-Soviet country have dragged down confidence in Moldova’s pro-Western political forces and lifted support for politicians backed by Moscow. Having elected a pro-Russian president in 2016, Moldovans go to the polls for parliamentary elections in November.

On Tuesday, a court ruled that Andrei Nastase’s electoral win in the June 3 vote was illegitimate, citing unspecified violations. Hundreds of citizens have since taken to the streets to protest.

Nastase, who has led a movement demanding greater transparency since the banking fraud in 2015, said the court decision was made at the behest of the head of Moldova’s ruling party, businessman Vlad Plahotniuc.

“His candidate suffered a crushing defeat. Now he wants to steal our votes and annul the election by means of an obedient court,” Nastase said at a protest on Wednesday evening.

A court will consider his appeal against the ruling later on Thursday. Nastase, a former prosecutor, won 52.5 percent of the votes, defeating pro-Russian candidate Ion Ceban, and supporters vow to protest every evening until his victory is recognized.

The press office of the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM) did not respond to a request for comment from its president Plahotniuc.

DPM founder Dumitru Diacov dismissed Nastase’s comments: “What Nastase is saying sounds terrible and does not deserve to be commented on,” he said in parliament.

Many in Moldova say Plahotniuc’s influence over the government, police and media makes him the most powerful man in the country of 3.5 million people. Plahotniuc has previously said negative perceptions about him were down to lies spread by his opponents after he entered politics.

On Wednesday evening, protesters gathered outside the mayor’s office, chanting: “We will not surrender” and “Honest elections above all.”

The U.S. embassy in Chisinau expressed its surprise and concern over the court’s decision.

The “unexpected and nontransparent invalidation of the popular election for Chisinau mayor, which yielded a clear victor, is a troubling development that is even now eroding Moldovan citizen’s confidence in the democratic process,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Matthias Williams, William Maclean