CHISINAU, Moldova -- Moldovans began voting Sunday for a president in an election that could move the former Soviet republic closer to Europe or push it back into Russia's orbit.

It is the first time in 20 years citizens have directly voted for their president in a country where many are angry about high-level corruption.

Both the European Union together with the US and Russia seek to have more influence over the impoverished agricultural landlocked nation of 3.5 million, located between EU member Romania and Ukraine.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. and close at 9 p.m., with first results expected two hours later. After two hours of voting, some five percent of the electorate had cast ballots.

The favorite of the nine candidates running for the post is Igor Dodon, a pro-Moscow figure who heads the Socialists' Party and who has tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with the pro-European government.

Ex-World Bank economist Maia Sandu is the preferred option for those who want Moldova to join the European mainstream. If no candidate wins a majority, there will be a runoff on November 13.

The president appoints judges and sets out foreign policy but other major decisions need the approval of Parliament. The popular election, however, could bring the post more influence and authority.

Moldova was thrown into political turmoil in 2014 with the disappearance of more than $1 billion from the banking system. Weeks of street protests followed and six prime ministers took office in one year.

Since then, Parliament has passed anti-corruption laws, forcing public officials to disclose their assets and making the misuse of EU funds a criminal offense. (AP)