Moldova's pro-European government coalition was neck-and-neck with opposition Communists today (29 November) when votes were counted from a parliamentary election crucial for the pace of reform in one of Europe's poorest countries.
With almost a third of votes counted, three liberal parties of Prime Minister Vlad Filat's ruling Alliance for European Integration were slightly ahead with 47% against the Communists on 44%.
But the picture could change and commentators said it was still too soon to say whether the Alliance would be able to muster a large enough slice of the vote to be able break a protracted political stalemate.
Moldovans faced a choice of staying with the pro-Europe course of their liberal rulers or backing closer ties with Russia by voting for the Communists who lost power in July 2009.
The Alliance is looking for a decisive victory over the Communists to end an impasse that has prevented the election of a full-time president and paralysed reform in the tiny former Soviet republic.
The four-party coalition has sought in the past 15 months to nudge Moldova closer to the European mainstream after eight years of communist rule.
A powerful communist opposition has consistently stymied the Alliance's efforts to exert full control by blocking efforts to elect a full-time president who is chosen by parliament.
This in turn has kept Moldova, a European Union aspirant, from reforms which the EU says are needed to join the bloc.
Election of president
A total of 61 votes is needed in Moldova's 101-seat assembly for a president to be elected, but it was still not clear from the partial count so far how many seats the respective parties would secure. A fuller picture was expected later on Monday.
One common thread in early results was that Filat had performed strongly, way ahead of others in the Alliance.
The parties of Marian Lupu, the Alliance's candidate for president, and that of acting President Mihai Ghimpu had also passed the 4% barrier for a place in parliament. The fourth Alliance partner, 'Our Moldova', did not clear the hurdle.
A poor performance by the Communists, who received 45% of the vote in July 2009 and are traditionally the biggest single party, would be a huge setback for leader Vladimir Voronin, who has served twice as president.
His call for a boycott led to the failure in September of a referendum called by the Alliance to find a way of electing a president by a direct vote and this seemed to indicate the popularity of the Communists was on the rise.
Support for Alliance parties is strongest in the cities, but nostalgia for Soviet times has worked in the past to the advantage of the Communists in rural areas.
Russia and EU member Romania have long vied for influence in Moldova, a tiny state of 4.1 million people. Moldova is situated between Romania, with which it shares a language, and Ukraine.
Romania and other EU states largely back the Alliance's reform path. Russia is likely to be hoping for the emergence of a centre-left coalition to end a decline in relations since the Alliance came to power.
Moldova relies exclusively on Russia for gas supplies, but it fell foul of Moscow when Ghimpu, a strong critic of Russia, fixed a "Day of Soviet Occupation" in the political calendar.
Russia responded with restrictions on imports of Moldovan food, including wines which are Moldova's main export earner.
A Communist victory in an election in April 2009 led to big street protests in Chisinau, in which young people ransacked the president's office and parliament building. The Communists lost to the Alliance parties in a snap election in July that year.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)