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.)
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief and Štefan Füle, EU commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, said in a statement that Moldova had gone further down the path to strengthening its democracy following the elections.
"We welcome the conduct [of the elections], which met most international standards for democratic elections, and congratulate the citizens of the Republic of Moldova on the high level of turnout," they said.
"The Republic of Moldova has made significant efforts during the past year to strengthen democracy and implement structural reforms. We note that these elections have taken the country further on this path and give an opportunity to consolidate political stability."
Calling for an open and constructive dialogue in order to form a governing coalition and elect the president of Moldova, the pair said that the EU was committed to "deepening its relations with the Republic of Moldova and supporting it in implementing an ambitious reform and EU approximation agenda."
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek welcomed the poll as a sign of "strengthened democracy" in Moldova, but warned that elections were "only one of the crucially important steps" the country would have to follow.
"Elections are only one of the crucial steps that build a viable democratic process. At this point in time politicians of all parties gaining a parliamentary seat will have to unite their efforts and take full responsibility for the post-electoral process in order for everything to run smoothly," he said.
"I trust that Moldova will stay on the path of democratic reforms for the benefit of its citizens and to get closer to the European Union," he added.
The European Parliament enjoys an enhanced role in external relations, provided for by the Lisbon Treaty.
Lithuanian European People's Party (EPP) MEP Laima Andrikien?, chair of the European Parliament's election observation delegation, said the elections had been "truly democratic" and small parties in particular were able to benefit from the reformed system of distributing mandates.
"Compared to recent elections in other countries in the EU Eastern Neighbourhood, the Republic of Moldova continues to be a flagship of the Eastern Partnership of the EU," she said.
"It is now evident that the amendment to the electoral codes was not an obstacle to conducting free and fair elections," she added.
Romanian EPP MEP Monica Macovei, chairwoman of the Parliament's delegation to the EU-Moldova parliamentary cooperation committee, said that a "clear improvement of the election process" had taken place since previous polls.
"The election result reflects the will of the people. When there are three elections in 18 months, as has happened here, it can be perceived as politics in crisis as opposed to politics as usual," she commented.
Romanian EPP MEP Elena B?sescu noted that a large number of voters had participated from abroad, thanks to the elections "meeting European standards".
"The participation of a large number of international observers shows the interest of the international community in the democratic developments in Moldova, eliminating any suspicion of fraud […] the European Parliament's support will be crucial for the new Association Agreement to be concluded with the Republic of Moldova," she added.
Moldova is a former Soviet republic, and was part of Romania before being annexed by the Soviet Union in World War II. It is landlocked between Romania and Ukraine. Moldovans speak Romanian, although the country's constitution calls it the 'Moldovan language'. Russian is also widely spoken.
The president of Moldova is elected by a three-fifths majority of the vote in parliament. The Communist Party elected their fellow member Vladimir Voronin in 2001, and he was re-elected in 2005. Having completed two terms, he stepped down.
Elections held in April 2009 were marred by violence and fraud. The poll gave the ruling communists control of 60 seats in the parliament, just one short of electing their candidate as president. After successive votes in the 101-seat parliament failed to elect a president, early elections were called, held on 29 July 2009. The pro-European opposition, consisting of the Liberal Democratic party, the Liberal party, the Democratic party and 'Our Moldova', won a combined majority of 53 seats.
On 8 August 2009, the pro-European parties agreed to create a government coalition, called the Alliance for European Integration, they elected Liberal party leader Mihai Ghimpu as parliamentary speaker, in a vote boycotted by the communists.
On 11 September 2009, Voronin announced his resignation. Mihai Ghimpu took over as acting president pending early elections next year.
A referendum to decide whether to elect the president by popular vote flopped last September due to a low turnout. This was seen as a blow for the ruling West-leaning Alliance for European Integration. Early parliamentary elections on 28 November were held in the hope of finding a way out of the political deadlock.