Three months after accusations of government vote-rigging touched off street violence, Moldovans began voting on Wednesday in parliamentary elections that could shift the former Soviet republic’s focus away from Russia and toward the European Union.
Polls suggested the ruling Communist Party was leading with about 31 percent, but analysts said four pro-European parties could win a combined 33 percent and form an alliance to elect the impoverished country’s next president and move the country toward the West.
Moldova has been in political paralysis since April 5 parliamentary elections sparked violent protests, with the opposition claiming the balloting was rigged.
At least three people were killed and hundreds of others arrested after protesters stormed parliament and the offices of President Vladimir Voronin.
The Communist Party, led by Voronin, who has been president since 2001, took the most votes in April’s election but failed to win enough parliamentary seats to elect a successor.
After the April protests, opposition parties boycotted the vote in parliament for a new leader.
Twice, lawmakers failed to vote in a president.
That led to parliament being dissolved, which in turn triggered the latest elections.
Voronin – a former baker known for keeping a bust of Lenin on his desk and a painting of the former Soviet leader on the wall – is not eligible to run again.
He has served two consecutive four-year terms as president, the maximum allowed under the constitution, though he is still expected to retain influence in parliament.
Voronin cast his ballot on Wednesday in the capital, Chisinau.
When asked if he expected the April events would have an impact on the elections, the outgoing president said he did not believe that “this type of act of vandalism has really had any great impact on the psychology or conscience of the majority of citizens of my country”.
Although few expect a repeat of April’s violence – in part because a harsh crackdown has intimidated many opposition supporters – tensions were running high ahead of the nationwide vote.
Early on Wednesday, unknown people were stopping voters casting their ballot in the village of Corjova which is located in a separatist region, although the mayor is loyal to the government in Chisinau, the Central Electoral Committee said.
In an effort to discourage any attempts at vote fraud, more than three thousand international and Moldovan observers were monitoring the elections.
Support for Communists, in power since 2001, has been falling in recent months – partly because of the ferocity of the government’s crackdown in April, but also because of the fresh misery inflicted by the global economic crisis.
The world economic downturn has exacted a heavy toll on Moldova, where the average monthly wage is only US$350 dollars.
The International Monetary Fund has warned that Moldova’s gross domestic product will tumble by nine percent this year.
And 20 percent of its 4.1 million people say they are poorer now than they were in March, just before the last elections, according to a survey by the Institute for Public Politics.
Although there has been some economic growth during the Communist Party’s eight years in power, progress toward full democracy has been slow.
There has been international criticism about the lack of press freedom and critics say some arrests are politically motivated.
Voronin has been campaigning on fears that the centre-right opposition might want to reunite the nation with neighbouring Romania.
Moldova was part of Romania until 1940.
Almost four in five Moldovans are ethnic Romanians and thousands have Romanian passports.
The opposition wants to move Moldova closer to the European Union and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
Moldova is part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, but the Communists oppose full membership in the Western military alliance.
Romania, an EU member, is Moldova’s top advocate in the EU and NATO.
Still, Russian influence remains strong in Moldova.
The country was part of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in 1991 and last year Russia was Moldova’s No 2 trading partner after Romania.
In addition to the official language Moldovan, many Moldovans speak both Romanian and Russian fluently.