CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova’s pro-Moscow Socialist Party, which seeks to reverse a policy of integrating with mainstream Europe and join a Russia-led economic bloc instead, had a surprise lead after a partial vote count in an election in the ex-Soviet state on Sunday.
With 36 percent of the vote counted, election authorities said the socialists had 22 percent of the vote with the communists in second place and the three main pro-Europe parties trailing behind.
The strong performance by the socialists starkly highlighted the division in one of Europe’s smallest and poorest countries over whether to stick to the pro-Europe path pursued for the past five years or move back into Russia’s orbit.
Under a three-party center-right coalition in power since 2009, the landlocked ex-Soviet republic has signed and ratified a far-reaching political and trade deal with the European Union that has earned its 3.5 million people visa-free travel to Western Europe.
The strong vote on Sunday for the socialists, whose leader Igor Dodon is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, reflected a deep-seated reluctance among many to cut themselves off from a close, historic relationship with Russia, Moldova’s main supplier of energy - and also a fear of the consequences.
Moldova’s breakaway pro-Russian enclave of Transdniestria gives Russia a potential springboard, though Moscow has so far shown no readiness to intervene as it has done in Moldova’s neighbor Ukraine, which has also pursued a pro-Europe agenda.
But it has shown its displeasure by banning imports of wines, vegetables and meat hurting an economy which relies heavily on agricultural exports and needs cash inflows from thousands of Moldovans working abroad to balance its books.
According to figures from the partial count, the communists had 19 percent of the votes with the three center-right coalition parties, including the Liberal Democratic party of Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, with a combined vote of around 40 percent.
The center-right coalition partners appeared to have suffered from their poor record in fighting corruption and by infighting among their leaders, which benefited the opposition.
Election authorities said the full picture would only emerge later in the morning on Monday after the vote had been counted in the capital itself.
These figures suggest that no single party will have enough votes in the 101-seat parliament to form a government. If the trend shown in the partial count proves to be the final picture, the country is set for a spell of heavy horse-trading over forming a coalition.
The communists say they want to carry out a revision of the trade part of the EU agreement so as to better protect domestic food producers from EU competition and have said they want better ties with Moscow, but they do not oppose European integration as such.
Their leader, two-time president Vladimir Voronin, has also ruled out doing any deals with the socialists whose leaders he personally dislikes because they defected from communist party ranks.
One possibility is that the center-right parties could now try to form a “grand coalition” with the communists to keep the country on a pro-European track and stop the socialists building up momentum for doing a U-turn and trying to take Moldova into the Russian-led Customs Union.
Prime Minister Leanca has said he wants full European Union membership for Moldova by 2020.
Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Eric Walsh