Moldovan Opposition on Heels of Ruling Communists

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

March 6, 2005

CHISINAU, Moldova, March 6 - The Communist Party of Moldova, a former Kremlin favorite that has turned westward in recent years, appeared to have weathered its split with the Russian government and was likely to maintain the largest bloc in Moldova's Parliament, according to a survey of voters leaving the polls at today's election.

But the survey also suggested the party was much weaker than when it unexpectedly rose to power four years ago, and that two opposition groups had emerged as a potent challenge to the incumbent rule of President Vladimir Voronin, the Communist leader.

The race in Moldova, a small agricultural nation between Ukraine and Romania, has been watched as an indicator of the degree of remaining influence the Russian government maintains over former Soviet territory.

The question has generated keen interest since Georgia and Ukraine shifted sharply westward, and Mr. Voronin began quarreling with the Russian government late in 2003 over its support of the breakaway Moldovan republic of Trans-Dniester, which does not recognize the government in Chisinau, Moldova's capital.

The lower house of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, had signaled disgust with Mr. Voronin, threatening economic sanctions and other actions against his government in what seemed a bid to sway votes.

Early projections indicated the Russian tactic might have cost Mr. Voronin some support. More broadly, the election today also appeared to reflect political confusion in Moldova, Europe's poorest country.

Even election officials said voters were disoriented, unsure which of the principal parties, all of which pledge closer relations with Europe, to support, and confused by the public fight between Mr. Voronin and Moscow.

"Many people think what is going on is political chaos," said Roman Tudor, president of the election commission in Milesti-Mici, a village among sprawling vineyards near Chisinau.

In an independent survey of voters conducted at 220 polling stations, 40 percent of those questioned said they had voted for the Communist Party, compared to 29 percent for the Democratic Bloc of Moldova, a coalition of several opposition groups. The Christian Democratic People's Party trailed with 14 percent in the survey, with the remainder distributed among smaller parties.

Under the Moldovan Constitution, the 101-seat Parliament elects the president, who must have at least 61 votes. If the Parliament fails two times to elect a president, the body is then dissolved, and elections repeated. The Communists held 71 seats before the election.

The tentative election projection suggested the party might lack the ability to reappoint Mr. Voronin outright, which would prompt negotiations with the opposition in an effort to cobble together the necessary votes.

Officials for the three parties, appearing on national television, all predicted Mr. Voronin's party would fare better when official results were announced.

The parties were also waiting for a report on the election by independent monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has expressed concern over undemocratic behavior - including media suppression and police intimidation - by the government during the campaign.