CHISINAU – Moldova's pro-Western opposition planned on Thursday to form a coalition after beating the ruling Communists in an election that could decide whether the former Soviet republic swings away from Russia to Europe.
The four main opposition parties won just over half the vote between them, with only a tiny fraction of the ballots still to be counted, leaving the Communists with just over 45 percent.
The Communists were declared winners of a disputed election in April, but the result triggered violent protests and the political system has been deadlocked since.
One can hardly overestimate the importance of this -- despite all of the Communists' clamorous statements and this open support by Russia, they still received less votes than in April, said Bogdan Tirdea, an independent political analyst.
Vlad Filat, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who ran second behind the Communists on 16.4 percent, or 17 seats, promised a wide coalition in the interests of the people. We will find the necessary compromise and find agreement so that Moldova finally gets democratic rule.
Democracy and truth has finally been victorious. We fought for this for so long and with so many difficulties.
The Communists would have to strike a deal with another party to elect a successor to veteran leader Vladimir Voronin, who since 2001 has ruled the impoverished country wedged between Ukraine and Romania.
The Communists, on course to win 48 seats in the 101-seat parliament, down from 60, could forge an alliance with the centrist Democratic party which won 13 seats.
Together they would hold 61, the minimum required to elect a new president. But Democrat leader Marian Lupu, a charismatic intellectual who defected from the Communists, has said such a deal could happen only if Voronin quits politics.
Lupu, speaking to a Romanian radio station, ruled out a two-way pact with the Communists, saying it would preserve the existing situation in the country, one that is far from good.
He backed instead a broad coalition to achieve change.
The vote exposed the rift between elderly rural voters, who tend to back the last Communist government in the former Soviet Union, and young citydwellers who look to the European Union.
Most of Moldova was once part of Romania, but it also has longstanding ties with Russia and Voronin has moved closer to the Kremlin in the past year.
Some analysts said the deadlock could deepen, potentially jeopardizing credits from Russia and China to a country of 4.5 million people which is Europe's poorest and which some see as increasingly a pawn of big powers.
Moscow has pledged a $500 million loan to help Moldova through the economic crisis while the China National Overseas Engineering Corporation has agreed to a $1 billion 15-year loan.
The Communists want to move closer to Europe, but consider Moscow a strategic partner. Russia has troops in the breakaway Transdniestria region and supplies nearly all Moldova's energy.
The Liberals stood third in the election with 14.4 percent and 15 seats while the Our Moldova Alliance fared better than expected with 7.4 percent and 8 seats.
The three liberal parties, broadly pro-Romanian in outlook, have too few seats to form a coalition on their own, leaving the Democratic Party in a potentially commanding position.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said its monitors had found the election broadly fair, but subject to bias in the media and subtle intimidation. It had expressed similar misgivings about the April vote.
Voronin, 68, dissolved parliament last month and called the election after opposition parties twice thwarted his plan to have parliament elect his handpicked successor as president.
He cannot run for a third term as president but wants to become a Moldovan Deng Xiaoping. Deng continued to wield huge influence in China after stepping down from top official posts.
I believe there will be a new state power in Moldova -- be it a coalition with the Communists or without them, said Vitalie Andrievschi, head of the AVE.MD think tank. The only thing certain is there will be no place in it for Voronin.
If no grouping has enough votes to elect a new president, Voronin will continue as acting president until June 15, 2010, a year after dissolving the chamber.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Ron Popeski, additional reporting by Alexander Tanas and by Radu Marinas in Bucharest; editing by Andrew Roche)