CHISINAU Moldova's president asked the acting prime minister on Wednesday to try to form a new government, a hard challenge for a man whose last administration was forced from office in a no-confidence vote in March.
Vlad Filat's government resigned on March 8 after losing a confidence vote following months of feuding among leaders of a pro-Europe coalition which has run the poor ex-Soviet republic since 2009.
President Nicolae Timofti told journalists on Wednesday that Filat, a 43-year-old businessman who heads the Liberal Democratic party, was "a worthy candidate who is capable of continuing Moldova's course of European integration".
Filat now has 15 days in which to present his team and program to parliament before a vote is taken on his candidature. But he will find it hard get the necessary 51 votes to give him a majority to govern.
Liberal party head Mihai Ghimpu, Filat's erstwhile partner in the Alliance for European Integration, said his party would not vote for Filat.
"He should take a holiday and let the customs and tax inspectorate get on with their work," he said dryly, referring to unsubstantiated allegations by Filat's opponents that he has been involved in malpractice.
The absence of votes from Ghimpu's Liberals will mean that Filat will have to rely solely on the votes of center-left leader Marian Lupu, another member of the old pro-Europe Alliance, and a group of independents.
Moldova, which lies between Ukraine and EU-member Romania, is one of Europe's poorest countries with an average monthly salary of about $230. Heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies, its economy is kept afloat by remittances from several hundred thousand Moldovans working in Russia and EU countries.
The three-party Alliance has worked to break with the Soviet past and map out a route to mainstream Europe for the tiny landlocked state of 3.6 million people.
But the political crisis has threatened to derail its course towards signing landmark association and free trade agreements with the European Union at the end of the year.
Despite being defeated by the pro-Europe Alliance in 2009, the opposition communists remain the biggest single faction in parliament with 34 seats out of 101.
Still with strong support, particularly in the countryside, the communists who could tilt policy back towards Russia if they came to power, have refused to negotiate with President Timofti over a new candidate for prime minister.
Their tactic has been to wait to see if the crisis would lead to snap elections - an outcome which could well bring them back into power.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)