CHISINAU (Reuters) - An election in Moldova has produced a hung parliament, with the vote split between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces at a time when the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with the European Union have soured.
The outcome of Sunday’s contest sets the stage for coalition talks or possibly new elections, just as the country has recovered from a political and economic crisis following a $1 billion banking scandal in 2014 and 2015.
Adding to the uncertainty, opposition leaders threatened street protests after raising suspicions of vote-buying.
The opposition Socialists, who favor closer ties to Moscow, emerged as the largest party with 35 out of 101 seats on a revised estimate, with recounts possible in some constituencies.
The ruling Democratic Party, which wants closer integration with the EU, came second with 30 seats while an opposition bloc called ACUM, campaigning to fight corruption, was third with 26 seats.
Democratic leader Vladimir Plahotniuc said his party was “ready for negotiations on forming a majority and approving a new government”, adding, “I hope that such negotiations take place as soon as possible”.
Corruption scandals and worries over the health of democracy in Moldova, which is squeezed between Ukraine and EU member Romania and is one of Europe’s poorest countries, have tarnished the country’s image and weakened the appeal of the pro-Western political class.
The Socialist Party said its lawyers were studying reported election violations and declared it may not recognize the results.
ACUM leader Maia Sandu said her bloc did not recognize the elections as free and democratic.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the elections were “generally well-run” but “tainted by allegations of pressure on public employees, strong indications of vote buying and the misuse of state resources”.
President Igor Dodon, formerly head of the Socialist Party, said it would become clear only in the coming weeks whether the election was above board. He raised the prospect of calling a new election in June if the vote was declared illegitimate or no party managed to form a coalition.
Dodon on Saturday had called the campaign “one of the dirtiest in our entire history”.
Plahotniuc, an oil-to-hotels tycoon, could repeat a feat he achieved at a previous election in 2014, of cobbling together a coalition despite not winning a majority.
He may woo a smaller party led by Ilan Shor, who just two years ago was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for his part in a scam to pilfer $1 billion out of three banks, the equivalent of an eighth of Moldova’s national output in what Moldovans call the “theft of the century”.
Shor denied wrongdoing and said he was made a scapegoat. After time spent under house arrest, he became mayor of the central town of Orhei while his appeal was heard.
His party won 7 seats on Sunday.
The election campaign was dogged by controversy.
In the past few days, ACUM’s leaders said they were being poisoned on the orders of the authorities, which the Democratic Party swiftly dismissed as a “strange accusation”.
Russia announced an investigation into Plahotniuc, accusing him of involvement in organized crime, prompting Plahotniuc’s party to accuse Moscow of election meddling.
The Democratic Party had already been accused of trying to bend the electoral system in its favor by introducing changes in 2017 on how votes are cast.
The EU forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with Moldova in 2014. But Brussels has become increasingly critical of Moldova’s track record on reforms.
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry