CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldovans voted on Sunday on whether to elect their president directly, a change that Moldova’s West-leaning ruling coalition says would bring an end to chronic political paralysis.
Opinion polls suggest there will a strong vote in favor of ditching the present system, under which the head of state is elected by parliament, despite a call by the opposition Communists for a boycott of the referendum.
Moldova has had no full-time president for 18 months, with its ruling four-party Alliance for European Integration unable to muster enough parliamentary votes to install a head of state despite ousting the Communists from power in July 2009.
The Alliance says this has held up reforms that are urgently needed to bring the ex-Soviet state, one of Europe’s poorest, into the mainstream. It promises direct elections for president and parliament on November 14 if the referendum succeeds.
Moldova, a country of 3.5 million people tucked between Romania and Ukraine, has an unresolved 20-year-old standoff with separatists on part of its territory, and is on poor terms with Russia, which supplies most of its oil and gas.
The average income is about $270 per month and more than 430,000 Moldovans work abroad to support families back home. The EU says Moldova needs major reforms to be eligible for bloc membership.
Corruption is rampant, the judiciary, state security and police are politicized and the media tends to toe the line of whoever is in power.
Parliament speaker Mihai Ghimpu, one of the Alliance’s leading lights, has served as acting president. If the referendum succeeds, Prime Minister Vlad Filat and charismatic center-left politician Marian Lupu would be among the favorites to win election as president.
Former president Vladimir Voronin, who in 2001 became the first elected communist head of state in Europe since the breakup of the Soviet Union, has called the referendum a “trap” and called on his followers to boycott it.
After casting his vote on Sunday, Filat told journalists: “Today we are giving back to our citizens their justifiable right to elect a president.” Voronin’s call for a boycott was “doomed to failure,” he said.
Ghimpu, a fierce critic of Russia who supports Moldovan union with Romania, also expressed confidence. “The Communists are about to suffer a crushing defeat,” he said after voting.
In the village of Cosnita a half hour’s drive from Chisinau, people appeared divided. Vera Isayko, a woman in her 60s selling fruit and vegetables from a roadside stall, backed Voronin and his boycott call.
“I’ll not be turning out for the vote,” she told Reuters on Saturday. “If that Ghimpu comes here, I’ll burst one of these watermelons over his head.”
In the same village, Gennady Glog, gathering cobs of corn in his garden, said: “I’ll be voting because the future of my children hangs on it, and I will vote for direct elections. I have two small daughters. We need to change.”
On the border with the breakaway territory of Transdniestria, voters in the village of Corjova were blocked from entering the polling stations by a cordon of people, denouncing the referendum as illegal. Local authorities said the protesters backed the secessionist Transdniestrian authorities.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and were to close at 9 p.m. Preliminary results could come by 00:30 a.m. on Monday (2130 GMT on Sunday).
Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Charles Dick