Pro-Western Communists were favored to remain in power as Moldovans voted in parliamentary elections yesterday, but the party faced a challenge from centrists who prefer closer ties with Moscow.
Some 2.3 million Moldovans are eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections. Polls opened at 7am and were due to close at 9pm. More than half the electorate needs to vote for the elections to be valid.
Opinion polls gave the Communist party of President Vladimir Voronin about 46 percent support. The party has led the country since 2001 through four years of economic growth, but Moldova remains Europe's poorest country.
"I voted for the Communists because they look after the old people and they doubled my pension," said Ana Vasentciuc, 70, who has a monthly pension of just 437 lei (US$35), after she cast her ballot early yesterday.
Formerly pro-Russian, the Communists have made a complete turnaround and now support closer ties to the EU, which 65 percent of Moldovans favor.
Voronin fell out with Moscow over the future of the Russian-speaking separatist region of Trans-Dniester. He rejected a Russian-backed proposal in 2003 to federalize Moldova by giving Trans-Dniester statehood status, and he is now closer to the EU and to Romania's reformist President Traian Basescu.
The elections have raised tensions between Moldova and Russia, which fears it is losing influence in the former Soviet Union after the election of pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine last year.
Fifteen parties and alliances are contesting 101 seats in parliament. The lawmakers will then choose a president, with 61 votes in favor needed for the appointment.
``Voronin has raised pensions and salaries ... he has proved that he's interested in helping ordinary people,'' said 68-year-old Andrei Taru.
``It doesn't bother me that he was friends with Russia in the beginning and now he's friends with the Europeans and Americans,'' he said.
For the first time, exit polls will be released after the polls close, with early results shortly afterward. Final results are expected Wednesday.
Some 770 foreign observers, including 150 from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will monitor the elections.
Nine special stations will be opened near the border with Trans-Dniester so the separatist region's 700,000 residents can vote. Trans-Dniester authorities have refused to allow any polling stations on their territory.
Russia put 1,800 of its peacekeepers on alert in the separatist region Saturday to prevent incidents, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Voronin's administration has been criticized for being heavy-handed with the opposition and tightly controlling the state media.
His party is challenged by a centrist alliance, the Democratic Moldova Bloc headed by Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean, which is pro-Moscow. The Bloc has about 16-20 percent support in opinion polls and has been bolstered by the Communists' deteriorating relations with the Kremlin.
The Popular Christian Democratic Party, which wants Moldova to join NATO and the EU, has been the Communists' main opponent in recent years. It is credited with about 10 percent voter support.