CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova’s pro-Western leaders pondered their next move on Monday after a referendum designed to break a political deadlock in the ex-Soviet republic failed due to poor turnout, dealing them a humiliating setback.
As opposition Communists in the country of 3.5 million revelled, one leader in the ruling four-party Alliance for European Integration conceded that the referendum, called to decide on whether the country should switch to direct presidential elections, had been “a tactical error.”
“Some of the members (of the Alliance) were too quick to believe results of opinion polls that showed that 60-70 percent of the electorate would take part,” Marian Lupu, a centre-left leader in the Alliance, told Reuters. “It was a tactical error by the Alliance.”
The Alliance took power just over a year ago after eight years of Communist rule, vowing to bring the country into the European mainstream.
The failure of the referendum is a blow to that goal and the government’s ambitious objective of putting Moldova, a poor country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania near the Black Sea, on track for European Union membership.
After a day of lacklustre voting on Sunday, Central Election Commission secretary Iurie Ciocan said, with almost all figures in, turnout stood at 29.67 percent, well short of the 33 percent required for the poll to be valid.
The failure is a blow to the authority of the Alliance, which had billed the referendum as a way to end a political logjam, and a triumph for the opposition Communists, who had called for a boycott of the vote.
Alliance leaders had expressed confidence that they would easily gain the required turnout and go on to win support for presidential elections by popular vote.
Opinion surveys had predicted a vote in favour of ditching the present system, which says the head of state can only be elected by a three-fifths majority in parliament.
Under this system the country has been mired in a state of paralysis without a full-time president for 18 months.
Ex-president Vladimir Voronin, who leads the Communists, made a powerful appeal on the eve of the poll for people to stay at home, and voting appeared to be very sluggish from the start.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, Voronin said: “According to the law, the parliament should now be dissolved and the usurpation of power ended ... These games are still going on, falsifying democracy, the aim of which is extend the period in power of the Alliance for European Integration.”
Prime Minister Vlad Filat was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency after polls closed: “The electorate appears to have been less active than we had hoped.”
The four-party Alliance must now decide on its next steps.
Filat said the failure of the referendum meant parliament must be dissolved and a date set for a new parliamentary election.
Acting president Mihai Ghimpu, who belongs to another rightist party in the Alliance, appeared to back this stance, accusing the Communists of frightening people with their call for a boycott.
“In the present situation there is nothing for me to do except dissolve parliament and set a date for early parliament elections,” he told a Moldovan local news agency.
The Alliance has been unable to muster enough parliamentary votes to install a full-time head of state, leaving Ghimpu, the parliament speaker, as acting president.
The Alliance says the power vacuum has held up reforms urgently needed to bring the ex-Soviet state, one of Europe’s poorest, into the mainstream. It had promised elections for president and parliament on November 14 if the referendum passed.
The EU says major reforms are needed for Moldova to qualify to join the bloc. The country 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.
Additional reporting by Alexander Tanas