CHISINAU, Moldova – Voters in Europe's poorest nation tried Sunday to break a political deadlock that has kept it without a functioning government for more than a year.
A pro-European alliance of four parties won the most seats in Moldova's 101-seat parliament last year but fell short of the 61 votes necessary to elect a president. The Communist Party remained the largest single party and has succeeded in blocking the election of a pro-Western president.
The Communists favor closer trade, customs and political ties with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which would keep it firmly in the orbit of the former Soviet Union. The party said Sunday it is organizing its own parallel vote count.
Meanwhile, the pro-European alliance is pursuing market and democratic reforms and would like to become a member of the European Union, something it acknowledges will take years. It is supported in its efforts by Romania. Moldova was part of Romania until 1940, when it was annexed to the Soviet Union. Moldova does not want to join NATO.
According to two exit polls, the Communists suffered losses, with three pro-European parties scoring significant gains. One exit poll, IRES, showed the Communists in second place with 26 percent, and the CBS AXA poll had the Communists in first position with about 34 percent. The margin of error for both polls was three percent.
The figures from either of them, if borne out by the results, would mean a pro-European alliance of three parties would be able to govern and elect a president — which it has not been able to do for more than a year. First results are expected later Sunday
After voting ended, Prime Minister Vlad Filat thanked Moldovans for turning out and voting for "democracy." Three hours before voting ended, turnout was more than 54 percent.
Interim President Mihai Ghimpu earlier urged Moldovans to vote and help end the deadlock.
Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin said he believed there was "a big chance" that the elections would be rigged and he expected his party, which was in power from 2001 to 2009, to win about 65 percent of an untainted vote — far higher than any opinion poll has predicted.
Final results are expected Monday.
Riots broke out in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, after an April 2009 election when opponents claimed the Communists had rigged the vote to hold onto power. A new election was held in July 2009, and the Communist Party lost its majority.
Moldova, in Eastern Europe, lies between Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, and Romania, which is a member of the European Union.
Moldovans have average monthly salary of €235 ($310). The country has 2.6 million eligible voters — 600,000 of whom work abroad. Those who work abroad tend to support the pro-European alliance, but many will not vote because they live far from polling stations, even the ones that have been set up at foreign embassies. Voters can only vote at polling stations and not by mail.
Associated Press writer Alison Mutler contributed to this report from Bucharest.