COALITION CAUCUS: The leaders of the four parties in Moldova's ruling coalition have met repeatedly since the failed referendum to discuss snap polls and campaign tactics. Left to right: acting president Mihai Ghimpu, former Chisinau mayor Serafim Urechean, former parliament speaker Marian Lupu and prime minister Vlad Filat.
Moldova's referendum on September 5 was envisioned as the sword that would cut the Gordian knot of political deadlock between a coalition of four pro-Western parties and the opposition communists. Instead, it is likely to further perpetuate the logjam caused by parliament's inability to elect a president.
The referendum proposed a change in article 78 of the country's constitution, envisioning the president being elected by popular vote, as the country did after declaring independence in 1991 and until constitutional amendments were passed in 2000. Currently, a candidate needs 61 votes in the 101-seat parliament to win the election.
The proposition drew overwhelming support, with 88 per cent of the votes in favour, but turnout was only 29.7 per cent, well short of the 33 per cent threshold needed to validate the results.
Despite a joint appeal from the leaders of all four parties that make up the ruling Alliance for European Integration (AIE), who asked voters to go to the polling stations, the call from communist leader Vladimir Voronin to boycott the referendum appears to have carried more weight. After the preliminary results were made public, Voronin said in a statement that the outcome was "a vote of no confidence in the ruling regime".
Parliament speaker and interim president Mihai Ghimpu refused to see the referendum as a failure for the ruling coalition, saying that the numbers showed that AIE's supporters went out to vote, but conceded that the four parties failed to sufficiently promote the referendum and its importance.
"We should not have included the 33 per cent threshold. More than 800 000 people voted, was that not enough to modify article 78?" he said during a talk-show on cable channel ProTV Moldova on September 6.
The sentiment was echoed by ruling coalition partners. Deflecting criticism that the AIE had not done enough to inspire a higher turnout, former Chisinau mayor and leader of Moldova Noastra Alliance, Serafim Urechean, told the same talk show: "It is not parliamentary or presidential elections, so we could not go door-to-door and tell people to go vote."
Urechean's party is in the most vulnerable position in the ruling coalition, with opinion polls giving it a slim chance of making the parliamentary representation threshold at the snap elections that will have to be called.
Ghimpu said he would call snap elections, but the exact date would have to be decided after consultations with the other AIE leaders. "The elections will be held in November for certain. I am not required to consult the parties, but I will do that," he said on September 8.
However, with the referendum failing to settle the presidential elections issue, the prospect of future deadlock remained on the horizon.
"Snap elections will not solve the problem we are facing. We would have to negotiate for presidential elections once again and face more snap polls," Ghimpu said.
Snap elections in July 2009 ousted the communists from power, but left them with 48 MPs, more than enough to block the election of a president. The current ruling coalition used the same tactic just months earlier to prevent the election of a communist nominee when the former ruling party had 60 seats in parliament following April 2009 elections.
The polls in April sparked a day of rioting in capital Chisinau and the torching of the parliament and presidency buildings, as opposition parties and protesters accused the communists of rigging the elections.
The referendum results showed that AIE had not lost any voters despite spending a year in government during which it was constantly hamstrung by the institutional logjam and could not pass much-needed reforms to increase the standard of living in the country of 3.5 million people, whose economy relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Western Europe and Russia.
According to local analysts, it could further boost support by running on a single ticket at the next elections, rather than as separate entities. The issue was being discussed, but no decision had been reached yet, AIE leaders said.
"We will analyse how we can get a better result, separately or together," Ghimpu said.
Prime minister Vlad Filat also declined to commit either way, but said that he was confident that the communists would be kept out of government after the elections.
Filat's Liberal-Democrats and Ghimpu's Liberals are seen as the main contenders for the pro-Western right-leaning vote, while the Democratic party of former parliament speaker Marian Lupu is seen as the one most likely to lure centre-left voters from the communists.
Lupu, a former leader of the moderate wing in the communist party, who defected after the party's hardline response to the April 2009 riots, appeared to lean for a joint ticket, saying that the AIE should "set aside incoherent messages and political egoism" as well as "decide how to organise and work [together]."