CHISINAU — Moldova, Europe's poorest country, faced a new bout of political turmoil Monday after a miserable turnout scuppered a referendum on the pro-Western government's plan for constitutional change.
The liberal coalition -- which ended the Communists' eight year rule last year -- called the referendum to change the constitution so the president is elected via direct suffrage rather than by parliament.
If passed, the change would have broken a year of political deadlock where the Communist minority in parliament has repeatedly blocked the government's choice for president and left the country without a full-time head of state.
Although only a third of the electorate needed to vote for the referendum to be deemed valid, an abject 29.05 percent of the voters turned out, rendering it invalid, the central election commission said.
The government's pro-Western leaders were left stunned by the shambolic failure of the referendum after predictions of a solid turnout and admitted splits within the three-party governing coalition were partly to blame.
"Everyone wanted to be the number one, assuming that the success of the referendum was pre-ordained," Prime Minister Vlad Filat told AFP. "It's very bad the referendum failed but we are not going to make a tragedy out of this."
He confirmed that the current parliament -- elected just over a year ago -- would now have to be dissolved and new elections called.
Democratic Party leader Marian Lupu, a former candidate for president and leading figure in the coalition, said pro-Western forces had made the mistake of campaigning for presidential elections rather than the referendum.
"Some people thought we already had the result in the pocket. The parties carried out no explanatory work and talked about elections that are now not going to happen," he said.
The failure of the coalition to bring out more voters was all the more embarrassing as 87.8 percent of those who did vote backed the changes compared with only 12.2 percent against, the election commission said.
Ironically, the head of the observer mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Andreas Gross, praised the referendum as being well organised and corresponding to democratic standards.
"The problem has not been solved. Even if there are elections nothing will change. No-one will get the three fifths majority required in parliament to elect the president," said political analyst Igor Botsan.
In a bid to ensure the referendum was passed, the ruling Alliance for European Integration had changed the electoral law so that only 33 percent of the electorate would need to vote compared with 50 percent before.
That move had provoked howls of protest from the Communists led by former president Vladimir Voronin, who were quick to hail the failure of the referendum.
"The referendum has failed and now the authorities will have to look at things in a more sober way," Voronin said.
He said that the Communists had suggested holding presidential elections through a three-round system in parliament but would continue to reject choosing the head of state through direct voting, a system scrapped in 2000.
No further referendum can be called to change the constitution for direct elections of the president for another two years, said the head of the central election commission Iurie Ciocan.
The liberal coalition narrowly ended eight years of Communist rule in July 2009 parliamentary polls that followed unprecedented riots in the capital Chisinau.
The country of 4.3 million bordering EU-member Romania had until then been the only ex-Soviet state be ruled by a Communist party.
Romania, which shares a common language with Moldova and has irritated Moscow by strongly backing the pro-EU government, said Chisinau had to plough on with reforms despite the setback.
"It is crucial for the (ruling) Alliance for European Integration to continue reforms, with Romania's and the EU's financial and political backing," Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi said.
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