Members of a local electoral commission count votes following a parliamentary election in Chisinau, Moldova, Feb. 24, 2019.
Members of a local electoral commission count votes following a parliamentary election in Chisinau, Moldova, Feb. 24, 2019.

An election in Moldova has produced a hung parliament, with results showing the vote split between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces at a time when the ex-Soviet republic's relations with the European Union have soured.

The outcome of Sunday's contest sets the stage for coalition talks or potentially new elections, just as the country has recovered from a political and economic crisis following a $1 billion banking scandal in 2014 and 2015.

Opposition leaders have meanwhile threatened street protests against the result after raising suspicions of vote-buying.

The incumbent government wants closer EU integration and warns of catastrophe if Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries and is squeezed between Ukraine and EU member Romania, falls back into Russia's sphere of influence.

But corruption scandals and worries over the health of its democracy have tarnished the country's image and weakened the appeal of the pro-Western political class.

The opposition Socialists, who favor closer ties to Moscow, emerged as the largest party with 34 out of 101 seats.

The ruling Democratic Party, which wants closer integration with the EU and casts itself as a bulwark against Russia, came second with 31 seats while an opposition bloc called ACUM, campaigning to fight corruption, was third with 26 seats.

The Democratic Party "is ready for negotiations on forming a majority and approving a new government. I hope that such negotiations take place as soon as possible," its leader Vladimir Plahotniuc said.

The Socialist Party said its lawyers were studying reported election violations and declared it may not recognize the results. ACUM leader Maia Sandu said her bloc did not recognize the elections as free and democratic.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the elections were "generally well-run" but "tainted by allegations of pressure on public employees, strong indications of vote buying and the misuse of state resources."

President Igor Dodon said it would only become clear in the coming weeks whether the election was above board. He raised the prospect of calling a new election in June 2019 if the vote was declared illegitimate or no party managed to form a coalition.

Dodon, the former Socialist Party chief, on Saturday had called the campaign "one of the dirtiest in our entire history."

Plahotniuc, an oil-to-hotels tycoon, could repeat a feat he achieved at a previous election in 2014, of cobbling together a coalition despite not winning a majority.

He may woo a smaller party led by Ilan Shor, who just two years ago was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for his part in a scam to pilfer $1 billion out of three banks, the equivalent of an eighth of Moldova's national output.

Shor denied wrongdoing. After time spent under house arrest, he became mayor of Orhei, a town in central Moldova, while his appeal was heard. He said he was made a scapegoat for the scandal, known locally as the "theft of the century." His party won 7 seats on Sunday.

Poisoned politics

The campaign has been dogged by controversy. In the past few days, ACUM's leaders said they were being poisoned on the orders of the authorities, which the Democratic Party swiftly dismissed as a "strange accusation."

Russia announced an investigation into Plahotniuc, accusing him of involvement in organized crime, prompting Plahotniuc's party to accuse Moscow of election meddling.

The Democratic Party had already been accused of trying to bend the electoral system in its favor by introducing changes in 2017 on how votes are cast.

The EU forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with Moldova in 2014. But Brussels has become increasingly critical of Chisinau's track record on reforms.