To the outside observer, it looks a little like a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
On May 20, lawmakers in Moldova began the process of selecting a successor to Vladimir Voronin, the country's long-time leader.
The constitution barred Voronin from seeking a third consecutive term. So on May 12, all 60 Communists in the 101-seat legislature -- and no opposition deputies -- raised their hands and elected him speaker of parliament.
But Voronin's Communist Party is one vote short of the 61 needed to elect the next president, meaning it must persuade at least one opposition deputy to vote for the Communist nominee.
In the first round
of voting, all 60 Communist deputies voted for the party's preferred candidate, current Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii. Opposition deputies walked out before the vote. A second round was immediately scheduled for May 28.
The opposition has vowed to boycott the vote in order to prevent the Communists from coaxing out the extra vote it needs. If parliament ultimately fails to elect a president, Moldova will face another round of national legislative elections -- and, possibly, more public unrest
following last month's mass demonstrations.
What Voronin would like to see is for parliament to elect his party's nominee, Greceanii, to succeed him as president. Greceanii, in turn, could then nominate Marian Lupu, the former parliament speaker, to replace her as prime minister.
In short, the same players remain in place, but everyone moves one seat to the left.
Levers Of Power
Critics view this rotation as a thinly veiled effort by Voronin to keep the levers of power under his control. Voronin, however, claims the stability scheme is the best solution for the economically troubled country, which is deeply divided between conservatives who seek strong ties to Russia and progressives who yearn for greater integration with the European Union.
Voronin argues the boyish 42-year-old Lupu, and Greceanii, who would be the country's first female president, can appeal to both East and West, and tackle the country's economic woes at the same time.
“This combination will be a great success," Voronin says. "Mr. Lupu is a strong economist, and Mrs. Greceanii is a strong financial manager.”
There's just one problem. Getting Greceanii to the presidency might not be so easy.
Electing the president is the single parliamentary act that requires 61, rather than 60, votes. The Communists are hoping to persuade a single opposition lawmaker to vote for Greceanii.
But the three opposition parties in parliament, which together control 41 seats, are determined to stand united and boycott the presidential election. In fact, they plan to boycott the legislative session altogether in order to make certain no one drifts across the aisle.
A single stray vote could prove hugely embarrassing for the opposition parties.Early Elections
Serafim Urechean, the head of the Our Moldova Alliance (AMN), tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service he is certain none of his party members can be coaxed into crossing over.
"The 61st vote will not come from the AMN," Urechean says. "The AMN stands on its previous position: early elections."
Vlad Filat, of the Liberal Democratic Party, was equally steadfast.
“We will not take part in the vote and we will not propose any candidate," Filat says. "Early elections are, at this moment, the only chance for the future of Moldova.”
Greceanii, the Communists' preferred candidate, is a 53-year-old economist who served as finance minister and first deputy prime minister before being made prime minister last year. A native of Tomsk, Russia, Greceanii is more comfortable speaking Russian than Romanian. Although not a member of the Communist Party, she is widely viewed as a staunch Voronin loyalist.
When it became clear the opposition would not put its own candidate forward, the Communists also nominated Stanislav Groppa, 53, a doctor and director of the Chisinau Neurology Clinic. Groppa is also not a Communist, and his nomination was supported by just 15 deputies.
The election procedure in Moldova is complicated. If neither candidate musters 61 votes on May 20, there will be a second vote within three days. If that vote is inconclusive, there will be another set of two votes within 15 days. The Communists are not obligated to change their nominee.
However, Voronin's current mandate as acting president expires on June 7. If parliament has not elected a successor by then, new legislative elections will have to be scheduled to replace the deadlocked body.
The last elections in Moldova were marred by charges of widespread fraud. The tension erupted into violence on April 7 that left two people dead, more than 100 people detained, and the parliament and presidential offices in ruins.
The political crisis in Moldova is exacerbated by the global economic crisis, which is increasingly hitting this impoverished country that is heavily dependent on remittances sent back by Moldovans working in Russia, Romania, and elsewhere. The International Monetary Fund has predicted a 5 percent contraction in the country's economy this year and stagnation in 2010.
Moldova is also plagued by runaway corruption and a long-running separatist dispute with its Transdniester region.Return Of 'Civility'
Louis O'Neill, who was the OSCE envoy to Moldova from 2006-08, believes that “civility” must be returned to the country's political process, badly damaged by the April violence and its aftermath.
“[Moldova] has to, sort of, dig deeper and find a way to achieve national reconciliation," O'Neill says. "And the way things look right now, it going to be difficult to do that.”
Whether Greceanii can serve as a significant unifying figure remains in serious doubt. Even if she wins, she will be elected without significant opposition support. Analysts have speculated that the government may even be holding a handful of the remaining detainees from the April uprising in order to release them as a gesture to the opposition if and when Greceanii is elected.
But would such a gesture be enough to convince the opposition to provide a vote for Greceanii and work with a Communist-dominated government?
Natalia Morar, a journalist and activist who was placed under house arrest
for her role in the protests against the last election (she was released earlier this month), tells RFE/RL’s Moldova Service that the situation remains tense. If the presidential vote fails and early elections are called, Morar says, the summer could be critical in determining Moldova's future path:.
“I think that we’ll face difficult times, but also important ones," Morar says. "And I want to say that now Moldova has lots of chances to really democratize and to make a step really in a European direction. But at the same time we also have lots of chances to make a step in a different direction, a harsh one. We could become a dictatorship, a new one in the European space.”
Dmitry Ciubashenko, a correspondent for Reuters in Chisinau and editor of the Russian-language “Moldavske Vedomosti,” agrees that reconciliation will be difficult to come by.
“I think the instability in Moldovan society, which is profoundly divided and segregated, will increase, and Moldova will not soon arrive either at political stability or economic stability,” Ciubashenko says.
RFE/RL’s Moldova Service contributed to this report