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Moldova Elects New Speaker After Communist Walkout

Mihai Ghimpu, the new speaker of Moldova's parliament

Mihai Ghimpu, the new speaker of Moldova's parliament

CHISINAU (Reuters) -- Moldova's Western-leaning coalition has won election of their candidate to the powerful post of speaker of parliament, and named a Communist defector as its choice for president in Europe's poorest nation.

But the Communist Party, in power since 2001 and trying to retain control after losing ground in last month's election, walked out of the assembly's first session, complicating efforts to elect a president to replace Communist Vladimir Voronin.

Moldova, a tiny country of 4.3 million jammed between EU-member Romania and Ukraine, has been locked in a political stalemate for months just as a deep economic recession sets in.

Four parties, the Liberal, Democratic and Liberal Democratic parties and the Our Moldova Alliance, won 53 seats in 101-seat assembly after the election -- enough to form a government. But they lack eight votes to secure their choice of president.

Dubbed the Alliance for European Integration, the coalition is likely to try to move the ex-Soviet state away from Moscow's sphere of influence, though it would not rush toward a bid for NATO membership.

The new speaker, Mihai Ghimpu, said the coalition nominated Democratic Party leader Marian Lupu, a former Communist, for the post of president.

"The post of president belongs to the Democratic Party and that of prime minister to the Liberal Democratic Party," Ghimpu told journalists after his election.

The Communists' walkout indicates the coalition has little chance for now to attract the eight additional votes that Lupu needs from his former colleagues.

Communists' Chance

Whoever gains power will have to grapple with an economic crisis brought on by a sharp fall in remittances from Moldovans abroad. The economy is expected to shrink 9 percent this year.

The new leadership must also try to resolve a 19-year-old separatist rebellion in Transdniester, where Russia has a military contingent.

The Communists have pursued varying policies of closer ties with Moscow and integration with Europe. Moldovans experienced economic stability and gradually increasingly living standards under Voronin, who cannot stand for a third consecutive term.

The Communists, drawing broad support from the countryside, have a chance to retain power if they convince Lupu and his party to rejoin their ranks. Together the parties would have the 61 votes necessary to impose a presidential candidate.

But all 53 members of the coalition, including Lupu's party, voted Ghimpu into the post of speaker, dispelling for now the notion that infighting could yet hand the Communists a victory.

The party finished far in front in an April election which prompted violent street protests by young urban voters. It was the Communists' subsequent failure to secure election of their presidential candidate that prompted the July election.

Should a new deadlock arise, Voronin would remain in office until another election next year.