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The Battle Is Joined

It is the Communists against everyone else.

A group of independent experts and analysts representing various think tanks and NGOs I met this week accused the Communist authorities here of every kind of electoral fraud imaginable. "Independent" clearly does not mean "neutral" in Moldova.

The experts described a playing field so slanted as to virtually remove any hope of opposition victory -- or, more pertinently, Communist defeat.

First, the government rules (and owns most of) the airwaves. It gets a helping hand from the Russian-language Prime TV, the most popular channel in the country, which, among other things, has made Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev the most popular politicians in the country.

Yes, opposition politicians now get their share on the predominant public TV channel, says Vlad Lupan -- hastening to add the qualification that before the campaign, the opposition was virtually invisible on state-run TV.

Routinely, the experts say, opposition meetings are disrupted by police, mysterious power cuts putting a premature end to some and lost keys and denied access to venues terminating others before they begin. There exists a constant air of intimidation, with state-owned media closely covering riot police training sessions. (A European diplomat, very much a neutral figure these days, says it is an established fact that "hundreds" were "beaten and tortured" on and after April 7, and attributes one --"if not four" -- deaths to police brutality.)

But most damningly, the experts say, the government is using every trick in the book to pervert the course of the poll itself. The opposition's main fear is "dead voters walking" -- inflated electoral lists with crooked polling-station personnel filling out ballots on behalf of long-deceased Moldovans.

The government has promised to right some of the most blatant ills that affected the April 5 election. ("No lists are perfect," says one Communist official I meet.)

But the experts say the task of verifying the lists has been given to too few officials (73 in Chisinau, which has 600,000 residents). Three weeks have been allocated for the whole exercise to take place -- laughable in a country that lacks an electronic register of inhabitants and only 18 percent of the population carries national IDs. (The rest, when not Romanian, Russian, etc. citizens, live and travel on old Soviet passports -- this is also why the authorities have no clear idea of how many Moldovan expatriates there are.) The lists, once corrected, are submitted to the government electronically, "some in Excel format, some in Word."

There appears to be no set standard. Once received, the lists were supposed to have been made publicly available, but they haven't been. Only two copies of the whole list were printed, says one expert, and access to these is being denied on the grounds that they could be damaged in the process.

The polling itself was -- and will be -- subject to all sorts of manipulation, the experts say. Stuffed ballot boxes and military block votes being the simplest tricks in the government's arsenal. There is a myriad of others, I'm given to understand.

And there was and will be no recourse to the law. In the aftermath of April 5, Moldova's courts refused to consider a single complaint related to the conduct of the elections, the experts say.

The Communist official, Grigore Petrenco, in charge of the party's media work and external relations, whom I meet a little later, denies everything. For a heated hour-and-a-half. It's all in the mind, he seems to be saying. The police did their job on April 7. "No one asks about their injuries," he says. A little hazy on the details, Petrenco says he does not want to interfere with ongoing investigations.

He says the opposition has no grounds for complaint as five of the nine members of the Central Electoral Commission are non-Communists. He says drawing up the electoral lists is the responsibility of local authorities, two-thirds of whom the Communists do not control. He says the process of correcting the lists is adequately resourced. The lists are "triple checked," including against what he says is the population register. Public access to them is no problem -- although Petrenco keeps adding the rider "for citizens who want to see if they are on them."

Overall, Petrenco contends, any kind of pressure on the opposition, manipulation of TV coverage, abuse of what is known here as the "administrative resource' -- i.e., offices of power -- etc., would be counterproductive and result in a decrease of votes for the Communists "as everyone would know what we are doing."

Petrenco is also adamant that the repeat poll is no admission of culpability in anything on the part of the government. One vote short in the parliament of the majority needed to nominate the next president, the Communists tried twice and failed, thus triggering new elections.

Petrenco makes much of the Communists' desire to cooperate with the opposition. But despite their best efforts, he says, no other party obliged them after the April 5 elections. (The experts had earlier agreed that having threatened the opposition with jail and worse, the Communists had made an elementary mistake by burning all the bridges and forcing all non-Communists to stick together. Which they did, denying the Communists an all-important, single missing vote.)

Not too enthusiastic about coalition building in the future, Petrenco says the Communists' goal now is to get "at least 61 seats" and get on with the business of government.

A well-placed Western official notes that the worst thing that could happen to Moldova's "constrained democracy" at this juncture is an unbridled mandate for the outgoing President Vladimir Voronin.

Both Petrenco and the experts assess the likelihood of renewed violence as small -- for different reasons. The experts say the driving force of the April 7 protests, students, will be out of town.

They also say that the international goodwill the government has managed to garner with the repeat poll will dampen the opposition's resolve to challenge the results.

The experts offer a damning appraisal of the OSCE, which was quick to call the elections free and fair last time. The organization's problem is its "methodology" one says, which does not enable it to go for abuses it cannot quantify.

Also, the practice of releasing a preliminary report quickly after the poll leaves the door open to jumping the gun. The full OSCE report, which appears months later, is usually a much more considered affair -- but is hardly read then,

And finally, the presence of Russian and CIS observers means no OSCE conclusions are straightforward. "They will argue about every sentence, sometimes for hours," says one expert of the Russians.

Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent who is in Chisinau for the elections as a guest of the Open Society Foundation