CHISINAU A plan by Moldova to change the way it conducts elections is "inappropriate", European rights experts commissioned to study the proposal have concluded, dealing a blow to the ex-Soviet state's pro-European ruling coalition.
The speaker of the Moldovan parliament, an ally of Prime Minister Pavel Filip, said the ruling coalition would take on board some of the technical findings, but took issue with others, saying the experts had overstepped their remit.
The prime minister and his allies had been seeking to change the voting system in time for a parliamentary election next year, when his party will be in a tough fight with pro-Moscow rivals, led by President Igor Dodon, who reject closer integration with Europe.
The experts' opinion was commissioned by the Venice Commission, a body which rules on rights and democracy disputes in Europe and whose decisions member states -- which include Moldova -- commit to respecting.
Among the findings, the experts said there was a risk that the proposed new electoral system would be susceptible to undue influence by political or business interests.
Moldova is one of several former Soviet states, also including Ukraine and Georgia, which are the subject of a tug of war for influence between Russia and the West.
Moldova has a trade pact with the European Union and its government says it wants even closer integration, while Dodon, a frequent visitor to Russia, has said Moldova should focus instead on building ties with Moscow.
At the moment, Moldova elects its parliament under a proportional representation system. The Democratic Party, to which the prime minister belongs, wants a mixed system, with some lawmakers elected, as now, on party lists, and others running in first-past-the-post constituency races.
Supporters of the change say having legislators represent particular constituencies would enhance the link between parliament and voters. Opponents say it is an attempt to skew the electoral system in favour of the Democratic Party.
The Venice Commission experts concluded that the proposed changes raised significant concerns, according to an unpublished document obtained by Reuters.
Those include the risk that constituency members of parliament would be vulnerable to being influenced by business interests, and that the central election commission could be subject to political influence when implementing the proposed reform, according to the document.
"In light of these concerns, and in view of limited meaningful consultation and underlying consensus needed to reform the electoral system, such a fundamental change under the current political context in Moldova seems inappropriate," the document said.
The conclusion is contained in a draft opinion submitted by the experts to the Venice Commission. A plenary session of the Commission will meet on June 16 and consider whether to adopt the experts' opinion.
Panos Kakaviatos, a spokesman for the Council of Europe, the pan-European rights body to which the Venice Commission is affiliated, said the council cannot comment on leaked documents.
In an interview with Reuters, Andrian Candu, the speaker of the Moldovan parliament and a Democratic Party member, said he disagreed with the experts' conclusions, but would work with the Venice Commission on its technical recommendations.
"It's for us to work with the Venice Commission, with our international partners, in order to achieve a consensus between us to move for electoral change," Candu said.
He said Moldova's ruling coalition would welcome legal arguments and technical expertise from the Commission so that the legislation on changing the electoral system can be improved, "but not to interfere in what we consider to be the sovereign choice of the country".
Candu said some of the Commission's recommendations went beyond its remit. In those cases, he said, "this is something that we will either disregard or we will work with the Venice Commission in a way that they change their mind".
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Peter Millership)