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KIEV (Reuters) - A pan-European rights body said on Friday there were significant concerns about a draft law in Moldova that would change the way the country conducts parliamentary elections and expand the powers of the president.
The proposed changes have proved divisive in the ex-Soviet nation ahead of a parliamentary election next year, when parties who favour closer integration with the European Union will fight it out with pro-Moscow rivals.
At the moment, Moldova elects its parliament under a proportional representation system. The ruling pro-European Democratic Party wants a mixed system, with some lawmakers elected, as now, on party lists, and others running in first-past-the-post constituency races.
On Friday, the Venice Commission, a body that rules on rights and democracy disputes in Europe, decided to accept the conclusion of external experts, who said the new system could be susceptible to undue influence by vested interests.
Their report "raises 'significant concerns' including the risk that constituency members of parliament would be vulnerable to being influenced by business interests," the commission said in a statement.
Like neighbouring Ukraine, Moldova has become the subject of a tug of war for influence between Russia and the West.
It has a trade pact with the European Union and its government says it wants even closer integration, but President Igor Dodon, a frequent visitor to Russia, has said Moldova should focus instead on building ties with Moscow.
Earlier in June, Andrian Candu, the speaker of the Moldovan parliament and a member of the Democratic Party, told Reuters he disagreed with the conclusions of the experts' report, but would work with the Venice Commission on its technical recommendations.
European member states of the commission are committed to respecting its decisions, but Candu said the body should "not ... interfere in what we consider to be the sovereign choice of the country."
Supporters of the electoral 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.
Last Sunday, several thousand people took part in demonstrations across Moldova, protesting both in favour of and against the proposed changes.
Moldova has seen three governments fall since 2015, after the disappearance of $1 billion from the banking system plunged the country, Europe's poorest, into political and economic chaos.
Reporting by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Toby Davis