Chisinau, 24 February 2019. OSCE.

Chisinau, 24 February 2019. OSCE.

Election Elections in Moldova: preservation of status-quo

Regardless of what shape the future government will take, there is no doubt that it will remain under the control of Vlad Plahotniuc and Igor Dodon. This in turn means further deterioration of Moldova's relations with its Western partners, lack of structural reforms and deepening social collapse.

Published on balticworlds.com on mars 25, 2019

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The Moldovan political scene is a theatre. Few of the parties appearing on it actually represent the ideas they proclaim. The slogans and views of politicians are usually the element of the so-called “political technology” purpose of which is to attract the largest possible part of the electorate. While this phenomenon is not exclusive for Moldova, here it has reached a size unseen anywhere else in the region. Having this in mind, let’s look at the results of the parliamentary elections held in Moldova on February 24, 2019.

The nominally pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) associated with President Igor Dodon came first, as party obtained 31.15% of the proportional vote on the national list, which gave it 18 deputies and an additional 17 seats in single-mandate constituencies (35 of the 101 parliamentary seats total). The second party in parliament by number of deputies is the currently ruling and nominally pro-European Democratic Party (PDM) led by Vlad Plahotniuc, an oligarch and the richest person in Moldova. The PDM, which received 23.62% of the proportional vote, can count on a total of 30 seats (13 from the national list and 17 from the single-mandate constituencies). The ACUM bloc of the pro-European opposition, which includes the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) of Maia Sandu, and the Platform of Dignity and Truth (DA) group led by Andrei Năstase, (although it gained more votes on the national lists than the PDM) will have 26 deputies (26.8% of the proportional vote, and 12 deputies in single-mandate constituencies). The new parliament will also include 7 representatives of the populist party led by Ilan Şor, a businessman and mayor of Orhei (8.3% of the votes in the national list and 2 single-mandate constituencies), as well as three formally independent candidates.

At first glance, those results may seem inconclusive. None of the political forces participating in the electoral race won the majority necessary to form a government. There are also no clear coalition partners who could jointly establish a new cabinet. However, this is only a semblance. In fact, the recent elections strengthen the power and influence of the oligarchic-clan ruling elite led by Vlad Plahotniuc with help from the side of President Igor Dodon. These forces are not interested in the structural reconstruction of the country or the implementation of deep reforms Vlad Plahotniuc himself, in spite of declarative pro-Europeanness is also not willing to implement the association agreement with the EU and treats cooperation with Brussels only as a way to obtain legitimacy for governing and a source of financial support. In order to understand better the complexity of the Moldovan political scene, it is necessary to look closely at it and analyse the interests of individual actors.

The Context

Since few last years, the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, chairman of the nominally pro-European ruling Democratic Party (PDM), remains the only true playmaker in Moldovan politics and business. In October 2015, resorting to skilful political manoeuvring and capitalising on his control over the Moldovan judiciary system Plahotniuc was able to bring about the arrest of his main political competitor, the former prime minister Vlad Filat. During the same period, he eliminated or subordinated other political and business opponents such as Veaceslav Platon or Renato Usatii. Then, at the beginning of 2016 he pushed through the nomination of his trusted aide, Pavel Filip, for prime minister. In effect, Plahotniuc has concentrated political and business influence in his own hands on a scale unseen so far in Moldova’s history since 1991. At this very moment he controls the judiciary, the anti-corruption institutions, the Constitutional Court and the economic structures. Until February he also had a loyal parliamentary majority on his side.

Despite this broad political influence, huge financial resources, and many media assets, Vlad Plahotniuc is not in a position to govern Moldova alone. A key obstacle for this is the high level of public reluctance of general public to him and his party. In the eyes of the electorate both the party and its leadership – especially Plahotniuc – are associated with corruption scandals, including the disappearance of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014. The very Plahotniuc himself is perceived as a man who has transformed Moldova into a classic ‘captured state’ and who betrayed the idea of European integration he preached. According to the polls only about 10% of the public declares „some trust” toward Plahotniuc, while about 12% trust his party[1]. As a result, the oligarch is at this point forced to work with nominally pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, the most popular politician in the country and the Socialist party (PSRM), which has around 40% popular support and remains de facto under Dodon’s control. Both politicians formed a specific system of government which resembles a political cartel. The parties which make it up are conducting a largely superficial ideological-political struggle which stirs up huge emotions and polarizes society. Staging a large ideological battle between the “pro-Russian” (led by Dodon) and the “pro-European” forces (led by Plahotniuc) serves this purpose. Thus, the president ostentatiously shows his opposition towards the formal pro-European authorities and demonstrates deep loyalty towards Moscow. He travels monthly to Russia and regularly meets with Vladimir Putin. Dodon has called for Moldova to become a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. The more ostentatious Dodon is towards the Kremlin, the stronger the reaction of the Moldovan government. Powerful declarations and accusations are made on both sides. This fight has become the main topic for TV programs and reported on the front pages of newspapers. Such an intense dispute, which is so eagerly covered by the media and which takes place between the government and the Socialist Party, marginalizes the whole anti-system opposition. What is more, a constant battle along geopolitical lines is to Plahotniuc’s advantage as it allows sceptical voters to support him in his attempts to halt the pro-Russian groups. Similarly, the openly pro-Russian Dodon is a great deterrent for Plahotniuc in his contacts with western partners (especially Romania and the US) in getting their support.

This cooperation, although forced, is based on a community of interests between the President and Plahotniuc.  Their goal is to maintain the functioning clan-oligarchic system which operates in the country. In practice, this means preventing any groups which could threaten its existence from coming to power and avoiding real reforms that would undermine its political position and block the possible illegal income which both politicians can receive. Although Dodon constantly emphasizes his opposition to the Democrats, he has in fact many times already helped Plahotniuc’s party in forcing laws through parliament which are of essential importance to the oligarch. For example, in 2017 parliament adopted (with the support of the Socialists) a law changing the electoral system from a proportional to a mixed system, which increased the chances of Plahotniuc’s party obtaining a satisfactory result in the elections. According to the new system, 50 members are elected proportionally from party lists, while 51 are elected in single-mandate constituencies.51 seats are filled by deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies, and 50 those elected in a proportional voting, from national lists. As it turned out, this change (however highly controversial and criticised by the country’s Western partners, including the Venice Commission) was the key to PDM’s success and enabled it to become the second largest party in the parliament.

The Results

As the OSCE put it: “elections were competitive and fundamental rights were generally respected, but the campaign took place against a backdrop of disaffection with public institutions and was tainted by allegations of pressure on public employees, strong indications of vote buying and the misuse of state resources.” The voter turnout was just over 49%, which was a low result even for Moldovan standards. On the one hand, it is associated with the growing disappointment of the population with a political class, but on the other hand it results from the growing labour migration from Moldova year on year. At present, it is estimated that there are between 1 and 1.5 million people outside the borders Moldova inhabited by around 3 million people.

The result obtained by the PDM should be regarded as a huge success, especially in the context of the high level of public aversion towards this group and the pre-election polls which forecast its support at only 13-16%. Before analysing the results of this grouping, it is worth pointing out that despite having obtained 30 seats in the parliament, Plahotniuc would have had most likely, in fact, had at least 40 deputies under his control. This is because both Şor’s party and the three ’independent’ candidates are considered to represent Plahotniuc’s interests. As it was already mentioned, the Plahotniuc’s party owes it’s good result primarily to the reform of the electoral system. An important role in building up its popularity was also played by the media (80% of TV stations in the country are directly or indirectly controlled by Plahotniuc). There is no doubt that the effective use of the so-called adminresurs (being bureaucratic, administrative and financial resources at the disposal of the executive powers: state regional and district administration authorities) also vastly contributed to the success of PDM. Ruling party obviously put pressure on government and public-sector employees to vote for the ruling party. Interestingly, shortly before the elections, the Democrats decided to move away from the traditional (pro-Russian vs. pro-EU) geopolitical narrative. In mid-September, partly due to intensifying criticism from Brussels, Plahotniuc announced that his party, which until then had branded itself as pro-European, would become a ‘pro-Moldovan’ grouping. At the same time PDM campaign started to focus rather on social issues. In recent months the PDM launched several social programmes (including subsidies for beginners’ housing, free medicine for certain categories of citizens, etc.), and raised salaries and pensions.

In context of PDM result it is worth mentioning that February elections were characterized by unprecedented high activity of voters from Transnistria. About 32 thousand inhabitants of this region holding Moldavian passports (twice as many as during the presidential election in 2016) cast their votes in the polling stations specially designated for them on the right bank of the Dniester river, so on the territory controlled by authorities in Chisinau (Moldova’s polling stations are never operating on the territory of the separatist republic). In addition to voting on national lists, Transnistrian voters could also choose two deputies representing two single-mandate constituencies serving the region.  Most of these voters were brought to the polling stations in an organised manner using buses belonging to the private company Sheriff, which exercises de facto control over the region. Everything indicates that the mass transport of these voters was coordinated by the PDM and the separatist authorities. According to numerous reports, Transnistrian residents were bribed to vote for the PDM (or Party of Sor). Actually, both „independent” candidates from Transnistria are widely perceived as related to PDM or Sor Party (which in any case puts them under influence of Vlad Plahtoniuc). ACUM’s leaders announced that they will therefore not recognise the results of the elections to the single-member districts in Transnistria.

Electoral results of the Socialist Party were significantly lower than predicted. Certain part of the votes was taken away from PSRM by Ilan Şor, whose party appealed mainly to the traditional electorate of socialists – pensioners and people feeling sentiment to the USSR. It seems also that Russian support for PSRM (however open and intense) wasn’t as efficient as expected. President Dodon (who served as the electoral driving force of the grouping) met key Russian politicians in Moscow on several occasions, which was intended to build up his image as a statesman and boost the Socialists’ popularity among Moldova’s pro-Russian electorate. At the end of 2018, in order to support Dodon, Moscow decided to suspend for a period of six months the customs duties introduced back in 2014 (in connection with Chisinau signing the Association Agreement with the EU) on a number of export products which are important for the Moldovan economy (mainly fruit, vegetables and wine). Russian side declared also that Moldovan guest workers (whose total number in Russia is estimated at c. 500,000-600,000) who had violated immigration law would be able to leave the territory of the Russian Federation with impunity between 1 January and 24 February 2019, and that any entry bans imposed on them would be reconsidered.  Such actions were aimed not only at improving the image of the socialists, but also at enabling the largest possible number of supporters of this party to participate in the elections.

ACUM, however failed to secure parliamentary majority, obtained very good results. Maia Sandu and Andrei Năstase, the leaders of PAS and DA, both entered parliament from single-mandate constituencies. The electoral outcome of the anti-oligarchic and pro-European opposition block is particularly impressive in context of very limited finances. ACUM had only a fraction of PDM and PSRM funds. It was also almost deprived of media support. Due to this fact its campaign was conducted mainly online and door to door. The opposition was also permanently subjected to the negative campaign conducted by media owned by Plahotniuc and Dodon. ACUM primarily owes its success to a large protest electorate, which is aware of the existence of the Dodon/Plahotniuc cartel and is committed to removing it. The opposition’s electoral success may be a convenient starting point for it before the local elections planned for June this year.

The most bizarre grouping that got into the Moldovan parliament is the Party of Ilan Sor. This Israeli-Moldovan businessman in considered to be an architect of the aforementioned embezzlement of one billion dollars from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014. For this crime he was sentenced for 7,5 years of imprisonment in June 2017, and he currently awaits the final verdict of the court of appeal. In 2015, just a year after the scandal, he was elected mayor of Orhei, a small town north of Chisinau, and then he began an intense nationwide campaign addressed mainly to the poor, pensioners and ”victims of transformation”. He opened, among others network of so-called social shops where pensioners and poor people could buy cheap food and basic products. His election promises were populist. He promised to re-establish collective farms, reintroduce the death penalty, etc. One of his slogans was ”Everywhere will be like in Orhei!”. It appealed to the imagination of voters, because in recent years Orhei truly changed as Sor financed a lot of infrastructure investments from his own money. The truth is that Sor is completely dependent on Plahotniuc as his faith depends on the ruling of Moldovan courts (subordinated to the oligarch). Sor is aware, that verdict in his case can end his career and deprive him of personal freedom and welth. For that reason, he (and MP’s from his party) can be considered by Plahotniuc as one of the most reliable partner in the parliament.

The perspectives

In the days after the elections PDM proposed ACUM a coalition. The Plahotniuc’s party even offered ACUM the prime minister’s position. But the leadership of the opposition bloc did not express interest in the coalition with PDM. Both Sandu and Nastase realize that by such actions Democrats are trying to legitimise themselves as truly pro-European force. They also realize that if they enter the coalition, they would be marginalized. They would also lose a significant part of public support. It is almost certain that ACUM will not decide to enter into any coalitions and will take on the role of a constructive opposition. It will also focus on preparations for the upcoming local elections this year. PDM and Socialists could form a coalition together, but it would be very problematic. Firstly, it would undermine the image of the two groups in the eyes of the electorate and secondly it renders continuation of simulated “geopolitical rivalry” between them impossible. This scenario, however, is not totally unlikely. From the side of both parties, signals suggesting the preparation of conditions for the ”grand coalition” have been flowing for some time already. Finally, a possible scenario is that the PDM will try to get the 11 votes which it needs to obtain a majority by taking over (by corruption or intimidation) deputies from the pro-European parties, and also possibly the PSRM. The scenario in which the early elections will take place seems the least likely. It is not beneficial for either Plahotniuc or Dodon. What’s more, both sides declare that they are not interested in it. Regardless of what shape the future government will take, there is no doubt that it will remain under the control of Vlad Plahotniuc and Igor Dodon. This in turn means further deterioration of Moldova’s relations with its Western partners, lack of structural reforms and deepening social collapse.

Reference:

[1] http://ipp.md/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/BOP_11.2018_prima_parte_finale2.pdf

  • by Kamil Calus

    Graduate of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan (Eastern Europe and Asia Studies and Journalism and Social Communication). PhD candidate in the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University. Regular contributor to the Nowa Europa Wschodnia bimonthly. Editor of the "Spojrzenie na Wschód" quarterly. Focus on; Domestic, foreign and security policy of Moldova, as well as, Moldovan economic and energy policy, investment climate.

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