Chisinau Mayoral Election – A Race to Nowhere

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Old image of current mayor’s office and city council building. Photo: Adevarul.ro

National local elections are less than a month away. Yet, if not for the numerous campaign posters, very few would probably notice. This is not to say that there is no campaign, rather that several other developments have hijacked the public debate. The Gaburici Cabinet attracts the most media attention as it meddles through the first 100 days in office amid speculations that the new prime minister forged his way into college, lacking a valid high school diploma.  On the more substantial front, the new Cabinet is struggling to put down the fire sparked by the billion dollar bank heist.  Yet, the more the government pretends to be doing, the less credibility it has. It is one of those odd situations, when everyone knows what needs to be done, but no one dares to actually lift a finger. Cynics have ruled that indeed it is hard to imagine a more succinct anecdote of Moldova’s irrelevance and ineptitude, but who can really dispute that.  The frustration brought several thousand people into the main square demanding answers, butt o no avail. To add insult to injury, a parliamentary inquiry and a private financial investigation report pointed fingers at a well-connected local businessman – Ilan Shor, who is now under house arrest after being a mere witness in the case.  In a defiant and preposterous move, a pro-Russian party nominated Shor to run for mayor of the sixth largest town in Moldova, not counting Transnitria, all while the candidate is under home arrest.  These and other developments make this election a joke.

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Mayoral elections in Chisinau are not very inspiring either.  There are 17 candidates in then run for the most powerful directly elected position in the country. One could argue that a Chisinau mayor has more popular legitimacy than the president, who is elected following backdoor horse-trading in parliament.   With less than 2% of the country’s territory, Chisinau has over a fifth of all voters, almost half of the country’s GDP and over 60% of total contributions to the national budget. Politically, Chisinau mayor is also bolstered by the fact that the capital has the most informed and engaged citizens. It should come as no surprise that Chisinau is somewhat more progressive than the rest of the country. It may be one of the reasons why voters in the capital tend to elect mayors form the opposition, sending a warning message to the ruling parties. Hence, economic and political discrepancy between the capital and much of the country has been growing.

This election will only strengthen the trend, as five out of six candidates who have some chances of winning are from the opposition, if you count the communists as opposition (sic). The sixth – former mayor and PLDM nominee, Serafim Urechean, is fighting internal sabotage as many PLDM members are not happy with his nomination, since he is not even a member of the party.  The two main contenders are incumbent mayor Dorin Chirtoaca and Socialist nominee (not member of the party), former Prime Minister  and Minister of Finance, Zinaida Grecianii. She actually won the Chisinau mayoral race in the first round back in the summer of 2005, but those elections were invalidated due to low turnout. Chirtoaca cut his political teeth in that race, coming in third with just over 7%. Repeated elections, which Grecianii carried with 88% of the vote, had an even lower turnout as many candidates, including Chirtoaca, staged a boycott. Communists outdid themselves this time, nominating business tycoon Vasili Chirtoca (notice last name similarity with incumbent mayor Chirtoaca).  As communists suffered important losses to a clone party in the parliamentary elections, employing a ‘clone’ of their own seems petty, but it may also be a genuine coincidence, though unlikely. Ilian Casu is a newcomer to national political stage, propelled by the Renato Usatii phenomenon. Usatii and his team are running a guerrilla campaign as they can be expelled from the race as was the case in the parliamentary elections, though it is less likely to happen again. They are less of a threat now. Still, if successful in his bid for mayor of the second largest city – Balti, Usatii would gain a major regional platform, which he can use as a springboard to national politics.    Ironically, the only more or less inspirational candidate happens to be a 67 year old veteran politician and think tanker, who still enjoys skydiving as a hobby. Too bad Oazu Nantoi cannot parachute himself into office, democracy obliges…

The main reason is that, local elections have always been considered second-order elections, largely because, in the absence or real local autonomy and fiscal decentralization,  locally elected officials are largely powerless and can do very little to better the lives of their constituents. All of the 898 mayors, 1,120 regional council and 10,630 local council members in Moldova elected in the previous election have very little say about what matters – money. It is up to the ruling party bosses in Chisinau to decide who gets what, when and how much. Hopefully, the law on fiscal decentralization that should enter into force this year will shift the power back where it belongs – at the grass-roots. Finally, Moldova would benefit a lot from going the extra mile and implementing the council-manager form of local movement, where the council hires a city manager, who becomes a chief administrative officer of the city, while the mayor chairs the council meetings and, otherwise, plays a largely ceremonial role.  Why would voters have to bother if a mayoral candidate is pro-Romanian or pro-Russian, particularly when he or she has no power to take the country or even the town into either direction? Would not a professionally trained public manager serve the community better? Well, let us first see how fiscal decentralization plays out. One reform at a time.

PS: Here is a fun project put together by local media and IT wizards. It allows voters from four largest cities to match their own local public policy preferences with answer provided by candidates, thus seeing which candidate best fits a voter’s policy preferences. Sadly, most front-runners backed down in a clear display of cowardice and lack of appreciation for such innovative tools. Though, funded by European Endowment for Democracy, there is no English version, so enjoy Romanian and Russian versions.

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