Hope and Shame: Local Election Results beyond Numbers

Moldova woke up on Monday June 15 with very mixed feelings. Some were hopeful that newly elected local leaders will contribute to improving the lives of their communities, while others were ashamed of how these elections turned out. I, for one, was mostly surprised, if not impressed, by how ruling parties managed to control the damage from the ongoing banking scandal and pull off a relatively good result. However, as local politics is, by definition, somewhat detached from from developments in the central government, the outcome is not that surprising after all.

Ruling parties were more successful in villages where people are less informed and more easily ‘persuaded’ to vote a certain way for a bag of rice or a glass of wine.  Towns and cities showed some disdain; Balti and Orhei went the extra mile by electing as their mayors Renato Usatii and Ilan Shor respectively.  These two landslide victories caused the biggest stir, raising some hope and triggering lots of shame, all at the same time. Usatii’s victory was more predictable; given his public persona and the preference Balti residence seem to have for strong, charismatic, Russian speaking candidates. The previous communist mayor Vasili Panciuc was re-elected twice with overwhelming support, so had he run Usatii might have encountered some difficulty. As Panciuc’s successor failed to meet expectations, Usatii just sailed that wave. Usatii also acted strategically by running in Balti instead of Chisinau, where he stood little chance of winning.

Ilan Shor’s case is much more interesting. Who would have thought that the young ingenious businessman was craving to serve the people in public office? Luckily for Shor, Orhei residents reciprocated his humble passion by making him mayor. Notwithstanding the fact the man is still under investigation for the billion dollar bank heist. As one Orhei voter put it: “He is too rich to steal anything from Orhei.”  Another one was even more supportive of the new mayor: “It’s good he was up to that kind of thing, maybe he shares some of that money with us.”

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These are people that are genuinely hopeful that change is not only possible, but imminent with their new famous mayors.  Indeed, these people acted in their own best interest, rather than against it as some have condescendingly suggested. Chastising Orhei voters for their democratic choice is not only unfair, but also ignorant of their predicament. Orhei, much like Balti and many other towns, had little choice between inept and corrupt incumbents and equally ordinary opposition, every candidate who breaks their routine is a blessing. Shor and Usatii have certainly excelled at making the lives of their constituency a little less mundane by throwing them several mega concerts. Shor’s football team had just won the national championship, so Orhei football fans really had no alternative.

Seriously though, Usatii was banned from running in parliamentary elections under phony pretext, but was allowed to run this time and he won fair and square. Well, just as fair as did most of the rest. On the other hand, prior to running for office, Shor was being criminally investigated for the great Moldovan bank robbery. Still, if Moldovan justice system allowed him to run, he grabbed that opportunity with both hands. Thus, it is not the voters who bear the blame for their choice, but the government for lacking political will to meaningfully reform the judiciary and liberate the justice sector from corruption and political servitude. Unfortunately, all too often, voters are simply faced with a choice between two evils.  #Democracy(in)action

PS: Just as Shor was being dragged to the National Anti-Corruption Center for depositions and the businessman became overnight the face of the billion dollar bank heist, Israeli news media interviewed members of the Jewish community in Chisinau who raised concerns about a potential spike in anti-Semitism, since Shor is a prominent member of the local Jewish community. Chisinau is, after all, infamous for the 1903 and 1905 pogroms. Now that Shor has been vindicated in the court of public opinion, in Orhei at least, I wonder what those journalists from Israel would have to say. Moldova has come a long way in just 110 years, has it not?

Photo credit: Gheorghe Graur. (In the photo it is Ilan Shor looking mysteriously at passers by from a billboard depicting a fashion magazine cover. The abject poverty in the background is epitomizing of Moldova’s daily reality.)

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