In early March 2017, Vlad Plahotniuc, media mogul and head of the ruling Democratic Party in Moldova, proposed a bill to change the country’s parliamentary electoral system from proportional to first-past-the-post. Plahotniuc realized that under the current proportional electoral system his party stood no chance of remaining in power after the 2018 legislative elections. The move was no surprise, as many analysts predicted that Democrats would attempt to change the electoral system in order to hold onto power.
Questions of Legitimacy
With a conformable majority in parliament, one would expect Plahotniuc easily to get his way. In reality, things are more complicated because the majority that Plahotniuc relies on is contested. Despite winning only 19 seats in the last election, the Democratic Party has more than doubled its faction, which now has 42 seats. Eleven seats belong to the Liberal Party, a junior coalition partner. On May 25, the party announced its withdrawal from the coalition a day after the mayor of Chisinau and senior vice president of the Liberal Party had been detained on corruption charges. However, Liberal Party Chairman Mihai Ghimpu considers the arrest political retribution for the party’s refusal to support changing the electoral system. The Liberal Party is likely to be replaced by the nine Liberal Democrat defectors who are currently part of the newly created European People’s Party parliamentary group led by Iurie Leanca. Leanca is often viewed as a Plahotniuc ally and potential future Minister of Foreign Affairs. Plahotniuc co-opted defectors from the Party of Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party after orchestrating a hostile takeover against these two opposition groups in parliament. Thus, since 2014, the Democratic Party was joined by one Socialist, 14 Communists, and 8 Liberal Democrat defectors. Many Moldovans view Plahotniuc’s 42 seats and, therefore, the entire ruling majority as illegitimate.
Similarly, the Democratic Party controls about half of the country’s 900 mayors, despite winning less than a third of mayoralties in the 2015 local elections. Plahotniuc’s tactic of getting lawmakers and mayors to defect and join his party by hook or by crook—coupled with his vast financial, media, and administrative resources—make all of the other parties vulnerable in the face of a single member majoritarian system. Under the proposed system, Plahotniuc could make better use of his unfair competitive advantage by employing either corruption or coercion to turn promising candidates to his sideFor these reasons, every other major political party opposes this bill, including the Action and Solidarity Party, the Dignity and Truth Party, as well as the Party of Communists. That is why Plahotniuc has channeled all of his resources towards building a perception of vast popular support for the proposed change. A national media campaign was launched along with a massive effort to collect signatures in support of Plahotniuc’s bill. Yet, the Democratic Party public relations team may have gone a bit too far when they claimed to have collected almost one million signatures, which amounts to about half of Moldova’s adult population. It did not stop there. The Democratic Party just commissioned the largest poll in Moldova’s history with over 12,000 respondents, compared to the usual national polls of only 1,200 respondents. Apart from the data that was made public, the Democratic Party now is likely to have access to information that allows it to gerrymander electoral districts and co-opt candidates to further cement its competitive edge.
Nonetheless, electing legislators directly in single member districts is an appealing proposition for many voters. Prior to Plahotniuc’s monopolization of political power, some of the parties that now oppose the bill, such as the Liberal Democratic Party, once favored a first-past-the-post system. But more importantly, Plahotniuc and his team have presented first-past-the-post as a simple system of direct political representation, which provides voters in a district a clear choice between individual contenders. This new system is contrasted with the more cumbersome proportional representation system based on party tickets. However, as political science literature indicates, majoritarian systems are generally better suited for consolidated democracies, while countries in transition, such as Moldova, tend to benefit more from a proportional system of representation. Majoritarian systems over-reward the winner, being prone to “electoral dictatorship,” reducing the need for compromise and consensus-building. These negative features can exacerbate tension in multiethnic societies. The unfairness of the majoritarian system also results from the systematic exclusion of smaller parties with more diverse views, in time leading to a two party system alternating in power.
Facing strong domestic contestation, Plahotniuc’s ruling majority is hard pressed to find external validation of this major electoral reform. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, is the leading authority in this regard. It has already stated that a national consensus is advisable for such an overhaul of the electoral system. The support of President Igor Dodon’s fellow Socialists would help to provide the appearance of national consensus that Plahotniuc needs.
Dodon and Plahotniuc: Reluctant Partners?
A compromise solution in the form of a mixed electoral system could be presented as a national consensus between the ruling majority dominated by the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists, which is nominally in opposition to the government even though its former leader serves as president of the country. The compromise bill envisages that 51 MPs would be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 would be elected if they received a plurality of votes in single member districts. Many, including people in his former party, were surprised when President Dodon proposed a mixed system on April 18. However, this was not the first time Dodon and Plahotniuc adopted similar positions, despite their fierce public rivalry.
There have been numerous instances in which the Party of Socialists has cooperated with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, despite ongoing public acrimony between the two camps. Democrats have recently granted two ambassadorships (Moscow and Minsk) to people affiliated with Igor Dodon. At the same time, as the anti-corruption agency is arresting people affiliated with the Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties, Socialists appear to be spared such attention. Similarly, Plahotniuc did not oppose Dodon’s firing of the Defense Minister, whereas Dodon did not stand in the way of Plahontiuc appointing his protégé to head Moldova Gas Company, controlled by Gazprom. Socialists have also supported several controversial bills put forward by the Democratic Party, including the most recent amendments to the Audiovisual Code opposed by many media organizations. Moreover, Plahotniuc’s media empire consistently attacked Dodon’s opponent during the presidential elections. Their relationship has transitioned from one of outright competition to de facto cooperation on many sensitive topics. Many Moldovans view their relationship today as one marked by tacit cooperation.
Political Alliances Transcending Geopolitics
The European Union has already linked its €100 million proposed assistance to Moldova to the government’s respect of “effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system.” An even stronger message came from the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament. The EU Parliament actually postponed the €100 of macro-financial assistanceover concerns regarding the changes of the electoral system. The Venice Commission would also be hard pressed not to acknowledge the obvious lack of political consensus in the country. Given the less than enthusiastic reception that Plahotniuc gets in Brussels, he has turned his focus to the White House. As a fellow businessman who also believes in “the art of the deal,” Plahotniuc made overtures of cooperation to the Trump team even before the inauguration of Donald Trump; he presented Moldova to Trump as a bridge between Russia and the West.
Yet, as U.S.-Russia relations started to deteriorate over Syria, Moldova’s “deal maker” switched gears and re-branded Moldova and his Democratic Party into a bastion of Western values standing against Russia and President Dodon. This branding effort is not consistent with Moldova’s political reality. In order to better shape his own narrative, Plahotniuc hired two leading lobbying groups, Podesta-Group and Burson-Marsteller, to represent his interests in Washington and Brussels.
At the same time, the ad-hoc coalition in support of political pluralism also cuts across geopolitical preferences of the five political parties, three of which are pro-Western (Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party), while the other two are more Russia-oriented (Party of Communists and Our Party). Despite risk of a major political crisis, the current situation has a silver lining. Geopolitics, no matter how pervasive, does not pre-determine policy positions. Therefore, the hope that Moldova can become a country with parties focused less on geopolitics and more on governance still lives on.