My country was once a leader in democratic transition in the post-Soviet space. It had high hopes of joining the European family of nations as the poster child of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme. This has proven to be an illusion. Despite struggling with corruption and poor governance, political pluralism and independent media are a cherished achievement of Moldova’s young and feeble democracy. But even these achievements are coming to an end.
Moldova is now a captured state that needs to be returned to its citizens. One politician, whose party received less than 16% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, now has the dubious honor of running the entire country. Despite holding no public office, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is now the kingpin of Moldova. He has managed to take over all of the key state institutions, including parliament, the government and the judiciary, by all the means at his disposal.
Plahotniuc’s ownership of the largest media holding in the country, coupled with his control over the nominally independent national public broadcaster, allows for his vast political influence to go completely unchecked.
Changing the rules of the game
The recent adoption of the highly controversial electoral reform and attempts to restrict the independence of civil nongovernmental organizations serve as vivid examples of Moldova’s democratic backsliding.
By changing the electoral system, Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc and pro-Russian president Igor Dodon, elected with Plahotniuc’s support, have established a de facto political cartel in order to marginalise the remaining opposition parties from political competition, even if Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party polled at just four percent in the survey conducted by the International Republic Institute last spring. The new electoral system is clearly designed to benefit the incumbent Democratic Party, which can rely on its vast resources to gain undue advantage, but it also gives the Party of Socialists a head start in almost all districts as a result of the party’s consolidated grip over the left-leaning pro-Russian electorate.
Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party, of which I am president, as well as all of the other major opposition parties have strongly opposed these changes to the electoral system. Civil society has also vocally condemned the Plahotniuc-Dodon electoral reform. The Venice Commission criticised the proposal as inappropriate for Moldova. Nonetheless, after months of media manipulation and political intimidation, the Plahotniuc-Dodon cartel has enacted the mixed electoral system.
Protests as the last sliver of hope
Plahotniuc’s illegitimate tactics of getting lawmakers to defect and join his party by hook or by crook, coupled with his vast wealth, a private media conglomerate and the entire administrative resources of the Moldovan state, including the justice system, increasingly put him at an unfair advantage over other parties. All of these anti-democratic actions have triggered mass popular protests.
Most recently, on 17 September, thousands of Moldovan citizens came together and voiced their dissent in front of the parliament building in the capital of Chișinău. However, instead of listening to their legitimate grievances, the regime depicted the peaceful and mostly elderly protesters as a security threat to the police force.
My colleagues and I are alarmed that the next parliamentary election in November 2018 will fail to meet democratic standards, particularly when it comes to the 51 single member constituencies. As electoral districts are now being drawn by a government committee, major concerns arise about potential gerrymandering. Voter suppression and reduction of voting power in the diaspora is another cause for concern.
Most worrisome is that the district winner will be decided by a plurality vote in a single round election, which is sure to produce an incredibly unrepresentative outcome as legislators may be elected with as little as 15% of the vote or even less.
What is at stake?
After having captured the Moldovan state and continuously depriving its citizens of their basic human rights and liberties, Plahotniuc has the audacity to portray himself as the promoter of Moldova’s EU integration agenda and, recently, came up with an amendment to the Constitution, which would reconfirm Moldova’s strategic goal of European integration.
This move is yet another empty gesture aimed at maintaining the pretense of Democratic Party’s pro-European image, while also channeling the public debate along geopolitical lines away from pressing social, economic and political issues at home. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent, both for Moldovan citizens as well for the more astute observers abroad, that the geopolitical power play between Plahotniuc’s ruling coalition and president Dodon leaves the European Union mostly unimpressed. Through its rhetoric and actions, the party in power is only discrediting the European ideals in Moldova, helping pro-Russian parties strengthen their popular support.
Moldova is nowhere near graduating from the Council of Europe monitoring mechanism in the field of democracy, human rights and rule of law. During his most recent visit to Moldova, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, questioned the government’s human rights record, citing the recent tragic death of Andrei Braguța, a man with mental disabilities, in police custody as evidence of major systemic failures in the justice system.
We share the Commissioner’s concern about the lack of public trust in the judiciary being extremely damaging to a democracy. We are also extremely worried about the growing number of cases of politically motivated harassment and intimidation of our fellow party members and supporters in the regions. Law abiding citizens (school teachers and managers, doctors and librarians etc.) are being persecuted for their political views and their civic initiative of joining and supporting the Action and Solidarity Party. We are determined to report all of the government’s abuses in this regards to our international partners.
In light of the above, last week’s decision by the European Union to cut the budget support programme for justice reforms in Moldova and, particularly, the suspension of macro-financial assistance is an indication of the government’s lack of real commitment to EU values. But it also serves as a test case for EU’s political conditionality. It vividly highlights to even more Moldovan citizens that the government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc does not represent the “steady path to Europe” he wants everyone to believe it does.
As a leader of a genuinely democratic, pro-European political party based on integrity, I plead with Moldova’s friends and partners in the international community not to give up on democracy in my country. Too many Moldovans still hold great hope and are willing to stand up for their country and its democratic future.