Moldova has witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017 on the backdrop of some consumptions based economic growth – the government calls it stability, while the opposition views it as stagnation at best. Window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to international and domestic commitments is the hallmark of 2017. Next year’s legislative elections can be a turning point in terms of how the country has been governed since independence. Sadly, Moldovan voters have had high hopes before, only to find their trust betrayed yet again by the political class. Many disillusioned voters see real change as almost too good to ever materialize. This makes apathy all too common, which only works in favor of the ruling elite content with obfuscating popular scrutiny and relishing in impunity. This somber reality of the past year took Moldova back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If this trend continues Moldova will soon become more like Belarus and Azerbaijan and less like the European Union many so aspire to.
The year 2017 proved to be a time of Vlad Plahotniuc’s power consolidation, as predicted in an article from last January. The leader of the Democratic Party which only gained 15.8% in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in Parliament, managed to turn 17 of 21 Communist legislators and 18 and 23 Liberal Democratic Members of Parliament to his side, in effect pulling off a hostile takeover of two competing legislative factions. Plahotniuc now fully controls the government thanks to his comfortable majority in Parliament, despite being the most reviled politician in the country, no matter the resources he pours into whitewashing his image. Despite controlling about 75% of the media market, employing dozens of political and PR consultants, including world-class lobbyists, a recent national poll showed Plahotniuc to be the most corrupt politician in Moldova by far. In a country with robust democratic traditions, compared to the rest of the post-soviet space, Plahotniuc’s utter lack of legitimacy makes him vulnerable. That is why, knowing that his party stood no chance in the next election, Plahotniuc did what any authoritarian leader does, he radically changed the rules by introducing a mixed electoral system to benefit his party and his bedfellow, former Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who became president with Plahotniuc’s help in December 2016.
For President Dodon, the year 2017 was a year of lost opportunities, unforced errors and perplexing submissiveness to Plahotniuc. Having run on a strongly pro-Russian platform, Dodon spent much of his 2017 in Russia, having met President Putin six times. Yet, Dodon failed to visit either Romania or Ukraine. Even so, Dodon’s frequent visits to Russia did not translate into better political or economic relations with Moscow. On the eve of his sixth meeting with Putin at the informal CIS summit, Dodon lamented that not everyone in Russia is in awe of the Socialists’ powerful grip over the entire left-wing electorate. Dodon went so far as to accuse Russian intelligence of plotting against him and his joint efforts with Russian leadership to improve relations between the two countries (sic!). In the same interview to Kommersant, Dodon appeared to regret the fact that Russian prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Vlad Plahotniuc (on charges of attempted murder and criminal conspiracy; Interpol rejected the warrant as politically motivated) because, according to Dodon, this only boosted Plahotniuc’s standing with his western benefactors and it does not play well politically for Dodon and his fellow Socialists. Reality is hard to discern in the smoke and mirrors of Moldovan politics, but Dodon may actually be accurate in his allusion about Moscow hedging its bets. The part that Dodon may not feel comfortable admitting is that the Kremlin is not betting on just one horse in Moldova. Plahotniuc may, in fact, be the Kremlin’s second option and a coalition between Plahotniuc and Dodon may be exactly what Russia is after. Just remember 2010, when then head of the Russian president’s administration Sergey Naryshkin famously acted as a negotiator between the Communists and the Democratic Party.
If a future PD-PSRM coalition is indeed on the cards than it is no longer so astonishing that Dodon has refused to capitalize on Plahotniuc’s legal troubles in Russia or in Romania where he is being investigated for organized crime and money laundering. Moreover, this also explains Dodon’s uncanny response to his shameful temporary suspension from office by Plahontiuc. All this vindicates the political cartel narrative between PD and PSRM, the natural conclusion of which is a Russia backed governing coalition. A grand PD-PSRM coalition is already being accredited as the most likely post electoral scenario by leading pro-Plahotniuc pundits. Meanwhile, the mutual public demonization between Igor Dodon and Vlad Plahotniuc continues unabated – a political theater aimed at gullible domestic and foreign audiences alike.
In order to mitigate their relative weakness and fractionalization, the centre-right opposition parties announced plans for consolidation. On November 20, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase on behalf of Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and Truth Platform Party respectively announced a would be electoral bloc of center-right pro-EU and anti-oligarchic political forces. The bloc will also encompass prominent civil society activists and leaders from various professional fields. In response, on December 14, a group of 77 personalities, including members of Moldova’s first Parliament and signatories of the declarations of independence launched the Civic European Movement with the goal of galvanizing support for the newly announced electoral bloc. The ruling party gave a response of its own by spearheading an effort to launch a new spoiler party – Party for Animal Rights (Partidul Politic pentru Drepturile Animalelor, PPDA) – with the same acronym as the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), aiming to steal votes from the opposition by confusing and misleading the voters. This is yet another example of anti-democratic behavior, adding to the long list of political intimidation tactics employed by the Democratic Party against its real competition. In this context, it should come as no surprise that Action and Solidarity Party and its partners reject even the thought of a post-electoral coalition with the Plahotniuc controlled Democratic Party, not to mention Dodon’s Party of Socialists. Thus, the center-right parties are doomed to cooperate in order to increase their electoral standing. According to Sun Tzu, having no alternative is the best commitment device there is. Though, it is certainly not a substitute for an electoral campaign strategy. Will the genuinely pro-reform and integrity driven political figures be successful? Only 2018 will tell…