There is a meme circulating on the Moldovan internet that ironically describes the country’s capital, Chișinău, as a “European city.” Although it is true that Chișinău is a city in Europe, it bears little resemblance to Berlin, Paris, and Rome. Its historical buildings lie abandoned, its citizens have little respect for traffic laws, and its sidewalks fall apart as fast as they are repaired.
Many observers have had high hopes for Moldova. Although it straddles the Russian and European spheres of influence, it is relatively liberal and has close ties with Romania. In Soviet times, it was an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. When massive protests toppled the entrenched Moldovan Communist Party in 2009, Moldova seemed to be on its way to becoming a democratic, prosperous country, perhaps even a member of the European Union.
But the European path, like the sidewalks of Chișinău, has not been smooth. The nominally pro-European Democratic Party has succumbed to corruption and dysfunction. It clings to power despite low approval ratings, largely thanks to its financial resources and its media monopoly. As the 2018 parliamentary elections loom, the Democrats have even collaborated with their supposed enemy, the Russian-aligned Party of Socialists. The two parties have enacted a new electoral system that seems designed to insulate Moldova’s rulers from the demands of its citizens. Political oligopoly threatens democracy in Moldova.
The European dream
The Alliance for European Integration, a coalition of three parties, came into power in 2009 with much fanfare. It set out to reform the Moldovan government and breathe new life into the economy. After years of negotiations, an association agreement with the European Union was eventually signed in 2014.
But the promises of the Alliance were hollow. Mihai Popşoi, vice-president of the Party of Action and Solidarity and a Moldovan political analyst, said in an interview with the HPR that there were warning signs as early as 2010 and 2011. The members of the Alliance took advantage of their new mandate to divide government ministries and public funds between them. Together, they laid the groundwork for a crime so remarkable Moldovans call it “the theft of the century.”
In 2015, it was discovered that $1 billion had gone missing from three of the largest banks in Moldova, an astounding sum for a country with a GDP of $6.5 billion. The government bailed out the banks with taxpayer money. Several prominent figures, including the sitting prime minister, were arrested, but only about $20 million has been recovered. It is a popular belief that some of the culprits are still at large, perhaps even still in government.
Government and opposition
In the aftermath of the scandal, only one of the Alliance parties was left standing: the Democratic Party of Moldova. Bankrolled by Vlad Plahotniuc, a shadowy billionaire, the Democratic Party has single-digit approval ratings but clings to a parliamentary plurality.
Maia Sandu has enjoyed a meteoric rise from an obscure minister of education to a serious presidential challenger. She won 48 percent of the vote against Igor Dodon in the presidential run-off last November, after the Democratic Party withdrew its candidate because of low support. Although, as a pro-European party, the Democrats publicly supported Maia Sandu, the party’s media empire seemed to many to be pushing for Dodon’s election.
Ties between prominent Democrats and Socialists go back decades. Members of both parties were part of the inner circle of the leader of the Moldovan Party of Communists before the 2009 protests. Popşoi argued that Plahotniuc, the chairman of the Democratic Party, fears prosecution for his shady business dealings if an anti-oligarchical party like PAS were to come to power. The Socialists, on the other hand, would preserve the status quo, with a little more pro-Russian rhetoric.
Squeezed between the Socialists, who appeal to disillusioned and pro-Russian voters, and PAS, which is winning the young, pro-European vote, the Democrats were facing an uphill battle. With the 2018 parliamentary elections approaching, they needed to do something radical to stay in power.
If you don’t like the rules…
The Democratic Party decided to change the electoral system. In past elections, Moldova has used proportional representation, meaning parties won seats in Parliament based on the percentage of the national vote they received. This July, the Democrats and the Socialists together voted to replace proportional representation with a mixed system. In 2018, half of parliament will be elected under the old system. The other half will be elected under a first-past-the-post system, similar to that of the United States, in which whoever wins the most votes in a district wins the seat representing that district.
The Democrats and the Socialists pushed the reform through at record speed: from the original proposal to the passage of the final bill, less than five months elapsed. Nicolae Panfil, Program Coordinator for Monitoring Democratic Processes at Promo-LEX, a nonpartisan Moldovan NGO, noted in an interview with the HPR that the rushed and manipulative campaign led to “[complete] chaos.” Attempts by Promo-LEX and other members of civil society to promote debate and slow down the process were mostly ignored.
The new electoral bill also maintains a high threshold for entering Parliament on the proportional tier, despite reducing the number of proportionally elected seats by half. It limits the number of seats small parties, especially parties with decentralized support, can win. A party with 30 percent support across the country would find it hard to win any first-past-the-post seats. And the number of proportional seats they could win is now much lower.
Panfil does not doubt that the new electoral system was adopted because of “pure[ly] political interests.” The reform ensures that both the Democrats and the Socialists will be able to win seats in next year’s parliamentary election, while reducing the number of seats PAS and other opposition parties can hope to win. Popşoi is pessimistic that his party will do well under the new system. The chances of PAS winning power in the upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections are, according to him, “extremely slim.” The system is rigged against them.
A fork in the road
Drawing a parallel to Putin’s Russia, Popşoi argued that the Democrats are offering an implicit bargain to the Moldovan people and to Western donors: stability, a pro-European geopolitical orientation, and maybe even economic growth—but no meaningful democracy. European intervention, when it comes, is often too little and too late. “We [PAS] are being told by our partners in the West that they need us to be much stronger for us to present a real alternative—but it’s really tough when [they] are supporting our opponents … it’s a catch-22.”
Eventually, Moldovans will tire of corruption and poor governance. The younger generation knows the difference between Chișinău and Berlin; they use social media, and many have travelled in Europe. Popşoi warned that, if Moldovans do not have a democratic outlet for their discontent, there could be a Maidan-style uprising against a pro-European government, a novel experiment with potentially dangerous consequences.
The European Union would certainly prefer to see a strong, pro-Western democracy in Moldova. The question is whether it will settle for a stable, nominally pro-European oligarchy.
Note: This article is written by Helen Simpson for Harvard Political Review. It is largely based on two interviews, one with Mihai Popşoi, vice-president of the Party of Action and Solidarity and a Moldovan political analyst and another with Nicolae Panfil, Program Coordinator for Monitoring Democratic Processes at Promo-LEX, a nonpartisan Moldovan NGO.