Category Archives: democracy

Changing the rules of the game in Moldova

It’s favourite move of dictators and autocrats everywhere: change the rules of the game once you start losing support or approach the legally mandated finish line. The post-Soviet space abounds in cases where heads of state overstay their terms in office. Until recently, Moldova stood out as a model of democratic transformation among the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, my country’s glory was short-lived.

Despite high expectations about Moldova’s initial successes on its path towards European integration, embodied by the signing of the association agreements and a visa-free regime with the European Union, powerful actors have begun to hollow out the country’s democracy. Media freedom is being curtailed through a concentration of ownership and, as a result, political pluralism is withering away. The most recent innovation, a dubious call for electoral reform, is just latest sign of a democracy in deep decline.

The problem with Mr. P

Moldovans still overwhelmingly despise the country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief Vlad Plahotniuc, who also leads the ruling Democratic Party. Not even an alleged assassination plot in December 2016 could sway the public’s contempt. Yet Plahotniuc is relentless in his self-rebranding effort, desperate to turn himself from crooked oligarch into a respectable politician — one worthy of being the standard-bearer of European values at pinnacle of state power.

The figure behind this new electoral form is Vlad Plahotniuc. The country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief, he is despised by the overwhelming majority of Moldovans

After eliminating his arch rival ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat by having him imprisoned on corruption charges in a textbook display of selective justice, Plahotniuc emerged as the most powerful man in Moldova. His personal grip on power was first tested during the presidential elections in October 2016.

Fearing the victory of pro-European anti-corruption crusader and leader of the Action and Solidarity Party Maia Sandu, Plahotniuc colluded with then leader of the Party of Socialists Igor Dodon. Despite Plahotniuc’s brandishing pro-European credentials, many believe he helped the pro-Russian Dodon to become president. The parliamentary elections of 2018 will determine the country’s future — and Plahotniuc’s fortunes.

Digging in for the long haul

Whatever their views on foreign policy, Plahotniuc and Dodon coordinate their domestic actions rather well. After having initially proposed a mixed electoral system back in 2012, Plahotniuc reintroduced the idea in March 2017, but this time in the form of a purely majoritarian (first past the post) system. Faced with massive opposition from all major political forces, Plahotniuc had to call in a favour. An indebted Dodon surprised many of his supporters by suddenly proposing a compromise in the form of a mixed electoral system on 18 April. Without further ado, on 5 May, in violation of legislative procedure, Moldova’s parliament rushed the bill onto the agenda, making the first step towards changing the country’s electoral system.

The compromise bill, which combined Plahotniuc and Dodon’s proposals, taking the latter as a starting point, envisages a mixed electoral system under which 51 MPs will be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 will be elected if they get a plurality of votes in single member districts. Candidates will require 600 signatures to register.

The compromise bill envisages a mixed electoral system. Importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing electoral districts is left for after the bill is enacted

Igor Dodon proposed that 25 MPs represent Moldova’s diaspora (as many as 700,000 Moldovan citizens live and work abroad; their remittances are immensely important to the country’s struggling economy) and Transnistria (a breakaway state on Moldovan territory which receives Russian economic and military support). Transnistrian leader Krasnoselskii earlier rejected Dodon’s proposal (link in Romanian), saying that five or six MPs would not suffice, and that residents of Transnistria would not participate in thes election anyway. Clearly, Dodon seeks to increase his potential electoral pool, but this will not go well with Plahotniuc, whose party’s base is primarily in Moldova proper. Needless to say, things are still in flux and the second reading will bring major amendments. Even more importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing the electoral districts by the Central Electoral Commission is left for after the bill is enacted.

As expected by most analysts, Plahotniuc dropped his own bill and backed Dodon’s compromise solution, formally ensuring a “consensus” as was suggested by the Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional law for the Council of Europe. At the end of the day, the mixed electoral system compromise was approved on the first reading with 74 votes out of 101 (link in Romanian). But there’s more to this decision than meets the eye.

Of the 74 lawmakers who voted for the controversial legislation, 31 are defectors from the Liberal Democratic and Communist parties. The two factions fell victim to a hostile takeover at the hands of the Democratic Party, whose faction grew to 42 legislators from the initial 19 seats won in the 2014 election (link in Romanian). Plahotniuc had previously relied on 13 seats belonging to his junior coalition partner, the Liberal Party.

When the Liberals refused to support the change of the electoral system, Plahotniuc skillfully replaced them with a group of Liberal Democrat defectors headed by former Prime Minister Iurie Leancă. It was Leancă who led the cabinet during Moldova’s infamous “billion dollar scandal”, and his controversial decisions back then leave him open to blackmail and pressure from Plahotniuc, who enjoys control over the country’s judiciary and law enforcement.

It’s clear that Plahotniuc’s majority in parliament is illegitimate — it does not reflect the will of the people expressed in the 2014 election. No surprises, therefore, that Plahotniuc had to go to great lengths to create the image of mass public support for his proposal. He has waged a large-scale media campaign, as well as a petition — and claims to have collected some 850,000 signatures. Yet after all this effort, the oligarch finally had to relent, and bring the Socialist opposition on board in order to give a modicum of legitimacy to his undertaking.

Keeping up appearances, for Brussels and Moscow

Together, the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists are only backed by about half of Moldova’s electorate. Recent polls indicate that the other half of the voters support opposition parties. On 12 April, five major opposition parties (Party of Communists, Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party, Our Party) signed a declaration against the bill proposed by Plahotniuc. A no less strong response came from leading figures in Moldovan civil society, who addressed an open letter to the European Commission. In Brussels, the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) have already voiced opposition to the proposed changes. This show of unity among fierce political rivals may have indeed forced Plahotniuc to “activate” Dodon, who provided the necessary reinforcements in the form of his mixed electoral system compromise proposal.

Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners

In my view, one would have to be blind not to see the hand-in-hand cooperation between Plahotniuc and Dodon. The absurdity of the situation is that Dodon continues to claim that he only proposed the compromise in order to put pressure on Plahotniuc and prevent him from enacting a fully majoritarian system.

Dodon is being disingenuous, to say the least. Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners. Even more importantly, any change of Moldova’s electoral system could require amendments to the constitution, which Plahotniuc can only achieve with Dodon’s help.

So what’s in it for Dodon? The current proportional system benefits the Party of Socialists the most, as it enjoys the highest popular support of any single party. With Plahotniuc in control of administrative resources, mass media and the gerrymandering process, a mixed electoral system reduces the chances of a Socialist Party majority in the next parliament. If Dodon is vulnerable to blackmail by Plahotniuc of any kind, this should make his backers in Moscow worried about the return on their investment.

As of yet, there’s little to suggest that the Kremlin is unhappy with Igor Dodon, who was widely derided in European media as “Russia’s man”. After all, during the recent Victory Day parade, Putin welcomed Dodon to Moscow for the third time in less than six months (the Moldovan president had the dubious honour of being the only foreign leader in attendance.) Yet if we assume that, for the time being, Russia is encouraging Dodon in his flirtation with Plahotniuc, this should in turn, make the oligarch reconsider his choice of friends.

For ordinary people, it’s the usual story

As always, it is the Moldovan people who ought to be worried the most, since they are ultimately affected by the lack of transparency in domestic politics and the lack of stability in foreign relations. Plahotniuc’s western partners are well aware of their friend’s shortcomings. Both the United States and the European Union condone Plahotniuc as long as he can ensure a steady pro-European course; provided that the democratic values trade off does not become too egregious. Knowing that his grip on power is contingent on external support, the oligarch spares no expense in lobbying Washington and Brussels.

Ideally, parliamentary elections in 2018 would give Moldovans cause to hope for change. After these electoral reforms, the odds will be stacked against them

After making a failed strategic bid by employing the Podesta Group last year to whitewash his image in the United States, an increasingly determined Plahotniuc is doubling down by employing Burson-Marsteller to carry his water in Brussels. The famous public relations firm also counted Nicolae Ceaușescu and Viktor Yanukovych among its clients.

With this change of the electoral rules, Moldova is moving to a bipolar political system in which Plahotniuc and Dodon will try to balance each other at the expense of all other political forces. The pretence of democracy will be maintained, but the political landscape will remain extremely unstable, and will be fiercely contested by Moldova’s remaining opposition parties. Ideally, parliamentary elections would offer Moldovans a way out, a cause for hope and, just possibly, for change. But unfortunately for those Moldovans who continue to demand real democracy, a new electoral system can only but stack the odds against them.

Moldova protests

Note: This op-ed was written for Opendemocracy.net and can be accessed here:

The Future of Moldovan Politics after October 30th

Lately, Moldova has been going through some major political transformations. Firstly, a directly elected president is, perhaps, the most obvious of several such developments. Another well documented process is the reformatting of the political spectrum both on the left and on the right. While something that is less apparent, the downfall of the Liberal Party implies the fading of unionism as a defining party platform. Thirdly, signs of de-criminalization of the political process, albeit through selective justice, are another major development. Last but certainly not least, the ongoing consolidation of Vlad Plahotniuc’s power vertical boosts the central role of the Democratic Party, which may be cemented further by a move towards a mixed electoral system.

Needless to say, a popularly elected president, be it Igor Dodon or Maia Sandu, will behave rather differently than has been the case with Nicolae Timofti. Yet, in the unlikely scenario that Marian Lupu accomplished his life dream of becoming president, we are going to have another Timofti type figurehead. Should Dodon win, Moldovans will be presented with an elaborate play in which Dodon will pretend to fight Plahotniuc, who will, in turn, pretend to oppose the Russian threat, embodied by Dodon. While, behind the scenes Dodon will continue to do Plahotniuc’s bidding in exchange for Plahotniuc using his power to shield Dodon from potential competition, be it the Communists or, even more so,  Renato Usatii. So that, after the next Parliamentary election the theater of the absurd can reach its climax by Dodon and Plahotniuc formalizing their relationship in an (in)formal ruling coalition.  Alternatively, should Sandu win, she will use her presidential platform to set a national agenda aimed at undercutting Plahotniuc’s power structure. Mainly, PAS and PDA will use their momentum for the parliamentary elections. Because the presidency, though symbolically important, is little more than a megaphone, which can be overpowered by even louder noise from Plahotniuc’s political and media machine. Winning the presidency is a major stepping stone towards taking control of Parliament in a coalition with the Dignity and Truth Platform, which has, so far, proven itself a trustworthy ally. However, even if Sandu loses in the face of Plahotniuc-Dodon political duo, PAS and PDA will still be well positioned for the upcoming legislative elections. Since not just Plahotniuc but also Dodon will become part of the ruling establishment.  This is only valid as long as the electoral system remains the same. In the likely scenario that Plahotniuc tries to introduce a mixed electoral system, which dramatically shifts the balance of power to his favor, Dodon will be forced to show his true colors.

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Even without the change of the electoral system, the reformatting of the political spectrum has been ongoing for some time. After 2009, the right wing of the spectrum was divided between PLDM and PL, only to be rehashed again between PAS and PDA. Interestingly, the apparent downfall of the Liberal Party, which polls below the margin of error, is particularly symbolic because it appears to drag down with it one of the main national political currents – unionism.  Supporters of the unionist movement have become utterly disillusioned with the Liberal Party and its leader Mihai Ghimpu, who, despite running for president on a vocal unionist message, polls at just one percent. Almost all of PL supporters have migrated to PAS, PDA and PD, neither of which are explicitly pro-unionist parties. PAS and PDA surely have a unionist wing, but they shy away from making unionism a key feature of their political identity and for good reason. Both PAS and PDA want to take the lead on the center-right, hoping to get the support of as many voters as possible, but a unionist platform sets you a ceiling of about 12%. It is still possible that the weaker of the two parties will embrace unionism at some point to cement its position, unless a new party replaces PL before that, perhaps one lead by current Constitutional Court Chairman Alexandru Tanase. Another public figure that Plahotniuc could employ for these purposes is George Simion, prominent unification activist, whom Plahotniuc has used before to galvanize unionist sentiments as a decoy during the turbulent coalition building process after the 2014 elections. In the meantime, Moldova remains without a standard bearer of unionism – a defining cleavage of local political competition. Perhaps, it is only natural since the Greater Romania Party has long lost its political importance in Romania. Whether we are entering post-unionist politics in Moldova is yet to be determined, but the implication for the left is apparent, once it starts to lose one of its own defining fear mongering talking point.

Meanwhile, the left wing of the spectrum has been slowly but surely metamorphosing from Voronin’s PCRM into Dodon’s PSRM, with the Democrats situated comfortably in the center. The meteoric rise of Renato Usatii did not fit into this plan. Usatii’s populist appeal was, in many ways, a problem for all parties, but mostly for Dodon and Plahotniuc.  If Usatii were to hold about 15% of seats in Parliament, then Democrats would lose their kingmaker position. Had Usatii not been banned from the 2014 election, we would now have a rather different picture, perhaps with Plahotniuc in a much weaker position or even out of power. That is why Usatii had to go. However, before we paint Usatii as a martyr, we need to be aware that Usatii had been in hot water before in 2014 and was even detained in October 2015 only to be soon absolved of all his sins by the same Plahotniuc controlled justice system. Conveniently, Usatii’s past dealings and present connections make him a perfect candidate for prosecution every time you need to distract the public’s attention from something far more important – say a crucial presidential election.

renato-usatii

Following the Friday arrest warrant issued on Usatii’s name for an alleged assassination attempt of a business rival back in 2012, Usatii will join a long list of high profile criminal cases. Note that even this time Usatii was allowed to escape to Moscow. In this sense, Plahotniuc learnt from his mentor Voronin, who eradicated or exiled much or the powerful organized crime that controlled the most lucrative sectors of the Moldovan economy, only to be replaced by white-collar criminals, who took control over key financial flows and soon became politicians or sponsors of political parties: Vlad Filat, Veaceslav Platon, Ilan Shor, Victor and Viorel Topa, Renato Usatii, Oleg Voronin etc. One could even say that Plahotniuc is making the country a favor by rooting out criminal elements from the political process, with one major caveat – Plahotniuc himself is more than worthy of joining the likes of Filat, Platon and Usatii. The only thing protecting Plahotniuc from a criminal case is his control over the majority in Parliament. Therefore, Plahotniuc cannot afford to lose power,  which  is exactly what Maia Sandu is determined to make happen. Will Dodon? We could soon find out.

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