Category Archives: Political Protest

Democracy in Moldova: A Cautionary Tale

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  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.  


Change of Electoral Systems in EaP Countries: Bolstering Dictators or Causing Maidan


Before the Constitutional Referendum of 2015, Armenia was a semi-presidential republic. It had a semi-proportional representation underpinned by a majority bonus system. The unicameral parliament – National Assembly consisted of 131 deputies, of which 90 were elected on a proportional system and 41 on a majority bonus system, which rewards the largest party with the aim of ensuring stronger government stability. After the Constitutional reform of 2015, Armenia became a parliamentary republic with proportional representation based on one national and 13 regional multi-member constituencies. Yet, incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan, whose second term ends in 2018, is likely to retain strong influence over the political system by becoming Prime Minister (Ayriyan, 2016). The change of the electoral system and the reduction in the number of legislators from 131 to 101 (but may go over 101) is likely to facilitate Sargsyan’s continued grip on power.


Azerbaijan started off a unitary semi-presidential republic with a very strong executive and a mixed electoral system, whereby 100 members were elected in single seat constituencies and 25 on national party lists. Later, in 2002, a constitutional reform was adopted, putting the prime minister second in line to the presidency instead of the parliament speaker, thus creating the conditions for the transfer of power from then President Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham Aliyev (Heinrich, 2010). The same reforms abolished the mixed electoral system in favor a majoritiarian one and eliminated the 50% turnout threshold for both presidential and legislative elections. In August 2003, İlham Aliyev became prime minister, only to win the October 2003 presidential elections. Another constitutional reform in 2009 further strengthened the president’s grip on power by allowing the president of Azerbaijan to serve for more than two consecutive terms (Gahramonova, 2009). The latest constitutional reform approved in a 2016 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years and introduced the office of vice president. Shortly after the referendum, President Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as Vice-President (BBC, 2017).


The bicameral Belarusian National Assembly is composed of the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Council of the Republic (higher chamber). The 110 Representatives are elected in single member constituencies, while 64 Council members (represent regional public authorities) are elected indirectly in seven multi-member constituencies, plus another eight Councilors being appointed directly by the president.  However, the parliament is only a rubber stamp institution with the president having a strong veto over the legislative process (Frear, 2014; Gubarevich, 2016). The vast majority of the directly elected legislators in the lower house are loyal to the president, who has considerable influence over the 94 independents from the total of 110 legislators, because the government routinely employs coercion to marginalize and criminalize the opposition’s mobilization efforts (Kulakevich, 2016). The remaining sixteen seats are divided among five political parties, which have very little impact of the political process. President Lukashenko himself is not a member of any party, but rather prefers to run as an independent.


Georgia is a semi-presidential republic. Its unicameral parliament of 150 seats is elected through a mixed electoral system (77 seats are decided in one nationwide constituency and closed party lists, while 73 seats a filled in single member districts). The country has had a relatively vibrant democratic experience compared to the three countries discussed above, particularly after the November 2003 “Rose Revolution” led by Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004 and re-elected in 2008. However, as he was approaching the second term limit, Saakashvili decided to maintain power by becoming prime minister. Thus, in 2010 Parliament adopted amendments to the constitution, shifting some powers from the president to the prime minister. However, by the time his second term expired in 2013, Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party had lost the 2012 Parliamentary elections to the opposition Georgian Dream Party. This was the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country’s history (Lutsevych, 2013; Delcour, 2015). The Georgian Dream Party went on to improve its results in the October 2016 parliamentary elections, receiving 115 of 150 seats. Another four parties hold the remaining 35 seats, which makes Georgian Dream a dominant party. It appears determined to use its constitutional majority to further cement its dominance by changing the electoral system to a proportional one with a 5% threshold and the redistribution of the unallocated seats to the winner, offering the incumbent undue advantage (Gilbreath and Sichinava, 2017). Also, the Constitutional reform proposed in April 2017 would do away with direct presidential elections. Instead, the president would be elected by a college of electors composed of 300 parliamentarians and municipal council members, transforming Georgia into a parliamentary republic. Even if the proposed change of the way the president is elected would not go into effect until 2023, it is, nonetheless, viewed as an attack by the ruling Party on the President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is independent (Larsen, 2017). In the short term, the reform could lead to consolidation of the ruling party’s positions, but it could also create room for political pluralism in the future.


After a failed experience with the soviet majoritarian electoral system used for Moldova’s first democratic elections, following the 1994 Constitution, Moldova became a semi-presidential republic with a proportional electoral system. However, in 2000, following an attempt by then President Petru Lucinschi to gain more powers via referendum, Parliament intervened and amended the Constitution transforming Moldova into a parliamentary republic, with a largely ceremonial president elected by Parliament with 61 of the total 101 votes. However, after two terms of domination by the Party of Communist Party (2001-2009), a government coalition created in 2009 by former opposition parties did not have enough votes to elect a president, which triggered a three year long constitutional crisis with a series of early parliamentary elections, a failed constitutional referendum, only to finally reach the 61 votes in March 2012 to elect a president. To avoid such difficulties in the future, in March 2016, the Constitutional Court issued a rather controversial decision to cancel parts of the Constitutional Reform of year 2000 on a technically, thus reintroducing direct presidential elections. However, as presidential powers were not changed, Moldova remains a parliamentary republic.

The 101 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected for a four year term in one national constituency based on closed party lists. The threshold has oscillated between 4% and the current 6%. The unallocated seats were distributed proportionally during the 2000’s, which gave an advantage to the dominant Party of Communists. After the opposition took power in 2009, the unallocated seats became distributed equally among the parties that passed the threshold, which benefitted the ruling coalition parties. Yet, the successive coalition governments were torn apart by infighting that produced major political scandals, culminating with a billion dollars or 15% of GDP disappearing from three banks on the eve of 2014 parliamentary elections (Rosca, 2015; Socor, 2016), which led to the jailing of a former prime minister and leader of the senior coalition partner – Liberal Democratic Party, and the reformatting of the ruling coalition. This led to the collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party at the hands of it once junior coalition partner – the Democratic Party (Independent, 2017), which welcomed defectors from PLDM and PCRM, thus becoming the main political force in the government, despite public support of only 4% (IRI, 2017). These and other developments brought increasing concerns about government legitimacy and even state capture (Tudoroiu, 2014).

Still, faced with low public support and realizing the diminishing chances of staying in power, in March 2017, the centrist Democratic Party proposed to change the electoral system from a proportional to a majoritarian one, only to settle on a mixed system compromise struck with the largest opposition party – the Socialists, that have managed to replace the Communists on the left wind of the spectrum. If approved, 51 legislators will be elected as before in a single national consistency on closed party lists, while the other 50 winners will be decided in single member districts in one round, which will allow the ruling party to employ its vast administrate and financial resources to gain undue advantage.


Ukraine’s Constitution provides for a unitary republic with a semi-presidential system. The constitution was first amended following the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 by decreasing the powers of the president, but it fell short of moving towards full fledged parliamentarism (Matsuzato, 2005). The rushed change was only aimed at overcoming the political crisis triggered by a contested presidential election, which led to the “Orange Revolution.” However, once Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, the Constitutional Court overturned the 2004 amendments, on technical irregularities, reinstating a strong presidency. This decision was highly controversial (Kramer et. all, 2011), since it cast doubt over the independence of the Court from the influence of the president (Minakov and Stavniichuk, 2016). Moldova appears to have emulated the questionable Ukrainian experience, when its own Constitutional Court, under immense political pressure, invalidated in 2016 a major constitutional reform from the year 2000 that had transformed Moldova into a fully parliamentary republic.

Ukraine has experienced all three main types of electoral systems. Much like all of the former USSR republics, Ukraine started off with the soviet majority (FPSP) system, but due to the double majority rule (50%+1 turnout and 50%+1 votes) many seats were left unoccupied. Discussions about reforming the system started as early as 1993, only to actually move to a mixed electoral system in 1997. The new electoral system undermined the nascent party system by bring 114 independents into Parliament after the 1998 legislative elections (Harasymiw, 2014).   Thus, the mixed system was used for just two electoral cycles (1998, 2002), only to be replaced with a full proportional system used in 2006, 2007 elections (Bader, 2010). Proportional system reduced the effective number of parties and brought some consolidation of the party system. However, as the ruling Party of Regions lost 3 million votes in 2010 local elections, President Victor Yanunovych, hoping to be able to use administrative resources to manipulate results in single member districts, proposed to returned to a mixed electoral system in 2012, under which half of the representatives are elected in one national constituency based on closed party lists, with a 5% threshold, while the other half are elected in single member districts (Harasymiw, 2014). Even though, there have not been major shifts in the effective number of parties, the third electoral system change in less than fifteen years appears to have reduced the turnout by about 8% compared to previous elections, which can be an indication of public frustration and loss of trust in the democratic process. System volatility also increased as two new parties gained over a quarter of the votes.

Not surprisingly, the ruling Party of Regions gained over half of seats in single member districts, while other parties were significantly underrepresented when compared to their results in the proportional list vote. It can be concluded that the Party of Regions archived its goal. Yet, one can only speculate what could have happened in a counterfactual scenario in which the fully proportional system would have remained in place. Perhaps, the Party of Regions would have lost the 2012 elections and Ukraine could have, therefore, avoided the 2013-2014 Maidan Revolution, the loss of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbas. One thing is certain, the country’s political elite is still guided by short term political expediency, rather than genuine debate on a long term constitutional design as was epitomized by the bill to introduce open electoral lists, which failed without proper consideration in 2014 (Interfax, 2014).