On June 25, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Moldova denied opposition candidate Andrei Nastase (leader of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party) legal recourse, thus upholding the June 21 decision of the Appellate Court to invalidate the mayoral elections in the capital Chisinau (Agora.md, June 25). On June 3, Nastase won 52.57 percent of the vote in a second round as a unified pro-Europe opposition candidate; the pro-Russian Socialist candidate, Ion Ceban, lost with 47.43 percent. Despite initially conceding and congratulating Nastase on his victory, Ceban later lodged a complaint about voting irregularities, but stopped short of demanding the cancelation of election results. Still, despite the elections being considered free and fair by domestic and international observers, a lower court nullified the election outcome. The lower court ruled on June 19 that a “get out the vote” campaign on election day amounts to pressure and undue influence on voters—even though this ostensibly democratic practice was employed by all the candidates in all of Moldova’s previous elections, including the presidential election of 2016, won by the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon (Zdg.md, June 21; Agora.md, June 22). Thus, for the first time in Moldova’s independent history, the judicial branch voided an outcome of a democratic election.
The Moldovan justice system is notorious for endemic corruption and a high level of political control. It is well known that the head of the Democratic Party, billionaire oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, exerts significant undue influence over the judiciary. He has appointed and promoted numerous loyalists to key positions in the judicial branch, including the Supreme Court. This allows him to control the political process by prosecuting his most vocal opponents while displaying leniency toward his supporters. Along with Action and Solidarity Party leader Maia Sandu, Andrei Nastase is among Plahotniuc’s fiercest critics. Backed by a broad coalition of pro–European Union parties and endorsed by many prominent civil society figures, Nastase’s win was a major upset for Plahotniuc. The oligarch had his own candidate in the race—the nominally independent then-incumbent mayor Silvia Radu, who lost in a landslide in the first round, on May 20 (see EDM, May 17). Plahotniuc then bet on the Socialist candidate, Ion Ceban, in the June 3 run-off, attacking Nastase via his media machine, just as he did in the last presidential election, when he undermined Maia Sandu to Igor Dodon’s benefit (see EDM, November 14, 2016).
Nonetheless, Chisinau voters still voted for the unified pro-Europe opposition candidate. Evidently fearing a consolidation (ahead of the parliamentary elections at the end of this year) of center-right, pro-EU and anti-oligarchic forces around the national platform provided by the Chisinau mayoralty, ruling party leader Plahotniuc took drastic measures to deny the opposition their electoral victory. The decision to invalidate the democratic choice of a quarter million people undermines the already low trust in the democratic process and elections—a concern universally shared by Moldova’s international partners.
The United States embassy reacted immediately, emphasizing, “Judicial independence is a key democratic principle, and today’s ruling has reinforced the public’s perception of political interference in the judiciary of the Republic of Moldova” (Md.usembassy.gov, June 25). EU Ambassador Peter Michalko also promptly issued a stern condemnation: “The will of the people expressed in free and fair elections, democratic values, principles of rule of law to which the Republic of Moldova committed in its relations with the EU, have not been respected” (Facebook.com/peter.michalko1, June 25). Earlier, the spokesperson of the EU External Action Service, Maja Kocijancic, said that it was “of utmost importance that the will of the voters is respected” (Eeas.europa.eu, June 20). The European People’s Party, of which Andrei Nastase and Maia Sandu’s parties are members, expressed outrage over the erosion of democracy in Moldova (Epp.eu, June 20), as did key members of the European Parliament (Europarl.europa.eu, June 21). The Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and numerous international experts raised grave concerns about developments in Moldova, as well (Eap-csf.eu, June 26; Atlanticcouncil.org, June 25).
Yet, international condemnation did not sway Plahotniuc, who has claimed his party could not intervene in the court case to stop this dangerous precedent. Instead, he has complained that the criticism places his government in a bad light (Timpul.md, June 26). Plahotniuc also denounced domestic pressure on the justice system coming from the opposition, which organized mass protests on Sunday, June 24, attended by over 20,000 people in the main square in Chisinau and many more in the diaspora. Plahotniuc’s media outlets reported that only 3,000 protesters took part (Publika.md, June 24). Interestingly, the highly controversial court decisions coincided with the historic, though only symbolic, United Nations General Assembly resolution urging Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova (Un.org, June 22).
More importantly, and hardly coincidentally, the Supreme Court hearing of Nastase’s case was scheduled for late afternoon, with the ruling issued at night—that is, after Prime Minister Pavel Filip had met with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington. The US readout of the meeting pointedly stated, “The Secretary reminded Prime Minister Filip that free and fair elections are a hallmark of a democratic government and must reflect the will of the country’s citizens without political interference” (State.gov, June 25); yet, these remarks are missing from the Moldovan government communiqué (Gov.md, June 25). Now, Plahotniuc is purposefully projecting via his media a false image of Washington’s support for his anti-democratic tactics. The smoke and mirrors covering up the ruling regime’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies undermine the country’s hopes for a democratic future in the European family of nations and could push Moldova back into Russia’s orbit.