Tag Archives: Igor Dodon

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.  

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A Year in Review: Oligarchic Power Consolidation Defines Moldova’s Politics in 2017

Moldova witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017, along with window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to its international and domestic commitments. Against this backdrop, the country did experience some consumption-based economic growth, which the government has identified as stability, although the opposition views it as stagnation at best. The days of Moldova being a success story of European integration are long gone. Yet, it is the billion dollars siphoned off from the banking system back in 2014 that unveiled the true nature of Moldova’s dysfunctional state. The acrimonious unraveling of the ruling coalition, which followed the banking scandal, tore down the democratic façade the pro-European ruling parties have been projecting since coming to power in 2009.

Ironically, it is the Democratic Party (PDM) that has been at the center of Moldova’s recent democratic backsliding, after benefiting the most from the demise of its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM). The latter ended up a scapegoat for the billion-dollar heist. PDM and its leader, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, has been instrumental in defusing the anti-government protests that swept the country in 2015 by having the Constitutional Court reintroduce direct presidential elections (see EDM, March 8, 2016). The subsequent presidential campaign distracted the public and the opposition for most of 2016, paving the way for Vlad Plahotniuc to embark on a power consolidation offensive that transformed PDM from a once junior coalition partner into a dominant political force. Plahotniuc meticulously cemented his power throughout 2017, despite lacking popular legitimacy and being widely reviled by the public (Moldova.org, December 14, 2017).

The Democratic Party only garnered 15.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in the 101-person legislature. Yet, thanks to Plahotniuc’s immense wealth and vast influence over law enforcement, since the election he managed to turn a majority of former Liberal Democrat and Communist legislators to his side, building a comfortable majority of about 60 seats. Nonetheless, despite having full control over the government and about 75 percent of the media market, in early 2017 PDM still polled below the parliamentary threshold of 6 percent (IRI.org, March 2017). To mitigate the risk of losing power, in March Plahotniuc introduced a mixed electoral system (half of the seats assigned proportionally and half under a “first past the post” arrangement). Disregarding democracy concerns and condemnations from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the United States, the new Moldovan electoral system was approved on July 20, thanks, in part, to support from the Socialist faction in parliament (Venice.coe.int, June 19, 2017; Eeas.europa.eu, July 21, 2017; Md.usembassy.gov, July 24, 2017).

The new law is likely to produce a highly unrepresentative parliament, further entrenching politicians’ clientelistic behaviors and deepening state capture. The new electoral system benefits the incumbent Democratic Party but also large established parties, namely the Socialists. At the same time, it undermines the electoral chances of new political parties, such as the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and Dignity and Truth Party (PDA) (see EDM, July 25, 2017). Opposition parties as well as civil society groups protested against the voting changes, but to no avail. The government retaliated against civil society by promoting a bill similar to the Russian “foreign agent” legislation aimed at curbing public dissent (Open Democracy, August 22). Feeling emboldened, Plahotniuc’s regime also stepped up its harassment of opposition activists in the regions and went after local mayors who had not yet defected to the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc has been instrumental in exploiting the geopolitical tensions across Europe’s East. In order to convince the West to turn a blind eye to his power grab, Plahotniuc went to great lengths to present himself as a victim of Russian meddling in Moldova. The Chisinau government even expelled five Russian diplomats, declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin persona non grata and banned Russian propaganda in Moldova, with little to no reaction from Moscow. This can be partially explained by the fact that, at the same time, Plahotniuc helped the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon win the presidency in Moldova. Plahotniuc made sure that Moldova continues to buy electricity from the Russian state-owned, Transnistrian-based power plant, despite Ukraine having won the supply contract in an international bidding contest. Moreover, Plahotniuc owns the rebroadcasting rights for the premier Russian propaganda tool, the first federal TV channel Perviy Kanal, while the second Russian federal channel, NTV, is rebroadcast in Moldova by an associate of Dodon’s.

 

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Thus, on the one hand, Plahotniuc and his army of lobbyists routinely ask the West to help Moldova against an aggressive Russia (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2017), while, on the other hand, Dodon complains to Vladimir Putin about Western meddling in the small country (TASS, January 4, 2018). Meanwhile, Plahotniuc and Dodon have cooperated on major decisions, such as the change of the electoral system as well as dividing up ambassadorial posts among their own supporters. And despite Dodon’s repeated suspension from office by the government last year, the two men have thus far been able to avoid any meaningful political confrontation—aside from mutual theatrical rebukes in the media—prompting numerous accusations of a Plahotniuc-Dodon political cartel (Infotag.md, November 9, 2017).

This puts the genuinely pro-EU and anti-oligarchic opposition parties in a difficult political position. Realizing their weaknesses, the Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and the Truth Party are pooling their scarce resources, counting on the synergistic effect of a future electoral bloc (Unimedia.info, October 16, 2017). Yet, the two are still struggling to outmaneuver Plahotniuc and Dodon. In particular, the opposition seeks to change the public narrative away from geopolitical debates (whether Moldova should be pro or against Russia or the EU) and toward a more governance-oriented discussion regarding state capture, corruption, democracy and rule of law. This is likely to be the main challenge for the opposition going into the November 2018 general elections.

Next year’s parliamentary campaign could become a turning point for the country. Yet, many disillusioned Moldovans 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 operating with general impunity. The past year took Moldovans back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If these trends continue, Moldova may soon come to more closely resemble Belarus and Azerbaijan and less the European Union that so many Moldovans aspire to join.

 

Constantin Grigorita 27 August 2017

Protesters and Police meet on Independent Day, 2016. Photo: Constantin Grigorita.  

 

 

Note: This article was written for the Washington based Jamestown Foundation and the original can be accessed here.