Tag Archives: Maia Sandu

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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Moldovan Politics 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Moldova has witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017 on the backdrop of some consumptions based economic growth – the government calls it stability, while the opposition views it as stagnation at best. Window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to international and domestic commitments is the hallmark of 2017. Next year’s legislative elections can be a turning point in terms of how the country has been governed since independence. Sadly, Moldovan voters have had high hopes before, only to find their trust betrayed yet again by the political class. Many disillusioned voters 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 relishing in impunity.  This somber reality of the past year took Moldova back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If this trend continues Moldova will soon become more like Belarus and Azerbaijan and less like the European Union many so aspire to.

The Ugly

The year 2017 proved to be a time of Vlad Plahotniuc’s power consolidation, as predicted in an article from last January. The leader of the Democratic Party which only gained 15.8% in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in Parliament, managed to turn 17 of 21 Communist legislators and 18 and 23 Liberal Democratic Members of Parliament to his side, in effect pulling off a hostile takeover of two competing legislative factions. Plahotniuc now fully controls the government thanks to his comfortable majority in Parliament, despite being the most reviled politician in the country, no matter the resources he pours into whitewashing his image. Despite controlling about 75% of the media market, employing dozens of political and PR consultants, including world-class lobbyists, a recent national poll showed Plahotniuc to be the most corrupt politician in Moldova by far. In a country with robust democratic traditions, compared to the rest of the post-soviet space, Plahotniuc’s utter lack of legitimacy makes him vulnerable. That is why, knowing that his party stood no chance in the next election, Plahotniuc did what any authoritarian leader does, he radically changed the rules by introducing a mixed electoral system to benefit his party and his bedfellow, former Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who became president with Plahotniuc’s help in December 2016.

The Bad

For President Dodon, the year 2017 was a year of lost opportunities, unforced errors and perplexing submissiveness to Plahotniuc.  Having run on a strongly pro-Russian platform, Dodon spent much of his 2017 in Russia, having met President Putin six times. Yet, Dodon failed to visit either Romania or Ukraine.  Even so, Dodon’s frequent visits to Russia did not translate into better political or economic relations with Moscow. On the eve of his sixth meeting with Putin at the informal CIS summit, Dodon lamented that not everyone in Russia is in awe of the Socialists’ powerful grip over the entire left-wing electorate. Dodon went so far as to accuse Russian intelligence of plotting against him and his joint efforts with Russian leadership to improve relations between the two countries (sic!). In the same interview to Kommersant, Dodon appeared to regret the fact that Russian prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Vlad Plahotniuc (on charges of attempted murder and criminal conspiracy;  Interpol rejected the warrant as politically motivated)  because, according to Dodon, this only boosted Plahotniuc’s standing with his western benefactors and it does not play well politically for Dodon and his fellow Socialists. Reality is hard to discern in the smoke and mirrors of Moldovan politics, but Dodon may actually be accurate in his allusion about Moscow hedging its bets. The part that Dodon may not feel comfortable admitting is that the Kremlin is not betting on just one horse in Moldova. Plahotniuc may, in fact, be the Kremlin’s second option and a coalition between Plahotniuc and Dodon may be exactly what Russia is after. Just remember 2010, when then head of the Russian president’s administration Sergey Naryshkin famously acted as a negotiator between the Communists and the Democratic Party.

If a future PD-PSRM coalition is indeed on the cards than it is no longer so astonishing that Dodon has refused to capitalize on Plahotniuc’s legal troubles in Russia or in Romania where he is being investigated for organized crime and money laundering. Moreover, this also explains Dodon’s uncanny response to his shameful temporary suspension from office by Plahontiuc. All this vindicates the political cartel narrative between PD and PSRM, the natural conclusion of which is a Russia backed governing coalition. A grand PD-PSRM coalition is already being accredited as the most likely post electoral scenario by leading pro-Plahotniuc pundits. Meanwhile, the mutual public demonization between Igor Dodon and Vlad Plahotniuc continues unabated – a political theater aimed at gullible domestic and foreign audiences alike.

The Good

In order to mitigate their relative weakness and fractionalization, the centre-right opposition parties announced plans for consolidation. On November 20, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase on behalf of Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and Truth Platform Party respectively announced a would be electoral bloc of center-right pro-EU and anti-oligarchic political forces. The bloc will also encompass prominent civil society activists and leaders from various professional fields. In response, on December 14, a group of 77 personalities, including members of Moldova’s first Parliament and signatories of the declarations of independence launched the Civic European Movement with the goal of galvanizing support for the newly announced electoral bloc. The ruling party gave a response of its own by spearheading an effort to launch a new spoiler party – Party for Animal Rights (Partidul Politic pentru Drepturile Animalelor, PPDA) – with the same acronym as the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), aiming to steal votes from the opposition by confusing and misleading the voters. This is yet another example of anti-democratic behavior, adding to the long list of political intimidation tactics employed by the Democratic Party against its real competition. In this context, it should come as no surprise that Action and Solidarity Party and its partners reject even the thought of a post-electoral coalition with the Plahotniuc controlled Democratic Party, not to mention Dodon’s Party of Socialists. Thus, the center-right parties are doomed to cooperate in order to increase their electoral standing. According to Sun Tzu, having no alternative is the best commitment device there is. Though, it is certainly not a substitute for an electoral campaign strategy.  Will the genuinely pro-reform and integrity driven political figures be successful? Only 2018 will tell…