Tag Archives: Plahotniuc-Dodon partnership

Don’t give up on democracy in Moldova

My country was once a leader in democratic transition in the post-Soviet space. It had high hopes of joining the European family of nations as the poster child of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme. This has proven to be an illusion. Despite struggling with corruption and poor governance, political pluralism and independent media are a cherished achievement of Moldova’s young and feeble democracy. But even these achievements are coming to an end.

Moldova is now a captured state that needs to be returned to its citizens. One politician, whose party received less than 16% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, now has the dubious honor of running the entire country. Despite holding no public office, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is now the kingpin of Moldova. He has managed to take over all of the key state institutions, including parliament, the government and the judiciary, by all the means at his disposal.

Plahotniuc’s ownership of the largest media holding in the country, coupled with his control over the nominally independent national public broadcaster, allows for his vast political influence to go completely unchecked.

Changing the rules of the game

The recent adoption of the highly controversial electoral reform and attempts to restrict the independence of civil nongovernmental organizations serve as vivid examples of Moldova’s democratic backsliding.

By changing the electoral system, Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc and pro-Russian president Igor Dodon, elected with Plahotniuc’s support, have established a de facto political cartel in order to marginalise the remaining opposition parties from political competition, even if Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party polled at just four percent in the survey conducted by the International Republic Institute last spring. The new electoral system is clearly designed to benefit the incumbent Democratic Party, which can rely on its vast resources to gain undue advantage, but it also gives the Party of Socialists a head start in almost all districts as a result of the party’s consolidated grip over the left-leaning pro-Russian electorate.

Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party, of which I am president, as well as all of the other major opposition parties have strongly opposed these changes to the electoral system. Civil society has also vocally condemned the Plahotniuc-Dodon electoral reform. The Venice Commission criticised the proposal as inappropriate for Moldova. Nonetheless, after months of media manipulation and political intimidation, the Plahotniuc-Dodon cartel has enacted the mixed electoral system.

Protests as the last sliver of hope

Plahotniuc’s illegitimate tactics of getting lawmakers to defect and join his party by hook or by crook, coupled with his vast wealth, a private media conglomerate and the entire administrative resources of the Moldovan state, including the justice system, increasingly put him at an unfair advantage over other parties. All of these anti-democratic actions have triggered mass popular protests.

Most recently, on 17 September, thousands of Moldovan citizens came together and voiced their dissent in front of the parliament building in the capital of Chișinău. However, instead of listening to their legitimate grievances, the regime depicted the peaceful and mostly elderly protesters as a security threat to the police force.

My colleagues and I are alarmed that the next parliamentary election in November 2018 will fail to meet democratic standards, particularly when it comes to the 51 single member constituencies. As electoral districts are now being drawn by a government committee, major concerns arise about potential gerrymandering. Voter suppression and reduction of voting power in the diaspora is another cause for concern.

Most worrisome is that the district winner will be decided by a plurality vote in a single round election, which is sure to produce an incredibly unrepresentative outcome as legislators may be elected with as little as 15% of the vote or even less.

What is at stake?

After having captured the Moldovan state and continuously depriving its citizens of their basic human rights and liberties, Plahotniuc has the audacity to portray himself as the promoter of Moldova’s EU integration agenda and, recently, came up with an amendment to the Constitution, which would reconfirm Moldova’s strategic goal of European integration.

This move is yet another empty gesture aimed at maintaining the pretense of Democratic Party’s pro-European image, while also channeling the public debate along geopolitical lines away from pressing social, economic and political issues at home. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent, both for Moldovan citizens as well for the more astute observers abroad, that the geopolitical power play between Plahotniuc’s ruling coalition and president Dodon leaves the European Union mostly unimpressed. Through its rhetoric and actions, the party in power is only discrediting the European ideals in Moldova, helping pro-Russian parties strengthen their popular support.

Moldova is nowhere near graduating from the Council of Europe monitoring mechanism in the field of democracy, human rights and rule of law. During his most recent visit to Moldova, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, questioned the government’s human rights record, citing the recent tragic death of Andrei Braguța, a man with mental disabilities, in police custody as evidence of major systemic failures in the justice system.

We share the Commissioner’s concern about the lack of public trust in the judiciary being extremely damaging to a democracy. We are also extremely worried about the growing number of cases of politically motivated harassment and intimidation of our fellow party members and supporters in the regions. Law abiding citizens (school teachers and managers, doctors and librarians etc.) are being persecuted for their political views and their civic initiative of joining and supporting the Action and Solidarity Party. We are determined to report all of the government’s abuses in this regards to our international partners.

In light of the above, last week’s decision by the European Union to cut the budget support programme for justice reforms in Moldova and, particularly, the suspension of macro-financial assistance is an indication of the government’s lack of real commitment to EU values. But it also serves as a test case for EU’s political conditionality. It vividly highlights to even more Moldovan citizens that the government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc does not represent the “steady path to Europe” he wants everyone to believe it does.

As a leader of a genuinely democratic, pro-European political party based on integrity, I plead with Moldova’s friends and partners in the international community not to give up on democracy in my country. Too many Moldovans still hold great hope and are willing to stand up for their country and its democratic future.

Moldova protests

Note: This is an open editorial by Action and Solidarity Party Chairwoman Maia Sandu. It was first published on OpenDemocracy.net and the original can be accessed here.

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Moldova’s New Electoral Bill Divides the Country

In early March 2017, Vlad Plahotniuc, media mogul and head of the ruling Democratic Party in Moldova, proposed a bill to change the country’s parliamentary electoral system from proportional to first-past-the-post. Plahotniuc realized that under the current proportional electoral system his party stood no chance of remaining in power after the 2018 legislative elections. The move was no surprise, as many analysts predicted that Democrats would attempt to change the electoral system in order to hold onto power.

Questions of Legitimacy

With a conformable majority in parliament, one would expect Plahotniuc easily to get his way. In reality, things are more complicated because the majority that Plahotniuc relies on is contested. Despite winning only 19 seats in the last election, the Democratic Party has more than doubled its faction, which now has 42 seats. Eleven seats belong to the Liberal Party, a junior coalition partner. On May 25, the party announced its withdrawal from the coalition a day after the mayor of Chisinau and senior vice president of the Liberal Party had been detained on corruption charges. However, Liberal Party Chairman Mihai Ghimpu considers the arrest political retribution for the party’s refusal to support changing the electoral system. The Liberal Party is likely to be replaced by the nine Liberal Democrat defectors who are currently part of the newly created European People’s Party parliamentary group led by Iurie Leanca. Leanca is often viewed as a Plahotniuc ally and potential future Minister of Foreign Affairs. Plahotniuc co-opted defectors from the Party of Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party after orchestrating a hostile takeover against these two opposition groups in parliament. Thus, since 2014, the Democratic Party was joined by one Socialist, 14 Communists, and 8 Liberal Democrat defectors. Many Moldovans view Plahotniuc’s 42 seats and, therefore, the entire ruling majority as illegitimate.

Similarly, the Democratic Party controls about half of the country’s 900 mayors, despite winning less than a third of mayoralties in the 2015 local elections. Plahotniuc’s tactic of getting lawmakers and mayors to defect and join his party by hook or by crook—coupled with his vast financial, media, and administrative resources—make all of the other parties vulnerable in the face of a single member majoritarian system. Under the proposed system, Plahotniuc could make better use of his unfair competitive advantage by employing either corruption or coercion to turn promising candidates to his sideFor these reasons, every other major political party opposes this bill, including the Action and Solidarity Party, the Dignity and Truth Party, as well as the Party of Communists. That is why Plahotniuc has channeled all of his resources towards building a perception of vast popular support for the proposed change. A national media campaign was launched along with a massive effort to collect signatures in support of Plahotniuc’s bill. Yet, the Democratic Party public relations team may have gone a bit too far when they claimed to have collected almost one million signatures, which amounts to about half of Moldova’s adult population. It did not stop there. The Democratic Party just commissioned the largest poll in Moldova’s history with over 12,000 respondents, compared to the usual national polls of only 1,200 respondents. Apart from the data that was made public, the Democratic Party now is likely to have access to information that allows it to gerrymander electoral districts and co-opt candidates to further cement its competitive edge.

Nonetheless, electing legislators directly in single member districts is an appealing proposition for many voters. Prior to Plahotniuc’s monopolization of political power, some of the parties that now oppose the bill, such as the Liberal Democratic Party, once favored a first-past-the-post system. But more importantly, Plahotniuc and his team have presented first-past-the-post as a simple system of direct political representation, which provides voters in a district a clear choice between individual contenders. This new system is contrasted with the more cumbersome proportional representation system based on party tickets. However, as political science literature indicates, majoritarian systems are generally better suited for consolidated democracies, while countries in transition, such as Moldova, tend to benefit more from a proportional system of representation. Majoritarian systems over-reward the winner, being prone to “electoral dictatorship,” reducing the need for compromise and consensus-building. These negative features can exacerbate tension in multiethnic societies. The unfairness of the majoritarian system also results from the systematic exclusion of smaller parties with more diverse views, in time leading to a two party system alternating in power.

Facing strong domestic contestation, Plahotniuc’s ruling majority is hard pressed to find external validation of this major electoral reform. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, is the leading authority in this regard. It has already stated that a national consensus is advisable for such an overhaul of the electoral system. The support of President Igor Dodon’s fellow Socialists would help to provide the appearance of national consensus that Plahotniuc needs.

Dodon and Plahotniuc: Reluctant Partners?

A compromise solution in the form of a mixed electoral system could be presented as a national consensus between the ruling majority dominated by the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists, which is nominally in opposition to the government even though its former leader serves as president of the country. The compromise bill envisages that 51 MPs would be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 would be elected if they received a plurality of votes in single member districts. Many, including people in his former party, were surprised when President Dodon proposed a mixed system on April 18. However, this was not the first time Dodon and Plahotniuc adopted similar positions, despite their fierce public rivalry.

There have been numerous instances in which the Party of Socialists has cooperated with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, despite ongoing public acrimony between the two camps. Democrats have recently granted two ambassadorships (Moscow and Minsk) to people affiliated with Igor Dodon. At the same time, as the anti-corruption agency is arresting people affiliated with the Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties, Socialists appear to be spared such attention. Similarly, Plahotniuc did not oppose Dodon’s firing of the Defense Minister, whereas Dodon did not stand in the way of Plahontiuc appointing his protégé to head Moldova Gas Company, controlled by Gazprom. Socialists have also supported several controversial bills put forward by the Democratic Party, including the most recent amendments to the Audiovisual Code opposed by many media organizations. Moreover, Plahotniuc’s media empire consistently attacked Dodon’s opponent during the presidential elections. Their relationship has transitioned from one of outright competition to de facto cooperation on many sensitive topics. Many Moldovans view their relationship today as one marked by tacit cooperation.

dodon_plahotniuc_2012

Political Alliances Transcending Geopolitics

The European Union has already linked its €100 million proposed assistance to Moldova to the government’s respect of “effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system.” An even stronger message came from the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament. The EU Parliament actually postponed the €100 of macro-financial assistanceover concerns regarding the changes of the electoral system. The Venice Commission would also be hard pressed not to acknowledge the obvious lack of political consensus in the country. Given the less than enthusiastic reception that Plahotniuc gets in Brussels, he has turned his focus to the White House. As a fellow businessman who also believes in “the art of the deal,” Plahotniuc made overtures of cooperation to the Trump team even before the inauguration of Donald Trump; he presented Moldova to Trump as a bridge between Russia and the West.

Yet, as U.S.-Russia relations started to deteriorate over Syria, Moldova’s “deal maker” switched gears and re-branded Moldova and his Democratic Party into a bastion of Western values standing against Russia and President Dodon. This branding effort is not consistent with Moldova’s political reality. In order to better shape his own narrative, Plahotniuc hired two leading lobbying groups, Podesta-Group and Burson-Marsteller, to represent his interests in Washington and Brussels.

At the same time, the ad-hoc coalition in support of political pluralism also cuts across geopolitical preferences of the five political parties, three of which are pro-Western (Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party), while the other two are more Russia-oriented (Party of Communists and Our Party). Despite risk of a major political crisis, the current situation has a silver lining. Geopolitics, no matter how pervasive, does not pre-determine policy positions. Therefore, the hope that Moldova can become a country with parties focused less on geopolitics and more on governance still lives on.

Note: The article was written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The original can be accessed here.