Tag Archives: presidential powers

Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change Via Referendum

After only two months in office, Moldova’s President Igor Dodon announced plans for amending the constitution. His proposed changes, presented on February 28, would give the head of state the power to dissolve parliament on five new grounds, in addition to the existing two (President.md, February 28). If successful, the move would transform Moldova from a parliamentary into a semi-presidential republic. Dodon is becoming increasingly frustrated with his largely ceremonial powers and sees himself as a second Putin, citing polls in which the Russian president is consistently the most trusted figure in Moldova (Independent.md, February 17). Dodon gave the parliament a month to initiate the process; otherwise, he promised to start collecting signatures in support of a popular referendum starting on March 24. Dodon’s former party colleagues from the Socialist faction in the legislature have 24 signatures in support of the initiative, falling 10 signatures short of the required 34. As the parliamentary process will most likely go nowhere, Dodon is expected to appeal to his support base. Even so, the chances for a referendum are low, as long as Vlad Plahotniuc, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, maintains his control over the Constitutional Court and Central Election Commission—both of those bodies would need to sign off on the process. Therefore, Dodon can hardly employ the referendum process to his advantage, unless Plahotniuc is on board. The Democratic Party head’s support is likely when it comes to Dodon’s second referendum idea—regarding the Transnistria settlement. But the motivation behind Plahotniuc’s potential backing in that instance is not straightforward.

On March 1, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the start of the Transnistrian conflict, Dodon proposed a public platform for national reconciliation (President.md, March 1). Dodon has earlier called for a referendum on a settlement of Transnistria, which was immediately rejected by the separatist leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky (Moldova.org, January 30). Nevertheless, subsequent messages from both Tiraspol and Moscow indicate a willingness to consider the option now (Izvestia, February 22). It is not clear what the referendum proposal could look like, but Dodon repeatedly spoke in favor of federalization during the campaign. That is also the option most preferred by the Kremlin, as it would presumably ensure Moldova’s U-turn away from European integration once 250,000 Transnistrian voters join the already strong pro-Russia forces in Moldova proper. Clearly, Plahotniuc is not interested in this scenario, but he stands to benefit if federalization becomes perceived as a real threat and begins to dominate the public agenda. It is a win-win for both Plahotniuc and Dodon, as long as the latter pushes for a federal (pro-Russia) solution and the former positions his Democratic Party as the sole defender of Moldova’s European integration. The prospects for settling the Transnistrian conflict on terms similar to the 2003 Kozak Memorandum, which are unacceptable to Moldova’s center-right opposition, could serve as a perfect smokescreen for Plahotniuc to divert public attention while he pushes through electoral system reform that would allow him to stay in power after the 2018 parliamentary elections.

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This power play is consistent with the overall picture currently presented to the Moldovan public by the pro-Plahotniuc and pro-Dodon media. The political theater, in which Dodon and Plahotniuc are the two main rivals, is capturing the national public discourse while sidelining the rest of the political actors. A case in point has been the recall of the Moldovan ambassador from Moscow. On March 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration surprised everyone, including its Russian colleagues (TASS, March 1), by suddenly recalling Ambassador Dumitru Braghis, who is also a former prime minister. He was only appointed ambassador to Moscow in November 2015 and has been regarded as a highly authoritative figure (Newsmaker.md, March 1). The recall is presented as part of an ongoing struggle between the government and the president over ambassadorial portfolios (Publika.md, February 24). But in fact, a closer analysis points to a farce.

The true motivations behind the recall of Braghis from Moscow reflect under-the-table political dealings. President Dodon announced the following day that his foreign policy adviser and former top envoy to Moscow, Andrei Neguta, will replace Braghis. Thus, the recall was evidently hardly a surprise for the president, particularly when noting that then-ambassador Braghis was not even allowed to participate in Dodon’s high-level meetings during the president’s visit to Moscow in January (Newsmaker.md, March 2). As part of an apparent deal, Dodon did not employ his connections in Moscow to oppose the appointment, on February 9, of a Plahotniuc protégée to the helm of Moldovagaz Company, owned by Gazprom. This sort of implicit cooperation between the two major political forces pretending to be in opposition to each other is both a blessing and a curse to the remaining center-right opposition parties. Such backroom dealings could serve as a useful rallying cry to energize their electorate. But despite having the support of about a third of society (Ipp.md, October 20, 2016), these parties struggle to present the public with a meaningful alternative, given the large asymmetry in administrative, financial and media resources between Plahotniuc-Dodon on the one side, and the rest of the opposition, on the other.

Dodon’s referenda plans are a mechanism of agenda control but are beset by major risks; and they have potentially serious implications. Plahotniuc can use both of Dodon’s referenda plans to his own advantage. Under the meticulously constructed threat of regime change by Dodon, it is Plahotniuc who is likely to further cement his grip on power by introducing a majoritarian or a mixed electoral system. Ironically, Dodon is about to repeat the folly of Moldova’s second president Petru Lucinschi, who also sought to increase his powers by amending the constitution in 2000. Yet, Lucinschi ended up losing the battle with the parliament and, inadvertently, opened the way for Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party, which dominated Moldovan politics in the subsequent decade. Now, President Dodon runs the risk of doing the same favor for Vladimir Plahotniuc.

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.

Vlad Plahotniuc for President!

There is increasing buzz about Vlad Plahotniuc’s presidential ambitions. After his recent PR offensive in Washington, where he met with Victoria Nuland and visited the IMF, he then organized a surprise Economic Forum in Chisinau, announced just the day before, with former EU Commission Chief Jose Manuel Barroso as keynote speaker. There Plahotniuc promised to maintain political and economic stability in the country. Doing so without holding any public office would be challenging, though not impossible for him. Still, all the time and effort he has been putting into building his public image lately cannot be explained by anything other than a drive for the highest public office. He may not have the best poll numbers, but neither are any of the other PD candidates doing much better. So, I would not be surprised if Plahotniuc made a similar tour de force to Kiev or even Moscow, since he is not particularly welcomed in Brussels. After all, he made sure to also invite a Russian guest, analyst Vladislav Zhukovskiy, on the panel with Barosso for good measure. Plahotniuc went a long way out of his comfort zone, craving for recognition. He did not put Filat to rest just to stay in the shadow.

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Having to come up with titles like Executive Coordinator of the Ruling Coalition is truly demeaning. He seeks the legitimacy that only comes with public office. He could become Prime Minister, provided that a docile enough president is elected to nominate him. But heading the cabinet is too much work and comes with huge responsibility, whereas the presidency is mostly perks and no hassle. Indeed, back in 2001 and later in 2005 Voronin chose the presidency over the much more powerful office of prime minister for the same reasons. Just as in Voronin’s case, Plahotniuc controls a comfortable majority in Parliament. Hence, he could control the prime minister from the presidential office. This scenario gives the president the ultimate power with little responsibility. Such a president can always throw the prime minister under the bus when things go south.  Plahotniuc would certainly love to be in Voronin’s old shoes. After all, he evolved from Voronin’s errand boy to now potentially becoming his true replacement. We can already see the power vertical than Voronin introduces being reinvented by the Democrats with many pf the same people. Though not impossible, winning the presidency is easier said than done even for the all mighty Plahotniuc.

Plahotniuc’s chances are very much dependent on how the field of candidates is going to look like. He would stand no chance against Dodon and a unified pro-European opposition candidate.  But if the center-right opposition ends up having several candidates, thus, splitting the vote, it could as well pave the way for Plahotniuc and Dodon in the runoffs. Defeating Dodon in the second round would be relatively easy, considering how polarized the society is, not to mention Plahotniuc’s financial, media and administrative resources. Yet, more importantly, Plahotniuc is likely to hold potentially damaging materials about Dodon’s personal and/or professional life, which once deployed could significantly damage his chances. Adding fuel to the fire, Ex-Ambassador and Democrat defector Andrei Popov recently speculated that Plahotniuc promised Nuland that Dodon would not become president.

As for the remaining field of candidates, the best scenario for Plahotniuc is a dispersed vote on the center right. He was quite blunt about it when he scorned the idea of a single candidate on the right and argued that every party worthy of respect should have its own contender. So far, things are looking good for Plahotniuc. Apart from Iurie Leanca’s announced bid, there is some indication that Minister of Defense Anatol Salaru could also be running for president. Salaru is a prominent figure on the right and has solidified his image recently with numerous visits by US and NATO military officials. Salaru could be a strong spoiler candidate, hoping to deny either Maia Sandu or Andrei Nastase a chance of getting to the runoffs, paving the way for Dodon and Plahotniuc. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that Nastase and Sandu are finding common ground regarding who should represent the pro-European forces in these elections, despite the fact that Sandu and her party are on a clear ascending trend, while Nastase and his team are stagnating. Notwithstanding, Nastase went on a populist PR offensive, inviting Plahotniuc to a one on one debate. Days earlier Nastase suggested that Moldova needs a president who is a fighter like Ex-Romanian leader Traian Basescu. Nastase obviously meant himself, but here is a candidate who Basescu would clearly approve of.

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PS: Presidential elections will inevitably be a confidence vote on the current government. If Plahotniuc were to win, this would not only consolidate his power, but would also be presented as public endorsement of the ruling establishment.  Whichever faction wins the presidential race will also be seen as a favorite for the parliamentary elections of 2018. The presidency itself is less important because of its largely ceremonial role. The only time a president can flex his/her muscle is during the PM nomination process, but after the Constitutional Court mandated the president to nominate whoever a parliamentary majority proposes, even that power is gone. A president can only dissolve the parliament when the latter fails to create a government or adopt any laws for three months, neither of which is likely to occur anytime soon. Therefore, it is surprising to say the least that the opposition keeps demanding early elections, when there is no legal avenue for that. Of course, calling for early elections is good politics in the short term, but very bad policy in the long run, because no matter who wins the presidency, the same parliamentary majority will run the show until 2018.

Renato Usatii’s “big idea” about a one decree president – meaning that once a president from the opposition is elected, he or she would immediately dissolve Parliament, triggering early elections. This may play well with the public, but will inevitably end up in disappointment as the President simply lacks such powers. A much more responsible and effective demand would be to grant the president discretionary power to dissolve Parliament. This would make a directly elected president a real player in the political system. It would also make it more difficult for a ruling establishment to steal billions with impunity and continue to stay in power. Plahotniuc should not have a reason to oppose a semi-parliamentary/presidential system, afterall Moldova hardly ever stopped being one, besides Plahotniuc already sees himself president – so why not? Dodon certainly would not mind. As for the pro-EU opposition, well, if they could not agree on a single candidate before, this would only complicate things even further. Ultimately, it is all about rising to the occasion!

PPS: The Constitution needs to provide clarity, stability and predictability, which it currently does not. The provision about national referenda creates one of the most striking inconsistencies:

141, 1 (a) a number of at least 200,000 voting citizens of the Republic of Moldova. Citizens initiating the revision of the Constitution must cover at least a half of the territorial-administrative units of the second level, and in each of these units must be registered at least 20000 signatures in support of the said initiative; 

It was written when there were 9 districts, while there are 38 now. The opposition would have been well advised to forcefully demand that this article be amended or interpreted. Instead, Nastase and his team gathered 400,000 signatures according to their reading of the law, hoping that the ruling establishment would meet them halfway. Needless to say it was wishful thinking. Advocating for highly technical Constitutional amendments is a tedious job and certainly not as flashy as simply demanding for the ruling establishment to step aside. Bus as no such thing has been achieved, protesters would have been well advised to be more thoughtful and less emotional about their political strategies. A good place to start is the  upcoming Constitutional amendment process accounting for the new way of electing the Prosecutor General. This is a good opportunity to also review presidential powers, among other things.