Tag Archives: protests 2017

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.

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Changing the rules of the game in Moldova

It’s favourite move of dictators and autocrats everywhere: change the rules of the game once you start losing support or approach the legally mandated finish line. The post-Soviet space abounds in cases where heads of state overstay their terms in office. Until recently, Moldova stood out as a model of democratic transformation among the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, my country’s glory was short-lived.

Despite high expectations about Moldova’s initial successes on its path towards European integration, embodied by the signing of the association agreements and a visa-free regime with the European Union, powerful actors have begun to hollow out the country’s democracy. Media freedom is being curtailed through a concentration of ownership and, as a result, political pluralism is withering away. The most recent innovation, a dubious call for electoral reform, is just latest sign of a democracy in deep decline.

The problem with Mr. P

Moldovans still overwhelmingly despise the country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief Vlad Plahotniuc, who also leads the ruling Democratic Party. Not even an alleged assassination plot in December 2016 could sway the public’s contempt. Yet Plahotniuc is relentless in his self-rebranding effort, desperate to turn himself from crooked oligarch into a respectable politician — one worthy of being the standard-bearer of European values at pinnacle of state power.

The figure behind this new electoral form is Vlad Plahotniuc. The country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief, he is despised by the overwhelming majority of Moldovans

After eliminating his arch rival ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat by having him imprisoned on corruption charges in a textbook display of selective justice, Plahotniuc emerged as the most powerful man in Moldova. His personal grip on power was first tested during the presidential elections in October 2016.

Fearing the victory of pro-European anti-corruption crusader and leader of the Action and Solidarity Party Maia Sandu, Plahotniuc colluded with then leader of the Party of Socialists Igor Dodon. Despite Plahotniuc’s brandishing pro-European credentials, many believe he helped the pro-Russian Dodon to become president. The parliamentary elections of 2018 will determine the country’s future — and Plahotniuc’s fortunes.

Digging in for the long haul

Whatever their views on foreign policy, Plahotniuc and Dodon coordinate their domestic actions rather well. After having initially proposed a mixed electoral system back in 2012, Plahotniuc reintroduced the idea in March 2017, but this time in the form of a purely majoritarian (first past the post) system. Faced with massive opposition from all major political forces, Plahotniuc had to call in a favour. An indebted Dodon surprised many of his supporters by suddenly proposing a compromise in the form of a mixed electoral system on 18 April. Without further ado, on 5 May, in violation of legislative procedure, Moldova’s parliament rushed the bill onto the agenda, making the first step towards changing the country’s electoral system.

The compromise bill, which combined Plahotniuc and Dodon’s proposals, taking the latter as a starting point, envisages a mixed electoral system under which 51 MPs will be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 will be elected if they get a plurality of votes in single member districts. Candidates will require 600 signatures to register.

The compromise bill envisages a mixed electoral system. Importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing electoral districts is left for after the bill is enacted

Igor Dodon proposed that 25 MPs represent Moldova’s diaspora (as many as 700,000 Moldovan citizens live and work abroad; their remittances are immensely important to the country’s struggling economy) and Transnistria (a breakaway state on Moldovan territory which receives Russian economic and military support). Transnistrian leader Krasnoselskii earlier rejected Dodon’s proposal (link in Romanian), saying that five or six MPs would not suffice, and that residents of Transnistria would not participate in thes election anyway. Clearly, Dodon seeks to increase his potential electoral pool, but this will not go well with Plahotniuc, whose party’s base is primarily in Moldova proper. Needless to say, things are still in flux and the second reading will bring major amendments. Even more importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing the electoral districts by the Central Electoral Commission is left for after the bill is enacted.

As expected by most analysts, Plahotniuc dropped his own bill and backed Dodon’s compromise solution, formally ensuring a “consensus” as was suggested by the Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional law for the Council of Europe. At the end of the day, the mixed electoral system compromise was approved on the first reading with 74 votes out of 101 (link in Romanian). But there’s more to this decision than meets the eye.

Of the 74 lawmakers who voted for the controversial legislation, 31 are defectors from the Liberal Democratic and Communist parties. The two factions fell victim to a hostile takeover at the hands of the Democratic Party, whose faction grew to 42 legislators from the initial 19 seats won in the 2014 election (link in Romanian). Plahotniuc had previously relied on 13 seats belonging to his junior coalition partner, the Liberal Party.

When the Liberals refused to support the change of the electoral system, Plahotniuc skillfully replaced them with a group of Liberal Democrat defectors headed by former Prime Minister Iurie Leancă. It was Leancă who led the cabinet during Moldova’s infamous “billion dollar scandal”, and his controversial decisions back then leave him open to blackmail and pressure from Plahotniuc, who enjoys control over the country’s judiciary and law enforcement.

It’s clear that Plahotniuc’s majority in parliament is illegitimate — it does not reflect the will of the people expressed in the 2014 election. No surprises, therefore, that Plahotniuc had to go to great lengths to create the image of mass public support for his proposal. He has waged a large-scale media campaign, as well as a petition — and claims to have collected some 850,000 signatures. Yet after all this effort, the oligarch finally had to relent, and bring the Socialist opposition on board in order to give a modicum of legitimacy to his undertaking.

Keeping up appearances, for Brussels and Moscow

Together, the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists are only backed by about half of Moldova’s electorate. Recent polls indicate that the other half of the voters support opposition parties. On 12 April, five major opposition parties (Party of Communists, Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party, Our Party) signed a declaration against the bill proposed by Plahotniuc. A no less strong response came from leading figures in Moldovan civil society, who addressed an open letter to the European Commission. In Brussels, the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) have already voiced opposition to the proposed changes. This show of unity among fierce political rivals may have indeed forced Plahotniuc to “activate” Dodon, who provided the necessary reinforcements in the form of his mixed electoral system compromise proposal.

Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners

In my view, one would have to be blind not to see the hand-in-hand cooperation between Plahotniuc and Dodon. The absurdity of the situation is that Dodon continues to claim that he only proposed the compromise in order to put pressure on Plahotniuc and prevent him from enacting a fully majoritarian system.

Dodon is being disingenuous, to say the least. Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners. Even more importantly, any change of Moldova’s electoral system could require amendments to the constitution, which Plahotniuc can only achieve with Dodon’s help.

So what’s in it for Dodon? The current proportional system benefits the Party of Socialists the most, as it enjoys the highest popular support of any single party. With Plahotniuc in control of administrative resources, mass media and the gerrymandering process, a mixed electoral system reduces the chances of a Socialist Party majority in the next parliament. If Dodon is vulnerable to blackmail by Plahotniuc of any kind, this should make his backers in Moscow worried about the return on their investment.

As of yet, there’s little to suggest that the Kremlin is unhappy with Igor Dodon, who was widely derided in European media as “Russia’s man”. After all, during the recent Victory Day parade, Putin welcomed Dodon to Moscow for the third time in less than six months (the Moldovan president had the dubious honour of being the only foreign leader in attendance.) Yet if we assume that, for the time being, Russia is encouraging Dodon in his flirtation with Plahotniuc, this should in turn, make the oligarch reconsider his choice of friends.

For ordinary people, it’s the usual story

As always, it is the Moldovan people who ought to be worried the most, since they are ultimately affected by the lack of transparency in domestic politics and the lack of stability in foreign relations. Plahotniuc’s western partners are well aware of their friend’s shortcomings. Both the United States and the European Union condone Plahotniuc as long as he can ensure a steady pro-European course; provided that the democratic values trade off does not become too egregious. Knowing that his grip on power is contingent on external support, the oligarch spares no expense in lobbying Washington and Brussels.

Ideally, parliamentary elections in 2018 would give Moldovans cause to hope for change. After these electoral reforms, the odds will be stacked against them

After making a failed strategic bid by employing the Podesta Group last year to whitewash his image in the United States, an increasingly determined Plahotniuc is doubling down by employing Burson-Marsteller to carry his water in Brussels. The famous public relations firm also counted Nicolae Ceaușescu and Viktor Yanukovych among its clients.

With this change of the electoral rules, Moldova is moving to a bipolar political system in which Plahotniuc and Dodon will try to balance each other at the expense of all other political forces. The pretence of democracy will be maintained, but the political landscape will remain extremely unstable, and will be fiercely contested by Moldova’s remaining opposition parties. Ideally, parliamentary elections would offer Moldovans a way out, a cause for hope and, just possibly, for change. But unfortunately for those Moldovans who continue to demand real democracy, a new electoral system can only but stack the odds against them.

Moldova protests

Note: This op-ed was written for Opendemocracy.net and can be accessed here: