Moldova’s Upcoming Election: What’s at Stake?

A scene from Moldova's 2016 presidential elections. Source: Varlamov.ru CC-BY-SA 4.0

BY WILLIAM H. HILL

On February 24, Moldovan voters go to the polls for the ninth time since the country gained independence in 1991 to elect the national parliament. Domestic and foreign observers are almost universally proclaiming that this election is crucial, since it will likely determine Moldova’s geopolitical orientation—toward Russia or toward Europe—for years to come. News coverage of the election campaign focuses on the battle between Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and his Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), the pro-European government of Prime Minister Pavle Filip, dominated by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party (PDM), and a nonparliamentary, pro-European coalition (ACUM) critical of both the president and the government.

It is a truism that all elections are crucial, since they have consequences for the orientation, policies, and governance of a country. In Moldova this year it is also true that the geopolitical divisions among the major contenders are sharper than in past elections, although not without precedent. However, the choice between Russia or the West may not be the chief issue in the Moldovan vote. This year’s election is different, in that half the deputies in the new parliament will be chosen, as in the past, according to party lists in a nationwide electoral district, while the other half will be elected in individual, single-mandate districts. In light of the controversy over the reform that installed this mixed electoral system and the recriminations still echoing over a deeply flawed mayoral election in the nation’s capital of Chisinau last year, the integrity of Moldova’s political institutions and its future as one of the few relatively free and competitive democracies in the post-Soviet region are also at stake.

Of course, Russia is an issue in the upcoming Moldovan election—or, more precisely, Moldova’s relations with and orientation toward Russia. President Dodon has met with Putin more than any other Moldovan leader, most recently on a working visit to Moscow at the end of January, which resulted in widely publicized trade concessions to Chisinau from Moscow. This followed other recent Russian moves facilitating trade and movement of Moldovans working in Russia. Although not formally involved in the election campaign, Dodon is clearly working from the same playbook as in 2014, when the PSRM widely advertised its affinity for and support from Russia to become the largest vote-getter in that election. Dodon and his Socialist colleagues do not call for abandoning Moldova’s relationship with the EU but advocate closer ties with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), in which Moldova has already been given observer status, shortly after Dodon assumed office in 2017. Several competing parties have lodged complaints against the PSRM for using the administrative powers of the presidency in the campaign, and the Central Election Commission issued a formal warning against the president openly demonstrating his sympathy for the PSRM.

Complaints and protests over Dodon’s and the Socialists’ closeness to Russia have overshadowed widespread discontent with the ruling PDM and its government. Resentment still runs high over the government’s failure to identify fully and punish those responsible for the 2014 “theft of the century,” resulting in the loss of some $1 billion from three Moldovan banks and at least two years of subsequent political instability and deepened economic hardship. The PDM-led Filip government, installed in the dead of night in January 2016, has gradually found firmer footing and registered some modest successes. However, the government has been subject to increasing criticism from the EU for failings in implementing rule of law and electoral reforms, resulting in suspension of economic assistance from Brussels pending better performance. PDM leader Plahotniuc’s popularity ratings have recovered modestly from their low (3 percent) some two years ago, but he has yet to repair relations with Brussels, and he even began to speak last year of his party’s “pro-Moldovan” rather than “pro-European” orientation.

Moldova’s largest and most vocal pro-European contenders are found in the two parties of the electoral bloc ACUM, Dignity and Truth (DA) and Action and Solidarity (PAS), led by 2016 presidential candidate Maia Sandu and 2018 Chisinau mayoral candidate Andrei Nastase. The parties in ACUM grew out of the massive, lengthy street protests during the winter of 2015–2016 against the theft of the century, the installation of the Filip government, and the continued domination of Moldovan politics by Plahotniuc. Sandu’s and Nastase’s parties appear to have sufficient support to make it into the new parliament, but there is scant chance they will be part of a new governing coalition. As such, they are likely to remain the chief representatives of that substantial portion of Moldova’s voters discontented with both the pro-Russia line of the PSRM and the oligarchic “state capture” personified for his critics by Plahotniuc and his PDM.

Twelve other parties are registered to participate in the coming election, but only one seems to have any chance of exceeding the 6 percent threshold in the nationwide party list competition. That is the Ilan Shor party, headed by the young oligarch and mayor of Orhei, a small historic town north of Chisinau. Shor has been convicted of playing a leading role in the theft of the century yet somehow remains at liberty and apparently enjoys considerable popularity, especially among the Russophone population outside the capital.

Ironically, the Transdniestrian issue has played a relatively minor role in the election campaign so far—ironically, since the Transdniestrian settlement process, substantially managed by the OSCE, continues to make steady progress on a number of practical issues that affect and benefit the population on both sides of the Dniester River. The new Slovak Chairman in Office Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak visited Moldova in mid-January. The Slovak OSCE chair has retained the Italian Special Representative Frattini, and he and the OSCE Mission to Moldova provide continuity and coordination in a process that has been showing steady progress for the past few years.

However, what gets into the press and political campaign are the occasional glitches and provocations, especially those that seem to demonstrate Russian bad faith to critics on Moldova’s right bank. Most notably, the Transdniestrian administration in mid-January opened what some called a “diplomatic representation” in Moscow. Amid a storm of criticism and formal protests from Chisinau, Moscow and Tiraspol clarified that this was actually an NGO office to provide legal assistance to residents of Transdniestria in Russia. There have also been disagreements over checkpoints between Moldovan- and Transdniestrian-controlled territory that have not seemed to rise to a level affecting the overall settlement process. Nonetheless, Russia’s continued military and security presence in the Transdniestrian region remains a sore point for Moldovan authorities and a potential red flag in Moldovan politics.

The greatest uncertainty in Moldova’s upcoming election involves the results in the fifty-one single-mandate districts. With more than three hundred candidates, there are no clear predictions of the likely winners, in particular their distribution by party. However, there are widespread suspicions that the PSRM and the PDM—Dodon and Plahotniuc—are somehow in league with each other and will divide these seats between themselves through the illegal use of money and administrative resources. That the PDM and PSRM voted together, over the explicit objections of the EU, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, to install the new system, and that the PDM has initiated an advisory referendum on reducing the number of deputies in parliament from 101 to 61, only add fuel to popular suspicions.

Recent history does little to assuage these public fears. Last spring DA leader Andrei Nastase won a hotly contested election for mayor of Chisinau. The election was then invalidated by a Chisinau court, whose decision was upheld on appeal, on grounds of alleged political campaigning on election day. (Nastase posted an exhortation on social media urging fellow citizens to vote.) When this nullification of the mayoral election is considered along with some less egregious failings in the 2014 national elections, there are now real fears that the upcoming vote may fall far short of Moldova’s hitherto solid performance in holding and observing the results of free elections.

The latest opinion polls suggest that Dodon’s PSRM may garner almost half the seats in parliament, with Plahotniuc’s PDM and the Sandu-Nastase team in ACUM each getting somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the seats. Almost any likely result will leave the PSRM in the driver’s seat when it comes to forming a governing coalition in the new parliament.

The victory of a “pro-Russian” party in the Moldovan elections is unlikely to be the end of the world, or of freedom and democracy in Moldova. Vladimir Voronin’s Communists came to power in 2001 amid similar fears, yet ended up building a closer relationship with the EU. On the other hand, the pro-European coalition that came to power in July 2009 ended up bitterly disillusioning large portions of the Moldovan population with its subsequent scandals, infighting, and failure to live up to the high ideals and aspirations it professed when taking office. The most crucial question facing Moldovans on February 24 is not whether to turn to Russia or the West, but how to ensure Moldova’s continued striving toward democratic norms and free elections in the face of widespread suspicion, disappointment, and disillusionment.

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William H. Hill is a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute. He served two terms between 1999 and 2006 as head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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