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Will there be light at the end of the Moldovan tunnel?  

Politics in Moldova is on the edge of a perpetual crisis. It will be up to a new democratically minded generation to turn the trend.

July 9, 2021 - Oktawian Milewski - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

View to the Parliament Building in Chisinau, Moldova. Photo: Serghei Starus / Shutterstock

In her inaugural speech on December 23rd 2020 Moldovan President Maia Sandu declared that her political programme would only be possible if snap elections brought about a new parliament and executive. In a country with a dominant parliamentary system, such a goal would mean essentially a complete reset of the current political ‘game’ in Chișinău. This is because it would have meant forcing premature elections and disrupting the parliamentary cycle. The current cycle would have been due to end in 2023.

The president only possessed a range of limited and quite theoretical powers to dissolve the current legislature. Despite this, she proved that her own ambition, as well as her former party (Party of Action and Solidarity, PAS) and an objective Constitutional Court, were enough to jumpstart the process needed for early parliamentary elections. The hubris shown by the rival Party of Socialists (PSRM), which has experienced its own internal issues regarding the demise of the previous executive, also played a key role in bringing about the new vote. After four months of exhaustive efforts, during which there were three failed attempts to nominate a new cabinet, Sandu achieved her goal. The parliament was dissolved on April 28th by a presidential decree, which had been pre-cleared by a ruling of the Constitutional Court. The date for the next parliamentary elections was set for July 11th.

The events that preceded these four months showed a country living on the edge. Indeed, by the start of this year the presidency was one of the few political institutions that was still somewhat respected by the population at large. These issues began in June 2019, when Moldovan society increasingly turned against a whole generation of politicians who had dominated the country for over a decade. Near the end of this struggle, Igor Dodon took centre stage as the defender of an oligarchic-kleptocratic system that had existed in the country since the end of the 1990s. Two generations of political leaders had essentially used the system for their own gain. As a result, Dodon received support from a number of political parties and bureaucratic and managerial circles. These groups were all tied to state institutions, which were themselves connected with transnational networks involved with corruption and illicit trade. At the start of her time as prime minister in June 2019, Sandu and her political bloc ACUM (PAS and PPDA) made it clear that Moldova’s political class would have to confront a radically new type of politics focused on removing them from power. The struggle that we are now witnessing in Moldova is not something new. It is only the latest stage of a crisis that started two years ago.

The president’s main goals are to fight against systemic corruption, promote the rule of law in daily social practice, and consolidate state institutions through a normative and legal approach to politics and society. Due to this, she hopes to challenge the institutional and normative lawlessness that has been a part of Moldovan politics since independence. With regards to these goals, Sandu seems to be genuinely the first Moldovan leader to back up her words with actions. She had to achieve her ambitions with a small set of constitutional powers and the political support of one-third of parliament at best. When Sandu first became president, she was faced with a constitutional majority completely hostile to her goals. The president also had to deal with a dire sanitary and economic situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This problem was made even worse by fiscal incompetence and budgetary irresponsibility, which were directly linked to the electoral bribery of a widely impoverished population.

As soon as Maia Sandu was sworn in as president, she had to confront an institutional vacuum that was designed to undermine her authority. This problem was deliberately created by the “Plahotniuc consensus”, a political-institutional configuration meant to preserve the kleptocratic-oligarchic status quo. This understanding appeared in the last decade and is currently supported by a number of clans in the country. She also had to confront a disloyal executive that was led from the shadows by Igor Dodon, who hoped to challenge any initiative suggested by the president. In other words, the new president had to deal with institutional sabotage from the very beginning. However, Dodon’s manoeuvres behind the scenes ultimately backfired. Sandu was to a certain degree disingenuously helped by the former Prime Minister Ion Chicu, who resigned in the midst of a pandemic crisis that his cabinet had completely mismanaged. By resigning from office, Chicu and the parties that supported him (PSRM, Party of Ilan Șor and an alliance of MPs close to the fugitive oligarch V. Plahotniuc) effectively allowed the president to start the process needed for dissolving the ninth parliament of Moldova. This legislature was probably the most delegitimised in the history of the country. By deceitfully provoking the resignation of their own executive, those who support the oligarchic consensus in Chișinău hoped to weaken Sandu’s legitimacy. Figures opposed to the president also wished to transform the sanitary and economic mismanagement resulting from the lack of an effective executive into a negative PR stunt designed to challenge the president’s legitimacy. In reality, however, this move resulted in the exact opposite outcome.

The force that Sandu has continuously struggled with as president is exactly the same as the one she challenged when she first became prime minister in June 2019. In fact, Sandu’s first six months in office have been part of the same struggle that she and her former party alliance (PAS and PPDA, which together formed ACUM) fought two years ago. Sandu did lose the first ‘battle’ by mid-November 2019 but the pro-European camp won a decisive victory when Sandu became president in November 2020. What we have witnessed over the past six months was nothing less than the third act of the same struggle with an entrenched klepto-oligarchy. The “Plahotniuc consensus” (even if the oligarch Plahotniuc now resides somewhere in the Middle East as a fugitive) has done everything possible to prolong the dissolution of parliament. This group recognises that the status quo is now at stake. These conditions have brought about corruption, racketeering, asset-stripping, rent seeking and bank frauds, all of which have existed at the intersection of organised crime, illicit businesses and kleptocratic state capture. This state of affairs is set to last for the time being. However, there is basically no chance that this corrupt system can last after the July 11th elections and the creation of a new executive as early as the beginning of August.

Leaving isolation behind

Under Igor Dodon, Moldova effectively became a rhetorical vassal of Moscow and Tiraspol when it comes to foreign policy. In the course of four years, Dodon visited Russia 40 times. Around two-thirds of these trips were taken in an official capacity, whilst the rest were leisure trips. In contrast, his visits to EU capitals or even the country’s two neighbours were rare or even completely missing from the presidential agenda. Dodon was traditionally considered unfriendly or hostile in both Bucharest and Kyiv, as well as in most EU capitals. His unabashed admiration for Putin, Lukashenka and Erdogan effectively signalled his soft rejection of the European values of democracy and respect for basic human rights.

Given these issues, Sandu’s desire for immediate change was very important. This is especially true as for a landlocked and next to resourceless Moldova, isolation of any kind is a recipe for disaster. Apart from this, Moldova continues to function as a state as a result of two crucial factors. The first is the country’s dependence on the EU for trade, socio-economic capital and humanitarian relief. The other factor is the Moldovan diaspora, which acts as a financial life support system for about one fifth of Moldova’s economy. Without these two lifelines it is clear that Moldova would have defaulted a long time ago.

Sandu did not manage to move the Moldovan state far enough away from the threat of institutional bankruptcy in her first six months. However, early parliamentary elections may give the country a chance to create an executive that could implement a responsible foreign policy. The July 11th vote could bring a new generation of politicians to prominence in the country. These figures are often supportive of a much more inclusive political culture in relation to the deeply atomised divides within Moldova. Sandu made her message clear in the various capitals she has visited: “give me the proper parliament majority and we have a chance to fix this country”.

Sandu did achieve a long-sought-after objective of normalising relations with neighbouring countries and reopening doors in the main EU chancelleries. The immediate result of this active engagement with European partners could be seen in the humanitarian relief offered to fight the pandemic. Certainly, this aid included an impressive amount of vaccine doses. However, one cannot avoid the feeling that Moldova remains a country defined by a foreign policy focused on begging for handouts. Success in Moldovan foreign policy is measured by the humanitarian relief it receives from what Chișinău calls its “international partners of development”. It is difficult to say that such a foreign policy cultivates dignity and a sense of confidence among the citizens of Moldova, even if the current president has chosen the best policy available. This feeling is especially prevalent among the diaspora, who are for the first time starting to believe that their country could embrace a proper path of development. This hope has encouraged Sandu to reach out to the diaspora in recent months. There seems to be an intrinsic promise that if given a supportive parliament, Sandu will revive various reforms that she discussed during her five month stint as prime minister in 2019.

Toward a reformist Moldovan muddle-through

Maia Sandu’s popularity is not built on fake premises and this reality promises to result in further gains for her former party. In a way, the resignation of the pro-oligarchic Prime Minister Ion Chicu in December 2020 cleared the public space for Sandu’s leadership. In other words, she was given no other choice but to fill the vacuum of authority and competence left by Dodon and his party’s attempted sabotage of the political process. Given Maia Sandu’s credentials as a corruption fighter, her somewhat informally acquired powers only aided her rising popularity.

The new parliament is expected to bring about a new arrangement of political forces to a degree unseen in the last two decades. Action and Solidarity or PAS, the political party that was founded by Maia Sandu, has been leading by an impressive margin since the start of the year. According to the semi-annual Barometer of Public Opinion (BOP) from late February 2021, PAS is supported by 48.6 per cent of potential voters. This trend has continued to rise right up to the last week of the campaign. The reformist pro-European party might at this point enjoy 53 to 55 per cent support or even higher according to the last BOP. It must be remembered that it is difficult to measure the opinions of the Moldovan diaspora, which is of course very supportive of Maia Sandu. This reality suggests that the president’s former party will in all likelihood form a new majority by its own and even possibly reach a constitutional majority in line with the rules of the voting system. This would be an unprecedented result for Moldova and certainly for a reformist pro-European party.

Sandu’s former party could potentially (at least) quadruple its number of seats in the parliament. It may even enjoy something close to full control provided the Moldovan diaspora participate in the vote to the same degree as it did in the November 2020 presidential elections. A voter turnout of 60 per cent or higher on election day could see this expected change become reality. Evidence of increased activism suggests that every fifth vote in the July 11th elections will come from the Moldovan diaspora. It is quite possible that around 300,000 diaspora Moldovans will make a historic choice by casting their vote for pro-European parties. In this scenario PAS, by receiving the largest share of this vote and reaching a comfortable majority, would be able to nominate a prime minister without the need to discuss such matters with any other party. Consequently, the result could allow for evolutionary democratic change and truly structural state reforms.

Whoever hopes to judge Maia Sandu’s first six months in office would be confronted with one clear issue. Certainly, it seems that Sandu was unable to push through any substantial policy changes during this time. Despite this, upon closer inspection it is clear that the nature of the game she proposed laid elsewhere. Her main idea was to rid the country of the two thirds of parliament that were elected through a fraudulent electoral process in 2019. As aforementioned, this legislature has been probably the most corrupt and criminal parliament that the country has witnessed in its 30 years of independence. The president hoped to initially force a political stalemate that would consequently result in the dissolution of parliament. After this, early parliamentary elections would be planned. Only after the country gets its new legitimate parliament can the president be expected to work on her real strategy for future good governance.

President Maia Sandu and the party that has supported her (PAS) did confirm at least one thing by the end of her first six months in office. By achieving their goals, they made it clear that an active and determined democratic minority can challenge the status quo. PAS had only 15 MPs in the 101-seat parliament. Of course, this means that they were an absolute minority during this time. The president herself had the weakest institutional powers of all those in the state, with the sole exception of her very popular mandate that offered her solid legitimacy. Against all odds, however, they did manage to overcome the power of the “Plahotniuc consensus”, which was represented by close to two-thirds of parliament, hundreds of key public servants and a great deal of semi-hostile state institutions.

If the election on July 11th results in a reset of the Moldovan legislature, then it is highly likely that it will reshape the political system for the upcoming decade (at least for the next two full political cycles). We will in all likelihood witness the rise of a new generation of politicians with a genuine understanding of public interests. Out of the 23 parties and independent candidates participating in the election, at most four will probably enter the parliament. Aside from PAS, who will obtain a comfortable majority, the other parties will have to share the remaining 30 to 35 available seats out of a total of 101. There is also another scenario in which the next Moldovan parliament would be made up of only one party (PAS) and a new political bloc made of the old political elite. The new alliance of Igor Dodon (PSRM) and Vladimir Voronin (PCRM), which is called BECS (Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists), represents two former presidents who oversaw the creation of the “Plahotniuc consensus” over the last decade. This group will likely be reduced to controlling around a quarter of seats in the parliament. By any measure, this would represent a crushing defeat for the status quo and the end of a sombre era in Moldovan politics.

Oktawian Milewski is a political scientist specialising in Central and East European studies. He is currently a Poland resident correspondent for Radio France Internationale, Romanian office.

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