William E. Crowther – Parliamentary election in Moldova

This is a guest post by William E. Crowther from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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Moldova’s eighth national legislative election since independence, held on Sunday November 30th, promises little change in the pattern of elite discord that has characterized the country since 1991. Overall turnout declined from 63.37% in the preceding 2010 election to 55.50% in the current contest. This year’s turnout is by a small margin the lowest at the national level thus far. The slump in electoral participation reflects a pattern of declining confidence in the leadership that assumed control of Moldova’s government following the electoral defeat of the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) in 2009.

Five parties surpassed the 6 percent threshold for participation in the 101 seat parliament. Final results are scheduled to be released by the Central Election Commission on Friday, December 5, but with 98.3% of the vote counted the results were as follows:

Party of Socialist of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), 20.75% of votes, 25 seats
Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM), 19.97% of votes, 23 seats
Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), 17.71% of votes, 21 seats
Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), 15.94% of votes, 19 seats.
Liberal Party (PL), 9.53% of votes, 13 seats.

While Moldova’s voters consistently placed poverty, prices and unemployment at the top of their concerns in the months leading up to the election, the country’s foreign policy orientation dominated political discourse. Public opinion surveys indicated a clear and very close division between those favoring closer affiliation with the European Union and those favoring accession to the Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan Customs Union. During the electoral campaign, political parties also positioned themselves on this question, with the left-leaning parties espousing neutrality or a pro-Moscow orientation or neutrality, and the center-right parties supporting more or less exclusive versions of European affiliation.

The outcome of the election favored the center-right. The three parties that made up different configurations of the pro-European Union coalition, the Alliance for European Integration (AEI), that has governed Moldova since 2009 gained sufficient votes to return to power. Between them, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party should account for 55 seats in the new parliament. Leaders of all three parties have indicated their intention to enter into a new coalition and formal negotiations are set to begin once final election results are announced.

This outcome, however, does not promise a pacific period ahead. Competition between the three pro-European oriented parties has been intense in recent years, with their respective leaders battling for political dominance. Relations have been particularly bitter between PLDM leader and former Prime Minister Vlad Filat, PDM leader and former President of the Parliament, Marian Lupu, and PDM deputy leader, Vlad Plahotniuc. In addition to their ongoing political rivalries, conflict between the coalition party leaders has been fed by increasingly bitter charges and counter charges of corruption, and disputes over control of state institutions. In this election the PLDM, whose share of the vote dropped by approximately 10%, from 29.42% in 2010 faired worst of the three parties, while their main rival, the Democratic Party, increased its vote by about 3%.

The third of the pro-European parties, Mihia Ghimpu’s Liberal Party, remained stable, with just under 10% of the vote. This was a critical test of the Liberals’ staying power. The party suffered a serious split in the Spring of 2013 when five of its MPs along with many other members left the party to form the Reformed Liberal Democratic Party (PLR) under the leadership of former PL Vice President Ion Hadârcă. Hadârcă and the Reform Liberals then replaced the PL as the third partner in the governing coalition, while Ghimpu and the Liberal Party entered the opposition. The PLR, for its part, now appears to be destined to marginalization, having won only 1.24% of the vote in Sunday’s election.

On the political left, there was more significant change in the party system. From 1998 until the current election, the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova and its leader, Vladimir Voronin, have held hegemonic sway over their segment of the electorate. From 2001-2009 the PCRM controlled government, at one point with more than 70% of parliamentary votes. In the past two years, however, the party has fallen into disarray. In late 2012 several high-level leaders of the PCRM left the party over concerns regarding the party’s direction. The defectors included Igor Dodon, former Prime Minister, Ziniadia Grecianȋi, and party stalwart Vladimir Mişin. Igor Dodon undertook the leadership of the PSRM in 2013 in an effort to constitute a coherent alternative to the PCRM. Dispute within its ranks over both ideological direction and Voronin’s leadership continued to plague the party even after the 2012 defections. In June of this year, Mark Tkaciuk, along with two of his allies were abruptly excluded from leadership positions in the party. Tkaciuk, known as the PCRM’s ideologist and widely thought of as second in command to Vladimir Voronin, later left the party and renounced his position in parliament.

The cost of the ongoing discord is now evident in the PCRM’s unexpected relegation to second place on the left behind Dodon’s reinvigorated Socialist Party. While the two parties share similar domestic political agendas, Dodon and the Socialists have painted the PCRM as part of the entrenched and corrupt political establishment. With regard to international orientation, the Socialists are closely aligned with Moscow, insisting that Moldova renounce its association agreement with the EU, while the PCRM favors a position of neutrality between the two blocks.

A second source of upheaval on the left was the meteoric rise and equally rapid fall of Renato Usatȋi, a Moldovan with business interests in Russia, where he has resided in recent years. Usatȋi, who is widely thought to have connections to Russian organized crime, returned to Moldova and entered into political activity in the run-up the election in 2014. After failed efforts to assume control of one party, and then to form a party of his own (The Party of Renato Usatȋi), Usatȋi announced his attention of running in the first position of the Patria Party party list. Championing a populist and pro-Russian message, he immediately began to attract popular support, which appeared to have reached around 10% of the population, well above the level required for entry into parliament. Four days prior to the election the Central Election Commission requested that the Court of Appeals exclude Patria from the completion because the party had violated election laws by receiving campaign funds (around 8 million Moldovan lei) from Russian sources. The CEC decision was upheld by the Moldovan Supreme Court, and Usatȋi fled Moldova in order to avoid prosecution. Many assume that the unexpectedly high level of voter support for the PSRM is in part accounted for by the migration of Usatȋi’s pro-Russian supporters to that party following Patria’s exclusion.

To sum up, this election does little to change Moldova’s overall political landscape. On the positive side, the country’s pro-European international orientation remains unchanged. More to be regretted, the government will remain in the hands of bitterly divided coalition partners leading cleintellist parties, who agree on little except for their common interest in retaining power. This prospect holds out little hope for progress in taking on the entrenched corruption that has been the bane of Moldovan politics since independence.

William E. Crowther is Professor and Department Head of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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