People look at their ballots at a polling station during local elections in Chisinau, Moldova, 05 November 2023.
© EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU   |   People look at their ballots at a polling station during local elections in Chisinau, Moldova, 05 November 2023.

The local election in the Republic of Moldova: a victory of the (pro)Russians?

Holzstock Festival

The results of the local election in the Republic of Moldova point to a decline of pro-European factions, after a campaign marked by Moscow’s interference and disinformation, as well as scandals generated by pro-Russians.

Moscow’s ingressions and the half-failure of Maia Sandu’s pro-Europeans

According to Chișinău authorities, the campaign for the November 5 local election was held amidst strong interference from the Russian Federation in election processes, visible in the illegal funding of parties loyal to Moscow and multiple attempts at swaying voters and candidates. The campaign for the November 5 local election seems to have once again shed light on the deep fissure in Moldovan society and its vulnerability to outside interference.

Despite the fact this was a local ballot, where the priority and interest of both candidates and voters should normally focus on projects aimed at improving citizens’ living standards, the messages conveyed by candidates were strongly shaped by their geopolitical options.

Debates organized by radio and television stations clearly revealed that the number of people who come up with clear-cut solutions to local problems, such as, for instance, the traffic standstills in Chișinău which suffocate the city at rush hour, remains extremely low.

The greatest stake of the latest round of elections was the race for the Chișinău City Hall, which was won by the National Alternative Movement candidate, Ion Ceban. Ceban claimed victory from the first round, something unusual for the Moldovan capital-city. The Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) candidate, Lilian Carp, grabbed 28.2% of the vote. None of the other 25 candidates enrolled in the race met the election threshold of 5%.

Ion Ceban hails from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists, from which he resigned in December 2021. He then went on to found the National Alternative Movement, which he now presides. Many of his political opponents as well as some political pundits believe Ion Ceban continues to have secret dealings with Moscow (something which the Moldovan politician has denied), despite being overtly in favor of Moldova’s EU rapprochement.

At national level, the vote across Moldova’s districts for city hall councils is broken down as follows: PAS, the pro-European ruling party, won 25.5% of total votes. The pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) won 18.5%. The National Alternative Movement clustered around mayor elect Ion Ceban, won 7.4% of the vote (expressed in Chișinău alone). The European Social-Democratic Party, a party created on the ruins of the former Democratic Party controlled by the controversial politician and business tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc, won 5.6% of the vote. The other parties enrolled in the race failed to meet the election threshold of 5%. Therefore, parties represented by pro-Russians and/or wanted criminals and oligarchs, who by now are the embodiment of the Moldovan state overtaken by corrupt politicians, and who, alongside Ion Ceban’s movement, have managed to outnumber the pro-European reformists. If the current results are maintained in the next legislative election, the four aforementioned parties would be the only ones to enter Parliament, which would mean the pro-European PAS party would lose the confortable majority it currently enjoys in Parliament. In theory, if this scenario plays out, the decade-long question of Moldova’s geopolitical orientation might be raised for discussion once again – the so-called East vs. West conundrum. It’s a situation that would play well into Russia’s hand, a country that launched a genuine hybrid war against the Republic of Moldova in an attempt to sabotage its European aspirations.

A campaign ridden with scandals: lies and electoral bribes. A party affiliated to wanted oligarch Ilan Shor, taken off the voting list

Just as most other election campaigns in recent years, the latest was also marked by fake news and disinformation endorsed by the pro-Russian camp. For instance, the governor of the autonomous region of Găgăuzia in southern Moldova, Evghenia Guțul, announced that a “Turkish company” and a “major European supplier” were expected to deliver natural gas to the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Găgăuzia (ATUG) and to the districts of Taraclia and Orhei at a price of 10 Moldovan lei (approximately 0.5 EUR) per cubic meter of gas, which is tantamount to half the current price. Evghenia Guțul is a known supporter of Ilan Shor, an oligarch sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in Moldova’s largest bank fraud scandal, whose name is also associated with an attempted coup in the Republic of Moldova. This is not the first time when representatives of political forces close to Ilan Shor or the oligarch himself have promised to bring cheaper gas, particularly in the district of Orhei, where Shor and his associates control the city hall and the district council. Not only have they failed to deliver on their promises, but they never actually could: the only enterprise authorized to import natural gas in the Republic of Moldova is currently Energocom.

The Turkish company Evghenia Guțul referred to when talking about the election campaign is Zen Solar Enerji Sanayi Ticaret Limited Sirketi, a company specializing in the delivery of industrial equipment for companies operating in the electricity, oil and gas industries. There is no data attesting that this company also specializes in the delivery of natural gas. The “great European company” the governor of ATUG referred to is Gas and Electricity Trading GmbH in Germany, which has a capital of merely 25,000 EUR and which has changed ownership three times in the same amount of weeks.

As regards the contract made public by Evghenia Guțul, the Moldovan Energy Minister, Victor Parlicov, warned it is fake. The Moldovan official says the so-called contract published by Evghenia Guțul does not present any identification data and the stamps of the companies involved in the delivery of gas supplies. Moreover, the Turkish company Evghenia Guțul mentioned has officially denied ever signing such a contract, Minister Parlicov went on to say.

Another scandal was tied to attempted election frauds. The Police announced that several people affiliated to a party whose name remained undisclosed tried to buy votes, which is considered a crime by law. Each person who allegedly promised to vote for the said party would have received 50 EUR. Some people, who had already received payment, handed the money to law-enforcement authorities of their own accord.

The authorities took action only in the last day of the campaign, on November 3.

The Director of the Intelligence and Security Service, Alexandru Musteață, said that people funded by Russia via the wanted oligarch Ilan Shor are trying to compromise the local election in the Republic of Moldova. He underlined that, starting with the second half of 2022, the organization led by Ilan Shor has been waging a hybrid war against the Republic of Moldova, to the benefit of the Russian Federation, and that Moscow earmarks over 1 billion Moldovan lei (tantamount to 50 million EUR) in order to destabilize the domestic context in the Republic of Moldova.

“Ilan Shor made sure to transfer control over the infrastructure and executives of the former structure to the political party Șansa (Chance). Electoral processes are corrupted in all settlements of the Republic of Moldova. We have documented 160 criminal investigations, of which 63 were brought to court by the relevant authorities”, Alexandru Musteață said.

On the evening of November 3, the Committee for Emergency Situations (Moldova is still under a state of emergency, first introduced in connection to the Covid pandemic, later extended as a result of the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine) decided to eliminate the Chance Party and its representatives from the voting lists for the November 5 ballot.

Local elections, a test ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections

Political analyst Victor Ciobanu says that, as a rule, local elections are a test for the main political parties ahead of the presidential and parliamentary ballots, which will follow in 2024 and 2025, respectively. This time around, the analyst argues, there is a much bigger stake, considering the unprecedented attack from the Kremlin’s representatives in the Republic of Moldova, acting through proxies such as clones of the Shor Party, outlawed this summer.

“If we imagine that in the upcoming elections Shor and its affiliated parties, including independent candidates, will win several city halls, and manages to form a majority with the Socialists and other smaller parties that share the same objectives, then we might conclude, at the end of the second round, that the same scenario will likely play out in 2025”, Victor Ciobanu said.

Another political analyst, Ion Tăbârță, warns that the election could also have a crucial impact on the future development of the Republic of Moldova.

“We are now entering an election cycle […] at the end of which we will have a reset of Moldovan politics. Any change of government in the Republic of Moldova can also produce a geopolitical impact. We know politicians in the Republic of Moldova are either pro-European or pro-Russian. In 2025 we will know if Moldova will stay its European course towards development or will switch from a westward to an eastward orientation”, Ion Tăbârță pointed out.

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