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Zero hour for the Republic of Moldova: the battle of the three presidents

AlegeriMD
©EPA-EFE/DUMITRU DORU  |   Supporters of Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) attend the launching of party's electoral campaign for early parliamentary elections in Chisinau, Moldova, 05 June 2021.

Seven months after a complicated presidential election, the Republic of Moldova is again in the grip of election fever. This time around, the country will be hosting snap parliamentary elections, but the background, protagonists and stakes are mostly the same. The main battle will be pitting the center-right pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), previously led by president Maia Sandu, against the center-left pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) led by the former president Igor Dodon.

A long-due election

The early parliamentary election in the Republic of Moldova was first brought up shortly after the legislative election of February 2019, marked by suspicion of fraud favoring the party of billionaire Vlad Plahotniuc. Early elections seemed almost certain in December, 2020: two days before the end of Igor Dodon’s term in office, the incumbent president at the time losing the presidential race to Maia Sandu, the Ion Chicu Cabinet resigned. This was the first step towards calling an early election. Before long, Igor Dodon changed his mind. The ensuing clash pitted Maia Sandu, who advocated the early election, against Dodon’s Socialists, who wanted the election to be held only after the swearing-in of a new Cabinet. The latter option would have ruled out the election, since the circumstances for dissolving Parliament wouldn’t have been met. Maia Sandu made two nominations, as per the Constitution requirements, but the nominees themselves called on MPs not to vote them. The Socialists made two nominations of their own, trying for force Sandu’s hand to appoint them as Prime Minister, but neither made it as far as Parliament, and one of them actually withdrew his candidacy at the last moment. The whole matter rested on the shoulders of the Constitutional Court, which every week had to issue rulings and interpretations of the Constitution. One option included declaring a state of emergency to prevent the dissolution of Parliament. Eventually, Parliament was dissolved and an early election was called for July 11.

The current balance of power

Maia Sandu and the party she led prior to taking over as president of Moldova – the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) – were basically the only political forces that favored the snap election. PAS held only 15 of the total of 101 seats in the former Parliament, and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to get an early election without support from the Constitutional Court. The Court itself was the object of terrible struggle, which finally led to the demise of the Court president, Domnica Manole, sacked by the Parliament majority controlled by Dodon. But the Court eventually won this confrontation as well. Maia Sandu took partial control of the Security and Protection Service and the Intelligence and Security Service. Things are a little more complicated than that with the Government – part of the ministers have stepped down, and the remaining officials are divided in two camps – one associated with the Socialists, and the other led by interim Prime Minister Aureliu Ciocoi, who seems to have broken free from the Socialists’ sphere of influence.

People close to Igor Dodon still exert control over the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry and other important state institutions. Moreover, it seems the Socialists also hold the majority in the Central Electoral Commission. They have consolidated their position at local level as well, holding the leadership of most rayons.

New set of rules for the election

Starting with the upcoming election, Moldova will be returning to a proportional representation system, after the mixed electoral system used in the Republic of Moldova in the 2019 ballot. The electoral threshold for acceding to Parliament has been lowered from 6% to 5% for parties, and from 8% to 7% for electoral blocs. In addition, several requirements have been introduced to boost the promotion of female candidates. Another change has to do with the distribution of seats. For the first time since 2009, Moldova will be returning to proportional representation, the so-called D’Hondt method of seat allocation, which favors larger parties. The change was endorsed by the Socialists in 2019, at the time the most influential party in Moldova, but now it seems the new rule will be favoring PAS in the upcoming election.

The battle of the three presidents

By June 11, a total of 17 parties and election blocs registered with the Central Electoral Commission, and the list stays open. So far, the number is lower compared to previous years. In 2010, for instance, 39 parties and candidates enrolled in the race, of which nearly half were independent candidates. By far, the top fight will be fought by the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists and PAS. The Bloc was created before the campaign by PSRM, led by former president Igor Dodon, and the Party of Communists (PCRM), led by Soviet general Vladimir Voronin, himself a former president in the 2001-2009 period. To many people in Moldova, the bloc came as a surprise, considering that Dodon and Voronin have been on fighting terms in the last 10 years and often exchanged accusations and criticism, after in 2011 the current leader of PSRM abandoned the party that introduced him to big-league politics. Dodon subsequently managed to win over the largest part of PCRM voters. The Bloc is a staunch supporter of Moldovenism, close relations with Russia and highly critical of the West.

In the opposite corner is the Action and Solidarity Party, which Maia Sandu founded and led until she took over as president.

Another party with serious chances of entering the upcoming Parliament is Shor Party, led by the main suspect in the 2014 billion-dollar bank fraud, Ilan Shor, who despite being sentenced to prison in the court of first instance, continues to enjoy relative popularity in Moldova due to some of his social projects, such as discount shops, a new free-of-charge theme park and infrastructure projects for the city of Orhei and a few other towns and villages under the administration of his representatives. Shor is promoting a populist agenda with communist undertones, such as constructing state enterprises, introducing state monopoly on the trading of certain products and the restoration of collective farming.

Renato Usaty, another controversial populist politician who prides himself with having privileged relations with the secret services of several states, is the Mayor of Bălți, the second-largest city in Moldova. Usaty took everyone by surprise in the first round of the presidential election of 2020, when he grabbed 17% of the vote. According to opinion polls, the “Renato Usaty” Electoral Bloc is estimated to win 7% of the vote, below the electoral threshold, although rating figures traditionally increase before the election.

The Democratic Party, which for nearly ten years was the number one party in ruling coalitions, will most likely not be exceeding the electoral threshold. Neither will the Dignity and Truth Platform, an old ally of PAS, which apparently lost momentum after Maia Sandu’s approval rating continued to soar.

Division among unionists

The number of people advocating for the unification of the Republic of Moldova and Romania, a topic that has always remained in the spotlight throughout the 30 years of independence, seems to have been growing in recent years, accounting for some 30% of the population, according to the latest surveys. Recent sociological research indicates that half of the population would say yes to unification in exchange for higher pensions and salaries.

While there are a plethora of parties openly militating for uniting with Romania, their political representation remains limited. One of the reasons is that they have so far failed to form a united front, including in the current election campaign. Ahead of the election, a few unionist parties rallied around the Alliance for the Unification of Romanians’ branch in the Republic of Moldova. The National Unity Party, a close partner of the People’s Movement Party in Romania, however decided it will be running separately in the election, and the Home Democracy Party made the same choice.

Alliances, coalitions and majorities

It’s hard to estimate what the future structure of Parliament will look like, and what kind of coalition Moldova will have, considering it’s still unclear how many parties will manage to cross the electoral threshold. Some polls have dubbed PAS as favorite to secure a majority, which would be an unprecedented feat for a right-wing party in the Republic of Moldova. But if all four abovementioned parties manage to enter Parliament, PAS could possibly form a ruling coalition with the Renato Usaty Bloc, or the latter might form a center-left coalition with PSRM and Shor Party.

Opinion polls in the Republic of Moldova are anything but accurate. In last year’s presidential election, for instance, no one expected Maia Sandu to grab so many votes as she did in the first round. One of the explanations is that polls don’t account for the votes cast in the Diaspora and in Transnistria, which in the presidential election accounted for nearly 20% of total votes cast.

The voting process in the Diaspora has sparked one the biggest scandals in the current campaign. The Central Electoral Commission decided not to increase the number of polling stations abroad, even though their numbers proved insufficient in last year’s presidential election in several countries such as Germany, France and Great Britain. The number of ballots was also deficient. On the other hand, the Commission slightly increased the number of polling stations for Moldovans on the left bank of the Dniester, who are known for favoring left-wing parties, setting up stations in towns and villages that are not controlled by Chișinău.

The Central Electoral Commission subsequently decided to increase the number of stations abroad to 7, but even so, its decisions have been challenged in court.

The stake

As usual, political struggle in the Republic of Moldova focuses less on ideologies and doctrines, and is more about external influence. The left-wing, dominated by the Bloc of Communists and Socialists, favors closer ties with Russia and champions traditional Moldovenism, while the right-wing, led by PAS and Maia Sandu, is pro-Western and advocates European integration and reforms. In this context, the results of the election will clearly impact the orientation of the Republic of Moldova over the next for years.

On June 1, the European Union announced a financial assistance package worth €600 million for the Republic of Moldova over the next three years, which will depend on the progress of reforms. Igor Dodon will next week travel to the Russian Federation to secure more support, or at least promises from Moscow, although more and more experts are saying he has fallen out of Kremlin’s favor after losing the presidential election.

The right-wing entered the campaign in “pole position” after Maia Sandu’s victory in the presidential election and winning the battle for the snap elections against PSRM. The vote can still go either way, and any wrong move will clearly tip the balance.

 A project supported by the Canadian Embassy in Romania, Bulgaria and the Republic of Moldova

 

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  • Seven months after a complicated presidential election, the Republic of Moldova is again in the grip of election fever. This time around, the country will be hosting snap parliamentary elections, but the background, protagonists and stakes are mostly the same. The main battle will be pitting the center-right pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), previously led by president Maia Sandu, against the center-left pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) led by the former president Igor Dodon.
  • It’s hard to estimate what the future structure of Parliament will look like, and what kind of coalition Moldova will have, considering it’s still unclear how many parties will manage to cross the electoral threshold. Some polls have dubbed PAS as favorite to secure a majority, which would be an unprecedented feat for a right-wing party in the Republic of Moldova. But if all four abovementioned parties manage to enter Parliament, PAS could possibly form a ruling coalition with the Renato Usaty Bloc, or the latter might form a center-left coalition with PSRM and Shor Party.
  • As usual, political struggle in the Republic of Moldova focuses less on ideologies and doctrines, and is more about external influence. The left-wing, dominated by the Bloc of Communists and Socialists, favors closer ties with Russia and champions traditional Moldovenism, while the right-wing, led by PAS and Maia Sandu, is pro-Western and advocates European integration and reforms. In this context, the results of the election will clearly impact the orientation of the Republic of Moldova over the next for years. On June 1, the European Union announced a financial assistance package worth €600 million for the Republic of Moldova over the next three years, which will depend on the progress of reforms. Igor Dodon will next week travel to the Russian Federation to secure more support, or at least promises from Moscow, although more and more experts are saying he has fallen out of Kremlin’s favor after losing the presidential election.
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