The parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova on 24 February 2019 were essential for the future of the country, which is challenged by the fight against corruption and the oligarchic system. Its political parties – as well as its society – are split between the pro-Russian and the pro-European way.
Moldova’s backsliding in the past few years
Moldova claims to be the most European country in the European neighborhood, which is mainly due to the high number of Moldovan citizens who simultaneously have Romanian, and thus EU, citizenship. According to unofficial figures more than 500,000 Moldovans1 have dual citizenship, which is linked to the common history of these two neighboring countries.2 Thanks to its ambitious reforms, the Republic of Moldova was considered – together with Georgia and Ukraine – as one of the frontrunners of the European Union’s (EU) Eastern Partnership (EaP). The EaP is an initiative launched in 2009 as part of the European Neighborhood Policy, which covers six countries in Eastern Europe and on the Southern Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
However, the situation changed incrementally over the past few years: The EU froze its financial aid for the first time in July 2015, when a huge banking scandal was discovered – approximately 1 billion dollars, roughly one eighth of the Moldova’s GDP, was stolen from three Moldovan banks, revealing that corruption was still one of the major challenges for the country.3 When Moldova’s Supreme Court invalidated the election of the democratically elected, pro-Western mayor of Chisinau in summer 2018, the European Parliament decided again to suspend the macro-financial assistance of about $100 Mio.4 Prior to the elections in February 2019, the leading parties (PDM and PSRM, see below) changed the voting system, which is why in February 2019, 51 of the 101 MPs were elected in uninominal constituencies. The remaining 50 MPs were elected based on the previously-used party list system. The Venice Commission and the EU strongly advised against and highly criticized this change which they saw as major drawback for the electoral system. The strongest criticism was directed at the high exposure of the local candidates to influence from oligarchs and the favoring of the larger established parties through the “winner-takes-it-all-principle” in the constituencies.5 On these and other issues, the EU grew increasingly critical about Moldova: In December 2018, EU Foreign Ministers wanted to adopt a critical text in the Foreign Affairs Council to express their concerns about the recent incidents and remind Moldova to follow democratic principles and the rule of law. However, the text was blocked by the Romanian Foreign Minister.6
The political landscape in Moldova
To better understand the current situation in Moldova, one has to take a closer look at the political landscape. Since December 2016, the country has had a pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon. Before running for the presidency, Dodon served as the leader of the Party of the Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM). Shortly after President Dodon’s election, Moldova became an observing member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Prior to the elections in February 2019 a minority coalition between two parties has led the country, the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) – to which the still incumbent Prime Minister Pavel Filip belongs – and the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM). Although these parties officially position themselves as “pro-EU” parties, one can claim that, especially the PDM, has no real interest in modernizing the country, following reforms towards good governance or fighting corruption, which the EU is asking for. The PDM rather incorporates the safeguarding of oligarchic interests which are linked to another Moldovan political actor, who is in fact one of the most important figures in Moldovan politics: the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. He is chairman of the Democratic Party, the formal coordinator of the governing coalition and the owner of four of the five nationwide television stations. Critics call him “neither a democrat nor a reformer […] who, under the cover of false pro-European rhetoric, is petrifying the weakness of the state”.7
With Dodon and Filip on the top of the country’s official leadership, two persons with opposing interests – pro-Russian vs. pro-European, at least on the surface – and Plahotniuc as an oligarchic unofficial leader, the political situation of the country before the elections seemed quite challenging.
Besides these two big parties, the third important actor in the February elections was the electoral bloc ACUM, meaning “now”, which has a real pro- European agenda and wants to fight corruption and the oligarchic system in Moldova. The electoral bloc was formed by two opposition parties (the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) and the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (DA)) that are critical of both the government – for its oligarchic and corruptive system – and the president – for his pro-Russian stance.8
Parliamentary Elections 2019, where is Moldova heading?
The outcome of the elections of February 2019 was considered to be an important milestone to set the geopolitical orientation of the country, either towards Russia or the EU, but did not result in a clear winner: the PSRM won 31,2%, the electoral bloc ACUM achieved 26,6% and the PDM was third with 23,8% of the votes.9 Due to the mixed voting system, ACUM won fewer seats in the parliament than the PDM. As none of the parties has a clear majority and there is generally mistrust among them, it will probably be difficult to build a coalition.
Even before the elections, the ACUM group pledged to not enter a coalition with neither the Democrats nor the Socialists.10 As ACUM seems to take its promise very seriously, some supporters criticize the bloc for “prematurely” taking its status of parliamentary opposition and not seizing the possibility to change anything.11 Voices from outside Moldova see ACUM’s outcome to enter the parliament, for the first time, with already 26 of 101 seats, as a very positive one, despite the many obstacles the electoral bloc was confronted with (like other parties buying votes from the Transnistrian population, exclusion from voting of part of the diaspora, media coverage mostly in favor of big parties, changing of the voting system in favor of established parties etc., see below).12 The refusal of ACUM to build any coalition leads – despite the (geo-)political differences between the Socialists and the Democrats – to open exploratory talks between the two big parties who both want to govern the country. Another possibility would be snap elections in the coming months. However, experts claim that political players do not have guarantees that they will get better results by rerunning the elections and therefore, they may support the formation of a new government.13
All in all, the OSCE election observation mission evaluated that the elections were competitive and the fundamental rights were generally respected. However, the OSCE reported that pressure was put on public employees, state resources were misused and found strong indications of vote buying, which affected mostly inhabitants of Transnistria14 who were brought to polling stations in territories under control of the Moldovan government with special buses and were allegedly paid $20 to cast their ballot. Additionally, certain media outlets were blamed for the limited range of viewpoints presented to voters. It was seen critically, that just a few weeks prior to the elections, it was decided that Moldovans abroad were not allowed to vote with a (valid) ID or an expired passport, which was accepted during previous elections.15 Part of the diaspora who tends to vote for pro- European forces, e.g. ACUM, was therefore excluded from voting.
The outcome of the elections does not deliver a clear result in which direction Moldova is heading in the future but it shows that the Moldovan population is strongly divided. Although Dodon himself underlined the high probability of snap elections16, rerunning elections would be expensive and it is not thought that they would bring a different outcome, despite the alleged “inconsistencies” at the last elections. And as the ACUM group does not seem to be open for any coalition talks, the most likely scenario for Moldova at the moment will probably be a coalition between the Democrats and the Socialists, even if they do not have the same viewpoints on many topics. However, Socialists and Democrats both want to be part of the government, which may lead them to overcome their differences and find compromises. The next days and weeks will show in which way Moldova is heading. It is sure that the outcome will have strong impacts on the country’s future and its relations with the EU and Russia. From a European Union’s point of view, it would be unfortunate if Moldova abandoned its European path now as collaboration with the neighbors in the East is advancing. From a democratic perspective, moreover, it would be urgent that Moldova intensifies the fight against corruption and the oligarchic system and strengthens its institutions.
Magda Stumvoll is project coordinator and research fellow at the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe. She graduated with a Master’s degree in European studies from University of Regensburg and University of Auvergne. She has been a Ponto member since autumn 2018 and has been actively participating in its Eastern Europe Program.
From August 2019 on, Magda is the President of Ponto.
1 Michael Emerson, Denis Cenusa, Deepening EU-Moldovan Relations. What, why and how?, (London, 2nd edition, 2018), pp.30-31.
2 The often occurrence of dual citizenship in Moldova is based on its close historic and cultural ties with Romania, which is especially visible through their common language. Based on a Romanian citizenship law from 1991, former citizens of Romania and their descendent can easily get Romanian citizenship. This became especially appealing for Moldovans in 2001 when Romanians were granted visa-free travel in the Schengen area and after Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007. Although Romanian authorities do not provide official statistics on re-naturalizations of Moldovans, in 2014 it was estimated that more than 300,000 Moldovan citizens have reclaimed Romanian citizenship. However, unofficial figures indicate a higher number of about more than 500,000 Moldovans – of its 3,5 million inhabitants – having official Romanian documents.
3 Kinga Jaromin, EU freezes funding for Moldova. In: Euractiv, 10.07.2015. Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/eu-freezes-funding-for-moldova/ (25.02.2019); Delegation of EU to Moldova, Press Release: EU Budget Support for the Republic of Moldova – pending the fulfilment of several conditions, 08.07.2015. Available at http://eeas.europa.eu/archives/delegations/moldova/documents/press_corner/press_release_eu_bud get_support_2015_07_08_en.pdf (25.02.2019).
4 Emerson, Cenusa, Deepening EU-Moldovan Relations, p.19.; Alexander Tanas, EU freezes aid to Moldova as row over mayoral election festers. In: Reuters, 04.07.2018. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-moldova-protests-eu/eu-freezes-aid-to-moldova-as-row-over- mayoral-election-festers-idUSKBN1JU2G7 (25.07.2019).
5 Emerson, Cenusa, Deepening EU-Moldovan Relations, p. 30.
6 Rikard Jozwiak, Romania Blocks Critical EU Text about Moldova. In: Radio Free Europe, 06.12.2018. Available at https://www.rferl.org/a/romania-blocks-critical-eu-text-about-moldova/29641255.html (26.02.2019).
7Kamil Całus, Wojciech Konończuk, Moldova, which used to be perceived as one of the most democratic post-Soviet countries, has come to be dominated by one politician. In: Carnegie Europe, 04.05.2017. Available at https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/69856 (26.02.2019).
8 William H. Hill, Moldova’s Upcoming Election: What’s at stake? In: Wilson Center, 14.02.2019. Available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/moldovas-upcoming-election-whats-stake (26.02.2019).
9 Moldova: Pro-Russian party leads without majority. In: Deutsche Welle/Reuters, 25.02.2019. Available at https://www.dw.com/en/moldova-pro-russian-party-leads-without-majority/a-47669559 (26.02.2019).
10 Moldova is still caught between Russia and the EU. In: The Economist, 25.02.2019. Available at https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/02/25/moldova-is-still-caught-between-russia-and-the-eu (26.02.2019).
11 Denis Cenusa, The place of the opposition in the post-electoral balance of power in Moldova. In: IPN, 04.03.2019. Available at http://ipn.md/en/special/96854 (05.03.2019).
12 Vladimir Socor, Moldova’s Parliamentary Elections: One Silver Lining Amid Multiple Negative Trends (Part One), In: The Jamestown Foundation, 11.03.2019. Available at https://jamestown.org/program/moldovas-parliamentary-elections-one-silver-lining-amid-multiple- negative-trends-part-one/ (12.03.2019).
13 Fewer alliance scenarios remained after ACUM’s statements about non-cooperation with PDM and PSRM, opinions, in: IPN, 1.3.2019. Available at http://www.ipn.md/en/alegeri-2019/96814 (12.03.2018).
14 Transnistria is a self-proclaimed state on the internationally recognized territory of Moldova.
15 OSCE International Election Observation Mission: Republic of Moldova – Parliamentary Elections, 24 February 2019. Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions. Available at https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/moldova/412346?download=true (27.02.2019), pp.1-6.
16 Pro-Russian Party Wins Moldova Parliamentary Vote. In: Warsaw Institute, 26.03.2019. Available at https://warsawinstitute.org/pro-russian-party-wins-moldova-parliamentary-vote/ (10.03.2019).