2 – Moldova’s presidential race isn’t over yet
BSSB.BE opendemocracy.net/ 09.11.2016
All bark and no bite
English-language coverage describes Moldova’s election as a “showdown” or a “tug-of-war” between the west and Russia. Given renewed tensions, that’s no surprise.
But for some Moldovans like Alexei and Irina, a journalist and nurse from Chișinău, the great-power rivalries obscure as much as they illuminate. The couple voted for Maia Sandu, and complain that geopolitics — whether to choose the west or Russia — divides Moldovans’ struggle against oligarchs.
Moldovans protesting against corrupt pro-European governments are labelled “pro-Russian”, while a powerful “pro-European” oligarch is given the red carpet treatment in Washington.
As Moldova’s example teaches us, everything can change — yet so much can stay the same
“Everything must revolve around geopolitics,” explains Alexei. “It was the exactly the same in Chișinău’s mayoral elections, and the role doesn’t even have serious influence over foreign policy”.
In 2011, the candidate of the pro-European Liberal Party Dorin Chirtoacă narrowly beat Igor Dodon in the race for the mayoralty. Chirtoacă, still in office, congratulated Sandu yesterday, urging her to “squash this colorado beetle in the run-offs”. “Colorado” is a derogatory term for people with pro-Russian sympathies.
This focus on geopolitics is one reason why a handful of citizens (beyond the scandal in Orhei) boycotted the vote. Civic activist and sociologist Vitalie Sprȋnceană believes that “the fragile consensus between the main opposition parties has transformed into a contest of personal vanities. Back then, the opposition decided to abandon rhetoric about geopolitics and national identity, and build a civic agenda faced on economic and social problems. This was dissolved with the decision of the constitutional court to re-open the race for president.”
Storm clouds gather overhead. Campaign poster in Chișinău for Ciubașenco, the second pro-Russian presidential candidate. His supporters will most likely support Dodon in the second round. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.
- The Communist Party, which ruled Moldova from 2001 to 2009, also boycotted the vote. Leader Vladimir Voronin declaring that reinstating direct elections should have been taken after referendum, not a decision by the constitutional court.
- Sprȋnceană told me that the hype has distracted from a key fact: as Moldova remains a parliamentary, not presidential, republic, there are practical limits to the bold promises of both candidates. For example, the levers at Dodon’s disposal may not be enough for him to steer Moldova away from its pro-European course. At least not on their own.
- Moldova’s president can return legislation to parliament for a second vote, appoint members of the national security council and call referendums on “matters of national importance”.
This final point is key. Dodon has suggested that one of those “matters” could concern a constitutional amendment, or a vote on the country’s geopolitical course. He’s promised to fight against “LGBT values” in Moldova, defend Orthodoxy, bring the country into Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and declared that Crimea belongs to Russia. For a country aiming for European integration, such a head of state could well be a liability.
Moldova’s parliament has a pro-European majority, over which Plahotniuc wields considerable influence. “If Dodon becomes president and abandons the pro-European course, he knows what I can do and will see what real protests mean,” warned the oligarch in a candid interview. “If he makes me the hero of the pro-European revolution, you will see how my rating will change overnight.”
We are most displeased
Vladimir Plahotniuc is widely known as the most powerful man in Moldova, and not without good cause. He has bankrolled both the Communist Party of Vladimir Voronin (in power from 2001-2009), then becoming vice-chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, which ruled Moldova as part of a pro-European coalition between 2009 and 2013.
Once one of the most secretive men in Moldova, Plahotniuc has been thrust into the limelight by recent events, and is now one of the most loathed. This campaign has seen him open his front door to Moldovan TV crews, in an attempt to win over the electorate. Every third viewer that night watched the programme on PrimeTV.
Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc gives an interview for discussion show VIP Confidente, October 2014. Image still via YouTube / Prime TV. Some rights reserved.
“Who would Plahotniuc prefer?” is a big question in Moldova’s internal politics. Dodon’s pro-Russian orientation causes clear problems for Plahotniuc in his dealings with the EU. Nevertheless, as Moldovan commentator and former ambassador Andrei Popov has commented, it could allow Plahotniuc to present himself as the only viable pro-European politician able to rein in pro-Russian passions. The struggle against vested oligarchic interests would again be sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.
In contrast, Sandu shares pro-European aspirations but could be less open to compromise with big money.
For example, when Andrei Năstase (another pro-EU and anti-corruption candidate) withdrew his candidacy for president, Sandu was grateful for his support.
- Marian Lupu, candidate of the ruling Democratic Party and protege of Plahotniuc, soon followed suit. Plahotniuc then began to openly praise Sandu — given his 94.6% disapproval rating, such a blessing must also be a curse. Sandu’s struck back, declaring that she did not need Plahotniuc’s money or his blessing.
- Watching their wallets, some of Moldova’s elite could just about reconcile themselves to a Dodon presidency
- Thus Sandu finds herself in a difficult position. A second round could see a higher turnout, and the 6% gained by pro-Russian candidate Ciubașcenco would likely go to Dodon. Had Ciubașcenco’s pro-Russian mentor Renato Usatȋi decided to join forces with the Socialists, Dodon would probably now be president.
As of this morning, Dodon had called on members of “Our Party” to support him, and flies to Moscow on 4 November to meet Usatȋi. Sandu can expect support from voters for Iurie Leancă and Mihai Ghimpu, who took 3.1% and 1.8% of the vote respectively.
Having forced Dodon to concede a second round, Sandu will need all the help she can get — Plahotniuc might offer it. If she accepts, political expediency would have compromised a promising anti-oligarchic reformer. Moldovans’ prevailing mantra that “they’re all the same” will become that much more convincing.
Which path now for Moldova? Ştefan cel Mare Boulevard, central Chișinău, the evening before presidential elections. (c) Maxim Edwards. All Rights reserved.
Political analyst Cornel Ciurea sees things differently. Both candidates need support from Plahotniuc in the run-offs, he says, but only unofficial support. For example, while Sandu would not accept aid from Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party, party members will still support her. “In general,” he observes, “it is difficult to say what strategy Plahotniuc will take over the next few weeks”.
“Unofficially, nobody really considers Dodon a threat to the pro-European course,” continues Ciurea. “In fact, Dodon as president would allow Plahotniuc to monopolise the centre-right opposition and strengthen the Democratic Party. If Sandu wins, Dodon will build strength as the left opposition, and the Democratic Party will be squeezed in the middle, with no obvious terrain”.
Watching their wallets, some of Moldova’s elite — including the Democratic Party — could just about reconcile themselves to a Dodon presidency. Reformists and Moldova’s western backers are hedging their bets on Sandu.
The theatre on Eminescu Street is going back to more routine spectacles. Ballot boxes are collected and the count begins.
As Moldova teaches us, everything can change — yet so much can stay the same.
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