COMMENT: Is Moldova’s new election system a threat to democracy?

COMMENT: Is Moldova’s new election system a threat to democracy?
Planned reforms will help the highly unpopular Democratic party keep its majority in Moldova's parliament.
By Dumitru Alaiba of the Policy and Reform Center and Natalia Otel Belan of the Center for International Private Enterprise June 26, 2017

More than 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova is a story of democratic transition success that never was. 

The same goes for the currently planned electoral reform. From the outside, it may seem like a positive move, but its citizens are feeling the squeeze as the country appears to be moving toward autocracy. The new uninominal electoral system is seen by civil society as a virtual power grab by the country’s corrupt elites. Citizens have been out on the streets for weeks, protesting the change and asking Moldova’s allies in the West to back their cause.

Moldova’s parliament voted on May 5 to change the country’s electoral system from a proportional representation system to a uninominal system, or a combination of both systems. With parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2018, this change appears to be an attempt at gerrymandering. The Council of Europe’s constitutional law experts, known as the Venice Commission, concluded on June 16 that the planned electoral changes could lead to undue influence by political or business interests. The Venice Commission released its full opinions on June 19. 

The purpose of Moldova’s electoral reform is to ensure the advantage of the party in power. Because the uninominal system requires candidates to win across districts, it demands considerable funding. Therefore, this system will favour candidates with the financial backing of those in power, while putting emerging opposition parties at a significant disadvantage. The electoral change will increase the risk of electoral fraud, give independent candidates no choice but to join the governing Democratic Party, and diminish the role of the diaspora in elections. 

The modification to the electoral system is seen by many to be in the interest of a select number of oligarchs, not the citizens of Moldova. The change could strike a direct blow to democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and the press, the fight against corruption and the investigation of financial crimes. Over the long term, this could reduce the country’s economic stability and drive population loss due to migration

Before the vote in the parliament on the new reform, several civil society organisations sounded the alarm about the risks of the proposed reform. Protests broke out, with several hundred people gathering daily. In one week, the protests swelled to thousands.

The authorities dedicated serious efforts to preventing people from joining the protest. For the first time in years, activists were intimidated, police installed roadblocks on national roads, local trains were stopped, and drivers transporting protesters were sanctioned for bizarre illegalities. 

Instead of addressing the concerns of the protesters, the politically controlled media and politicians ridiculed the protesters and launched a misinformation campaign describing “massive citizen support” and “public consensus” in favour of the electoral reform. 

Moldova’s government is slowly crippling the free press, causing the country to fall in international rankings on press freedom. Meanwhile, the government’s lack of transparency prevents investigative journalists from uncovering the truth, and opacity breeds further corruption. Because dissenting opinions are discouraged and peaceful protests are curbed, citizens’ freedom of speech is under threat.

“Transparency International Moldova is against this [electoral] change because it changes the rules of the game before elections and gives advantage to a party that has compromised itself,” said Lilia Carasciuc, executive director of Transparency International in Moldova. “They know best how to rig the system because they are the system. The Democratic party has lied and manipulated the people while promoting this reform and the draft law has multiple flaws. It is designed to keep the Democratic party in power, eventually with the pro-Russian [Socialist party] PSRM.”

Other countries in the region that adopted uninominal or mixed electoral systems have experienced greater political corruption while new, emerging parties find themselves locked out, and minorities, women and the diaspora are often underrepresented in national parliaments. In countries like Ukraine and Georgia, oligarchs have risen to power and are able to exploit the uninominal or mixed systems to “buy” sympathetic candidates and aggressively fund their campaigns, virtually eliminating any other contenders. 

Moldova has been under the shadow of its own oligarchic system, which has strong links to the Democratic party. With an agenda of market reform and European integration, they were able to seize control of the government, the parliament, and many other key state institutions such as the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice, to name a few. In addition, oligarchs own most of the media outlets and TV channels and have financial interests in many sectors of the economy. 

However, a public opinion poll conducted in April noted negative opinions about the oligarchic system, and the Democratic party is polling at just 3.7% of popular support, down from 15% in the November 2014 parliamentary elections. 

The reason for such abysmal popularity among voters is that under the watch of a governing coalition from 2010 to 2014, $1bn was stolen from the National Bank reserves and more than $20bn was laundered to European Union banks. The Democratic party was a member of the coalition, and the institutions that were supposed to safeguard the Moldovan financial system were and are controlled by the party. Instead of investigating the extraordinary theft and money laundering case, authorities have muddled the process and are trying to make it all vanish from public scrutiny. 

With Moldova’s continued slide into authoritarianism, it does not look like its citizen’s legitimate concerns will be addressed anytime soon.

Dumitru Alaiba is programme director at the Center for Policy and Reform in Moldova. Previously, he worked with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as head of secretariat of the Economic Council under the office of Moldova’s prime minister. He blogs at Black on White in Romanian and English. 

Natalia Otel Belan is deputy regional director for Europe, Eurasia and South Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in Washington DC. She works on such issues as business advocacy, democratic governance, anti-corruption and ethics, and entrepreneurship ecosystems.

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