Insiders left outside Moldovan presidential contest

Insiders left outside Moldovan presidential contest
The switch to direct elections helped to avert a looming political crisis to fill the presidential palace.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest April 21, 2016

With the parties currently in government in Moldova deeply unpopular and tarnished by corruption scandals, the country’s first direct presidential election due to take place this autumn will be a contest between outsiders from both right and left. The result could take Moldova in one of two very different directions, so further instability is guaranteed.

Seven months ahead of the election, the man leading in the polls is Igor Dodon, the leader of the pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM), which despite being the largest party represented in the parliament has been consistently excluded from all four governments formed since the 2014 election.

Dodon, who served in two Communist-led governments in the late 2000s before defecting to the PSRM, is the clear leader from the left, as his main rival, the more populist Balti mayor and Partidul Nostru leader Renato Usatii, is too young to stand for president. The latest popularity poll from the Association of Sociologists of Moldova (ASM) published by Publika TV on April 14 puts Dodon on 18.1%, and most of the respondents who favoured third-placed Usatii would probably cast their votes for Dodon, despite reports of a recent falling out between the two politicians.

The picture from the centre-right is less clear, as two strong candidates - Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase - are competing to likely join Dodon in the second round.

Harvard-educated economist Sandu has some experience in government, having served as education minister in the short-lived cabinet of prime minister Chiril Gaburici in 2015. She clashed with fellow ministers on corruption issues, demanding the release of the report by consultancy Kroll into the $1bn bank frauds in Moldova and an investigation into allegations that Gaburici had forged his university diplomas. After Gaburici resigned she was a contender to succeed him, but the ruling coalition instead nominated Valeriu Strelet, who served for just three months before his government collapsed.

The ASM poll puts Sandu slightly ahead of Nastase, with 12.4% to his 10.3%, but with months still to go before the election there is room for Nastase, the founder and president of the new Dignity and Truth party, to draw ahead. The party grew out of the DA civic platform that was behind mass anti-corruption protests in autumn 2015, and like Sandu, Nastase has strong anti-corruption credentials.

This is in stark contrast to the four parties that in various constellations have formed a series of short-lived governments since the November 2014 general election. Not only are they widely discredited, they also suffer from a lack of heavyweight candidates capable of taking on Dodon, Sandu or Nastase.

It is not clear who the ruling Democratic Party (PD) will back in the election. In the absence of a credible candidate of its own, the party and its powerful backer oligarch Vlad Plahotnuic may seek to strike a deal with Dodon, who is likely to run against either Nastase or Sandu in the second round of voting.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s coalition partner the Liberal Democratic Party is unable to use its main asset, Chisinau mayor Dorin Chirtoacă, as like Usatii he is too young to stand for the presidency.

Decapitated by the arrest of its leader Vlad Filat in October 2015, the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) appears to be politically dead at least for the time being, as does the Communist Party, following a mass defection of its MPs to join the PD-led government. Polls show that if early parliamentary elections are held, all four parties would struggle to cross the 6% threshold to take parliament seats.

State capture

However, Nicu Popescu, senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) warns against dismissing the parties in the current parliament. “You can’t discount the self-declared pro-EU parties currently in government,” he says. “They are very unpopular, and don’t have any heavyweight candidates to run, let alone win, in the election. However, it is likely to be a very close race, so just 3-4% could spoil the game for other candidates.”

He forecasts that with public anger over corruption and the effective capture of the state by Plahotnuic, the governing parties will seek to divert popular debate towards geopolitics, presenting themselves as the only way to keep Moldovan on its path towards the EU.

“During the election campaign, opposition from both the centre-right and the left can be expected to stress corruption and state capture, while the parties currently in government will probably focus on geopolitics and Moldova’s position as a bulwark of stability against Russia,” he says. “I expect the Vlad Plahotnuic-owned media to support this angle, but the anti-corruption issue is probably more important to the population.”

Recently, however, there has been some blurring of the divide between right and left, pro-Russia and pro-EU. Rampant corruption has damaged the pro-EU credentials of the parties in power, while Dodon - in an apparent bid to take the centre ground - has indicated he will continue with at least some of the reforms required by the EU though he wants a referendum on the Association Agreement signed with the EU in 2014.

However, as with most presidential elections, the campaign is likely to be dominated by personalities rather than issues.

“Campaigns in Moldova do not tend to be issue-focussed, by which I mean public policy issues. Instead the focus is on personal attacks on politicians and their backgrounds, though I expect Moldova’s position on the geopolitical faultline between Russia and the west to play out quite strongly,” says independent Chisinau-based analyst Mihai Popsoi. “Unfortunately meaningful discussion on the economy is not likely to be a large part of the campaign.”

Looking for a saviour

Recently the issue of unification with Romania has been raised again, with thousands joining marches both for and against unification, even though the popularity of the idea has declined in the last two decades, with under 20% of the population currently in favour.

However, Popescu considers this is part of a wider trend for Moldovans to look outside their beleaguered country for salvation. “First the Communist party failed, then the self-declared pro-EU parties failed, so more people are now looking outside Moldova to save the country,” he tells bne IntelliNews. “Some in the centre-right have come to a half-formulated conclusion that joining Romania could be the last chance for Moldova, while more people have hopes of the Eurasian Union.”

There is also speculation that the Plahotnuic-owned media is hyping the unification debate in an attempt to split the centre-right (which includes the pro-unification faction) ahead of the election and distract attention from the pressing issues of corruption and state capture.

Plahotnuic owns several television channels, but he is not the only powerful Moldovan to exert his influence on voters via the media, according to the Nations in Transit 2016 report from Freedom House.

“Various politico-oligarchic groups or individuals control most of Moldova’s influential media and use them to present distorted information, especially about their political opponents. ... The strident politicisation and oligarchisation of the media remain key problems for Moldova,” the report says.

In addition to Plahotnuic’s holdings, Freedom House says that two channels - TV7 and THT Bravo - belong to the opposition PLDM’s Chiril Lucinschi, while the owners of Accent TV and Jurnal TV have close ties to the PSRM and DA respectively.

Moscow also exerts a significant influence through the media, since the low quality of local Russian language programming means the majority of Moldovans watch broadcasts from Russia, despite an attempt by the government in 2015 to ban all news and analysis from Russia.

The constitutional court’s March 4 decision to switch to direct presidential elections helped to avert a looming political crisis expected after incumbent president Nicolae Timofti’s term expired in March. The court’s decision is expected to be confirmed in a referendum (an estimated 90% of Moldovans want direct presidential elections) in advance of the vote scheduled for October 30.

However, beyond this the country’s future is as unclear as ever, with the indications being that the election will result in a close race between Dodon and either Nastase or Sandu in the second round. There is also still pressure for the government to resign and for early elections to be organised to coincide with the presidential election, which again could dramatically alter the political balance in the country. Whoever ends up winning the election, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to get bumpy ahead.