Moldova’s transition towards a functioning democracy seems to be a long shot. In the "hung parliament" resulting from Sunday’s elections, the Socialist opposition party led by President Igor Dodon won 34 seats out of the 101, whereas the incumbent Democratic Party, headed by Vladimir Plahotniuc, won 30 seats, followed by the pro-Western coalition bloc ACUM, led by Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, with 27 seats, and the conservative Ilan Shor’s Party with seven seats. Since no party secured a majority, talks to form a coalition are expected. Nonetheless, considering the polarized political background, it is hard to foresee for how long they could last.
In his preliminary report, the Special Coordinator of the short-term OSCE observer mission, George Tsereteli, defined the Sunday elections as “generally well-run”. However, he mentioned several irregularities before election day – like misuse of state resources, strong indications of vote-buying, pressure on public employees – and on election day – like voter transportation to ballot stations organized by political parties.
On the one hand, the Socialist pro-Russian President Igor Dodon aims at taking control of legislative power in order to end cohabitation with a Democratic party-led parliament resulting from the 2016 presidential elections. Although the Socialists won the most seats, coalitions with other parties seem unlikely. On the other hand, the pro-Western Democratic Party continues to lose consensus following the withdrawal of EU financial support to Moldova after it qualified the state as “captured by oligarch interests” and because of its increasing level of corruption, decreasing living standards and democratic regression from what used to be considered the success story of the European Partnership (EaP).
Differently from the Socialists, the leader of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc, could count on the support of the conservative Shor Party, though this alliance would not guarantee an absolute majority in any case. Finally, there is an internal fight within the pro-Western front that opposes ACUM and the Democratic Party – a further example of how political interests can trump shared values in Moldovan politics. After Plahotniuc accused ACUM’s leaders of high treason in one of their skirmishes, any talk about a pro-Western coalition seems unlikely, even though an alliance between these two parties would have the majority in parliament.
Although Moldovan politics is often described as a battlefield pitting pro-Westerners against pro-Russians, ideology plays a secondary role here. In 2005, the former president and communist leader Vladimir Voronin refused to sign the so-called “Kozak Memorandum” offered by Russia -which implied the federalization of the Republic of Moldova as well as veto powers to the breakaway territory of Transnistria regarding crucial security issues. Moreover, Voronin committed Moldova to democratic reforms and cooperation with the West, making the EU’s popularity reach its highest level. Similarly, according to a report by Global Focus, public support for EU accession decreased from 70% in 2008 to 40% in 2018, a decrease that the Democratic Party’s governance failures may help to explain.
Realpolitik factors will play a much bigger role for negotiations among political parties. The recent opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau speaks to the level of geopolitical confrontation between NATO and the EU on one side and Russia on the other, in their attempt to bring Moldova into their spheres of influence. As for Moldova’s energy security, Russia is still the main provider, despite the fact that Romania is offering a second source of gas and electricity in alternative to the cheaper Russian supplies. In 2018, Moldova awarded a tender to the Romanian Transgaz company to construct a pipeline from Ungheni, on the border with Romania, to Chisinau.
The post-election scenario appears volatile as investigations concerning irregularities are still ongoing, and party leaders either do not recognize the elections as free and democratic (like Maia Sandu) or already plan new elections should irregularities be confirmed (like Igor Dodon). Despite the polarization of the parties, their lack of solid ideological bases allows them to change position according to their real interests. Hence, all scenarios are possible, including a coalition between Socialists and Democrats.
The 24 February parliamentary elections put the health of Moldovan democracy to the test. Disguised under the democratic constitutional veil, political leaders act as oligarchs battling for power, unheeding of the people’s dissatisfaction with state institutions (as shown by a less-than-average turnout of 49% at the elections). In July 2017 the two major parties, while polarized political adversaries, adopted a mixed electoral system that strengthened the largest parties to the detriment of pluralism; also, some party leaders from across the political spectrum took advantage of the loopholes in the legislation regarding charity financing for political campaigns, and concentrated media ownership in their own hands.
Will the current levels of civil society involvement, transparency and checks and balances be sufficient to prevent an authoritarian drift of the president, should he also gain control of the legislature?