RAISING THE 
STAKES

A readout on Moldova’s Local Elections

On June 14, 2015, Moldovan citizens chose their local government representatives in the country’s sixth local elections since independence. In many other countries, local elections would be no more than a regular exercise of democracy. But for Moldova, local elections are another installment in the smoldering political crisis and indicate the general disenchantment of citizens with the functioning of their leaders and public institutions. This time, the contest will have a strong impact on central politics and the pro-Western orientation of the country.

According to the Central Electoral Committee, 42 organizations were registered to compete in the elections, while 19 political parties and 2 electoral blocs registered candidate lists. Voter turnout was under 50 percent, lower than the turnout in the 2014 general elections. No elections were organized in the separatist province of Transnistria.

In almost half of the constituencies, including the capital city of Chisinau, a second round of elections will be organized for the office of mayor. In Chisinau, the incumbent candidate from the center-right Liberal Party, Dorin Chirtoaca, is fighting Socialist Zinaida Greceanii (who is linked with a notable banking scandal). The margin is expected to be a very narrow one. Pro-European forces are expected to give their support to Chirtoaca in the second round, as well as try to reach an agreement inside the city council where, if united, they could overturn the prevalence of socialists and communists in the city.

Compared to the previous local elections of 2011, the Liberal Democrat Party and the Democrat Party (the core of the pro-European governing coalition) have improved their scores in terms of number of mayoral seats won, while both the Liberals and the Communists have lost significant ground. Overall, the pro-European parties did very well in terms of local council seats won throughout the country. Socialists scored very well in Chisinau, where they won the majority in the local council.

The divisions and intricacies of Moldovan political life have become quite evident in two other big cities, where pro-Russian sentiment and the failure of local leaders to improve citizens’ lives have led to unsettling results. Ilan Shor, a controversial 28-year old businessman who is currently being investigated in the $1 billion banking crisis case, has won the mayoral seat in Orhei. In Balti, pro-Russian Renato Usatii won a landslide with 70 percent of the votes. He was a prominent figure in the “Homeland” Party, which was excluded by court order shortly before the general elections in November 2014 for using foreign money to finance the campaign. These results should open an interesting debate about the role of oligarchs in Moldovan politics and their legitimacy won through elections.

Former Prime Minister Iurie Leanca’s new political movement won seven mayoral seats, an indicator of voters’ appetite for new political actors. The elections can also be seen as a political barometer for pro-European forces, although voter preferences show that personalities matter more than parties. According to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) survey from March 2015, only 16 percent of Moldovans have confidence in political parties, while 49 percent have confidence in their mayor (the highest percentage across public institutions after the church and media).

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported no incidents and stated that the vote took place according to international standards, but concerns were raised with respect to modifying political finance laws in the runup to the actual vote. On the other hand, according to reports by observers from the civil society organization Promo-Lex, various irregularities were noted in several constituencies, including the offering of electoral bribes. Private TV stations, six of which were even sanctioned, did not reflect the electoral campaign in a non-biased way, according to the OSCE. Media independence remains a crucial problem in Moldova and a vulnerability in building a more European outlook for the country.

While the local elections were not perceived as having the same geopolitical stakes as a national parliamentary contest, they confirm concerns about Moldova’s general East-West orientation between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community, as well as its economic development. Apart from the underlying tension between the so-called pro-European and pro-Russian preferences, the elections took place against a very complicated background. First, the banking crisis that has shattered the Moldovan economy spilled over into Moldova’s local elections, with some candidates having been involved in the scandal. But the biggest implication for the elections was the general frustration of the citizenry to even cast a vote on the ability of their representatives to fight corruption and ensure decent living conditions for them.

A recent report by the nongovernmental organization Expert Group based on the findings of the Court of Accounts (Moldova’s supreme audit institution) shows that in 2014 inefficiencies in managing public funds amounted to 8 billion lei (approximately $440 million), one-third of which were linked to local public administration. Moldovan citizens might not have seen those figures, but they can definitely feel the effects of poor public management. This will reflect on how they perceive the effectiveness of Europeanization and of representatives who are supposed to implement it. The March 2015 NDI survey shows that only 14 percent of the population believes the country is headed in the right direction, while corruption remains the most important problem with 45 percent.

Second, political scandal has been the rule since the general elections in November 2014. It culminated on the Thursday before the elections when Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici resigned, allegedly because of accusations that he forged his high school diploma. Gaburici’s government was formed after almost three months of failed negotiations between pro-European parties that led to the Liberal Party leaving the table and making room for the Communists to join the coalition. Gaburici’s resignation was received with high anxiety given that the International Monetary Fund was supposed to meet the Moldovan government on June 15, one of the topics being solutions to the banking crisis. On the other hand, the resignation means restarting negotiations for a new government and, potentially, for a new coalition. An encouraging first step was the announcement that pro-European coalitions will be formed within local councils.

If the June 14 vote is any indication of where Moldovans’ general political preferences lie, then the pro-European parties have another chance to conduct negotiations and present the parliament with a government that can have a more stable majority. Moldova needs a stable government after seven months of political controversies. However, recent declarations from the leaders of the Liberal Party (the missing piece in the pro-European coalition) indicate that such negotiations will not be an easy undertaking. If Moldovan politicians can’t reach an agreement in three months, the country goes to early elections. With all the economic problems it is facing and its almost uncontrollable corruption, Moldova cannot afford one extra day of uncertainty and instability.

Moreover, political battles overshadow the need for effective governance. Somewhat marginal in the electoral debates were questions of how effective local authorities can be in the context of centralization and dependence on central government budget allocations, as well as deeply entrenched corruption. What political leaders seem to disregard is that, for citizens, proficient public management and the performance of local government will matter greatly in defining abstract notions such as “pro-European sentiment.”

On the foreign policy-domestic politics continuum, fixing governance problems at both the central and local levels will constitute the best defense against Russian intimidation of any sort and the best support for EU policy. Hopefully, these elections and the negotiations that follow both in local jurisdictions and in the central government will make this clearer for Moldovan politicians.

 

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 
 

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Corina Rebegea

17 June, 2015

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