Outlook for 2016: The conditions that caused the political crisis throughout 2015 are unlikely to be resolved in 2016 without a wide national political compromise, which seems improbable. In a country where reforms have barely progressed when political stability was ensured, the crisis has rendered them nearly impossible.
The economic prognosis is grim. The banking sector theft, endemic corruption, and a worsening regional context will impact quality of life even more in 2016 than in the previous year. Early elections, if they occur, would likely strengthen the position of pro-Russian parties, worsening relations with the European Union, but not necessarily damaging the reform process more than the current crisis.
The country’s main challenges remain the same: implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU; de-politicization and de-oligarchization of state institutions, judiciary, and media; and implementation of reforms in areas like the justice system and decentralization.
National Democratic Governance:
After a relatively stable political year in 2014, Moldova saw in 2015 the most intense political turmoil and instability since the regime change in 2009, with three different governments in the course of the year. Following the November 30, 2014, parliamentary elections, the political parties were unable to form a governing alliance for two and a half months.
After nontransparent negotiations, a new minority government joining the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) and Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) was installed in February as the Political Alliance for a European Moldova, headed by PLDM-affiliated Chiril Gaburici.
Unable to reach agreement with the Liberal Party (PL) on joining the coalition, it relied instead on the communist party (PRCM), which remained formally in opposition but often acted de facto as part of the coalition. The country’s two top oligarchs, Vlad Filat of PLDM and Vlad Plahotniuc of PDM, divided the ministerial portfolios as well as other important institutions, as has been the custom since 2009. For instance, PLDM took the State Tax Office and customs control, and PDM took the prosecutor’s office and National Anticorruption Center.
The coalition barely functioned at a minimum level of competence—in April it adopted a state budget without a parliamentary vote, as required by law—and did not last long. Infighting led to its collapse in June, and a new coalition was formed by PLDM, PDM, and the Liberal Party (PL), headed by Valeriu Strelet of PLDM.
The Strelet government was sacked in late October, formally on allegations of corruption. It then took two months for president Nicolae Timofti to nominate businessman and public figure Ion Sturza to form a new cabinet.
Lacking the political support of parties other than PLDM, most MPs boycotted the parliament session, and Sturza was not able to present his cabinet and program. The fact that it took the president almost two months to nominate a prime minister with a slim chance of support illustrates the depth of Moldova’s political crisis and inability of the political parties to find compromise.
Public protests begun in February by the civic platform “Dignity and Truth” over the failure of law enforcement to investigate the $1 billion banking theft and the country’s worsening living conditions gathered momentum through the year and into the fall. Although some leaders of the platform were connected to Victor and Viorel Topa—oligarch brothers who fled the country five years ago due to conflict with Plahotniuc and later convicted of a variety of crimes—the initial protests were authentically civic in nature. In September, pro-Russian parties, namely, the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (of Igor Dodon) and “Our Party” (of Renato Usatii), piggybacked on civic protests with a similar goal to force early elections, while also backing the idea of a referendum for direct election of the president to replace Moldova’s current system of selection by parliament.
With protests ongoing in October, prosecutors detained former prime minister Vlad Filat on accusations of masterminding the $1 billion banking theft and taking a $250 million cut. The arrest was hardly a credit to investigators, however, as it was based on self-denunciation by the newly elected mayor of Orhei, Ilan Shor, whom many had named as involved in the theft at the time it was committed.
Through all of these events, the population’s trust in governing elites dropped to a new low. Clear evidence of oligarchic capture of state institutions and use of ostensibly independent institutions for political ends decreased the level of trust in the parliament to 6 percent (compared to 41 percent in 2009) and similarly low levels for the government and president.
Against this backdrop of deep disappointment in the ruling elite, new parties started to form. In March, former prime minister Iurie Leanca, who had avoided both camps in the political dispute, split from PLDM to form the European People’s Party of Moldova (PPEM). In December, Dignity and Truth became a political party, polling a solid 12 percent of public support in surveys, although ties between party leader Andrei Nastase and Victor Topa may damage its credibility. Also in December, former education minister Maia Sandu announced she would start her own party, “Action and Solidarity,” drawing on her reputation for integrity and positive results she takes credit for in reforming the education system. However, polls at the end of the year still showed the pro-Russian Our Party (16 percent) and Party of Socialists (10 percent) performing well.
Relations with the EU worsened significantly as the reform agenda under the 2014 Association Agreement stalled, with implementation of only 19 percent of its planned activities. Rampant evidence of grand corruption and lack of basic progress in good governance among ostensibly pro-European elites undermined the pro-EU agenda and strengthened the positions of Euroskeptic and Russia-loyal center-left parties.
Transnistria received little attention in 2015, despite parliamentary elections unrecognized by Moldova or the international community in December. The 5 + 2 negotiations format has been on hold since summer 2014, and contacts between the government in Chişinău and the Tiraspol administration are limited. The only visible progress was the decision to apply the economic component of the Association Agreement to the entire territory of Moldova, including Transnistria, as of January 1, 2016.
Local elections were held in June for Moldova’s 898 mayors, elected under a two-round majoritarian system, and 11,680 local council members, elected under a proportional representation system without a threshold.Unlike the problematic 2014 parliamentary elections, the 2015 local elections were generally free and fair and well administered by the Central Electoral Commission.
The elections offered the public a diverse choice, despite a difficult political context compounded by the resignation of the prime minister just two days before the first round. The declared pro-European incumbent parties won the most seats and mayoralties in the elections, although Euroskeptic center-left parties also secured significant support. Ilan Shor, an oligarch publicly named as a participant in the $1 billion banking theft, was elected mayor of Orhei (see Local Democratic Governance).
There were documented issues in the election. According to the local election monitor PromoLex, one major problem was access to voter-list verification, which diminished voter confidence in the electoral process. An inconsistent interpretation of the electoral law on the preparation of voter lists relating to the use of residence permits created circumstances that may have allowed for fraud. A dramatic increase in the number of voters registered in some districts since November 2014 (for instance, a 10.6 percent increase in Codru) could indicate vote manipulation and may have affected the results.
Additionally, the law on funding political parties and campaigns was adopted in March 2015 and the Electoral Code was amended in April 2015, thus violating the Venice Commission recommendation that electoral legislation should not be changed less than one year before an election. The OSCE also criticized changes to the law that prohibited the use of state and foreign symbols and images and forbade involving foreign citizens in campaigning, stating that this is a “disproportionate restriction challenging freedom of expression.”
Certain amendments were positive, such as making vote-buying and illegal campaign funding criminal offenses. Other sanctions for electoral violations include warnings, fines, confiscation of funds, suspension of public funding, and deregistration. However, the provision on sanctions is ambiguous and sometimes conflicting, as well as non-exhaustive. The OSCE noted that this could lead to discretionary application by the Central Electoral Commission, which also received more powers under the legislative amendments.
Following the elections, OSCE/ODIHR and PromoLex offered additional recommendations to improve the legal framework with regard to party funding, election administration, media, voter registration, and the election campaign. So far, the recommendations have not been converted into policies.
Moldova also held elections in March for the position of baskan, or head of local government, in the Gagauz Autonomous Region. Socialist candidate Irina Vlah, running as an independent, won in the first round with 51 percent of the vote. These results were not surprising, as the Socialists had already won control of the region from the Communists in the November 2014 parliamentary elections. The election of Vlah means the central authorities will need to make even more of an effort to keep the region from becoming isolated, which would make it an easier target for Russia should the Kremlin decide to destabilize Moldova.
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