Battle for Moldova’s political heart

Louis O’Neill
16 September 2009

Long before he became Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic was a journalist, novelist, and long-time anti-Milosevic politician.  He spent many difficult years in the wilderness of opposition, campaigning all around his country.  One anecdote has Draskovic barnstorming in rural Serbia, seeking support for his Serbian Renewal Movement.  Frustrated by the lack of turnout and support for his efforts, after a long and exhausting day Draskovic plaintively asked some local people, "When will you vote for us?"  Not missing a beat, the backwoods electorate answered, "When you come to power."

This koanic exchange underscores the potency of the incumbency in post-authoritarian countries, where power begets power and peaceful, transparent transitions of leadership still remain the exception.  It also helps explain the win-at-all-costs mentality so frequently prevalent in unconsolidated democracies.  Politicians, by invariably monetizing their power, can face prosecution or worse when they lose their positions, motivating them to hold on all the more desperately. And voters often seem more comfortable with the devil they know, and settle for the hope that "things just don't get worse."

After enormous effort and unexpected unity, the Republic of Moldova's four-party Alliance for European Integration (AEI) recently managed - barely - to dethrone the long-ruling Communists.  Now the two roughly equal forces are locked in a strategic contest to see whether the AEI's summer surge can stand.  Oddly enough, due to the peculiarities of Moldova's electoral and constitutional legislation, the major tactical consideration underlying today's political moves has become foreseeing who Moldovan voters will likely support in six months. 

This is because a super-majority of 61 parliamentary seats is needed to elect the country's president.  The close split among the parties - 53 seats for the AEI and 48 for the Communists - means that if no one compromises on a head of state, new elections must be called in early 2010.  With an economic crisis only beginning to pummel this agrarian, remittance-dependent country, whoever is in power next year could find the advantages of incumbency offset by blame for financial pain and dislocation.

The pro-European AEI has been highly optimistic about finding the eight Communist votes it needs to advance its candidate, Marian Lupu, to the presidency.  Liberal Democrat leader Vlad Filat even went so far to say that the votes "will necessarily come to us."  To help this process along, the AEI voted a man the Communists cannot stand, Liberal Mihai Ghimpu, as speaker of parliament knowing full well that Ghimpu would, by succession, become acting president in the absence of a properly elected head of state.  They started the blame game over the country's economic mess.  And the AEI has repeatedly drummed the idea that the Communists Party will continue to lose ground with the electorate.

None of this appeared initially to have fazed the Communists, whose leader Vladimir Voronin came back newly energized from a recent meeting in Sochi with Russian President Medvedev.  On the offensive, Voronin denied the AEI's very existence as a political force, saying that only parties can exist, not "alliances."  Consistent with this view, he stood up an invitation from the AEI to discuss a way forward.  But then having had enough of consistency, Voronin announced that he would attempt to form a center-left alliance of his own by snatching 13 votes from the coalition.

But in a surprise move, on September 11 Voronin announced that he would step down as acting president, neutralizing criticism that he was trying to hold on to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms. 

He proceeded to give his resignation speech not in parliament - which he ignored completely - but to the entire nation via the friendly government broadcaster.  In these remarks, Voronin lit ferociously into the AEI, accusing it of only caring about "posts" and putting its "own goals and interests" over those of the people.  He played on fears of union with Romania by saying that he knew of "no successful government which could be based on the idea of liquidating its own country, on dreams of destroying it."  And he closed with a challenge, saying that his "entire team...is moving together into opposition.  This, of course, is not the best use of our abilities...at this difficult time for our Motherland.  Nonetheless, it is now our opponents' turn to demonstrate their qualities, capabilities and experience."  If nothing else, this harangue sounded a lot like a campaign speech. 

Which, perhaps it was.   The very next day, now ex-president Voronin tipped his hand on the question of forcing another national vote.  In an interview on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, the Communist leader declared that a new round of elections in 2010 would be better for the country than "four years of governance by the new parliamentary majority."  Therefore, Voronin said, he would ask the Central Committee of his party to boycott the upcoming legislative ballot to choose the president. 

In that same interview, Voronin attacked Brussels, Washington and Bucharest for using, in his estimation, "very serious...resources, practically the open purchase of voters" in the first round of Moldovan elections.  Further, he declared that "Commissars" from those capitals were behind the AEI with an aim to "destroy Communism" in the world and his party in particular. 

While these colorful and bombastic comments may play well to a particular Russian audience (one not likely comprised of Ekho Moskvy listeners), they clearly have Voronin's fellow-travellers worried.  Not only did his categorical and freewheeling statements seem to take his Communists lieutenants by surprise. They also flushed out real differences within the party, which could play into the AEI's hands and make Filat's confident prediction come true. 

First of all, the Communists have seen their number of seats fall from 60 in April to 48 in July, thanks to the defection of the popular Communist ex-speaker of parliament, Marian Lupu, to the AEI.  A core of moderate Communists are against forcing new elections, as are those Communists lower down on the party list, who fear that their chances of a warm, perk-infused spot in parliament would be ruined by a new contest.  Even A-List communists whose seats are not threatened are worried:  wily strategist Mark Tkaciuk declared recently that new elections would be a "disaster for the Communists" and a "disaster for Moldova."  

Then, as so often happens in this country, everything changed - or did it?  Vladimir Voronin came out of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador on September 14 and soon thereafter held an impromptu press conference.  He declared that the Communists were now ready to vote for an AEI candidate for president if two conditions were met.  First, Moldova must remain neutral, independent and sovereign, with no participation in any military bloc.  Second, care should be taken to raise salaries, social-benefits payments, pensions and to improve medical care, maintain the number of schools and increase university students' stipends.

These populist conditions are not too difficult for the AEI, or any Moldova politician, to accept.  But they come with one more string attached.  Voronin also inveighed that under no circumstances would the Communists vote for Marian Lupu to lead the country.  Voronin called Lupu a "traitor" and a "leech" and - revealing that internal party discipline could be waning - suggested that "there may be more of this kind [in the Communist party] who will cross over to the new government."  What looked like a step towards agreement turned out to be a strange and circuitous way of reiterating the deadlock.

For its part, the AEI quickly responded on September 15 that Voronin's words are merely a "starting point" for further negotiations.  Parliament speaker and now acting president Mihai Ghimpu was more absolute in declaring that "the Communists will vote for Marian Lupu.  He remains the AEI's candidate and no other road exists."  But of course, the longer deadlock continues, the longer Ghimpu remains acting president of Moldova.

Vladimir Voronin's erratic behaviour and contradictions suggest that he may be unsure of what to do next.  He faces pressure from his party not to risk what it has now - 48 seats and by far the strongest block in parliament - in throw of the dice next year.  His rivals are moving hard to woo eight or more of his seats and establish Lupu as president, which would further marginalize him.  The AEI will soon gain control over key committees and procedures in parliament.  And if compromise is not found, popular blame for six more months of a headless state will likely fall on the Communists, regardless of the economic crisis.  Vladimir Voronin is learning how difficult and disorienting it can be to lose the incumbency, while the AEI, as Vuk Draskovic predicted, is, for now, waxing in office.


Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.

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