Note to Moldova: beware the Kiev trap!

Louis O’Neill
10 August 2009

Moldova's opposition leaders - flush from besting Europe's last governing Communist party in repeat parliamentary elections on July 29 - need to draw a prompt and essential lesson from their democratic neighbors across the way in Kiev. A lesson on what not to do next.

The Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Our Moldova Alliance forced these new elections by maintaining a solid front after fraud and violence marred April's vote.  With much fanfare, on August 8 they formed a unity "Coalition for European Integration" with former parliament speaker Marian Lupu and his Democratic Party. 

Lupu became the wildcard in this contest by defecting from strongman Vladimir Voronin's Communists on June 10.  A charismatic polyglot, he garnered a respectable 13 seats in his new democratic garb.  These made him indispensible to both the opposition and Communists for electing the speaker of parliament and approving a government, which only require a simple majority vote.  

But with a four-party bloc facing them, this time around it is the disciplined Communists who will have enough seats to play spoiler and potentially throw the country once again into the Ukrainian-style political turmoil it experienced these last several months.

This is because Moldova elects its president indirectly, in parliament, by a super-majority of 61 out of 101 seats.  Despite the opposition's legitimate and much-vaunted "victory," the Communists remain by far the country's single most popular party.  Controlling nearly half the seats in the legislature (48 to the united opposition's 53), they can block any presidential candidate they wish.  On top of this, Voronin is still currently acting president and the Moldovan constitution, twisted with contradictions, fails to spell out clearly when he must relinquish the post in the absence of a new, duly-elected chief executive.

Compromise seems unlikely, because the original three opposition parties have declared that they will not horse-trade with their hated red rivals under any circumstances. In fact, this vow played a prominent role in their election campaigns.  They may perceive that breaking their promise could severely damage their credibility and even threaten their livelihood. After all, the last Moldovan politician to form a ruling coalition with the Communists - handing them the presidency in 2005 - got less than 2% of the vote just now, far too little support on which to enter parliament.  Lupu has been far more circumspect, suggesting that a deal with his former party might be possible if Voronin leaves politics.  

Perilously, this little country's complex electoral legislation allows only two relatively quick bites at the apple to elect a president; if none emerges, parliament must once more be dissolved.  The rub is that the Moldovan constitution permits only one dissolution of parliament per year, and that has already happened in 2009. 

Thus, bar a deal on a grand coalition or a neutral president acceptable to all, Voronin will argue that he remains acting president until a new, elected president is sworn in.  The opposition will say that the new speaker of parliament (whom it will select quite soon with its simple majority) should, by succession in the absence of a full-fledged president, become the country's acting head.  Both arguments have support in law, and so it may fall to the constitutional court - notoriously friendly to the Communists - to decide who will be Moldova's leader until next year.

And the Moldovan constitution isn't even clear about when in 2010 another round of elections could take place.  Some scholars say that it would have to wait until April 5, a year from when the dissolved parliament was constituted.  Others argue that the constitution allows for one dissolution per calendar year, such that January 1 would mark the threshold.  Once again, enter the constitutional court.

All these tortuous rules and the political wrangling they generate tee up a real danger that Moldovan political life could become Ukrainized.  Just as after the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Moldovan opposition has issued an impressive, multi-point plan to establish the rule of law and protect basic freedoms, combat the economic crisis, "de-verticalize" power and establish a prudent foreign policy advancing European integration.  Falling into a cul-de-sac Kiev approach to governing would surely please one particularly influential actor in the region. But it would stop these ambitious plans dead in their tracks.  This trap must be avoided to maintain the momentum of these largely fair elections and get real reform moving in this, the poorest and most isolated country in Europe.

There is no doubt that Ukraine is a much freer place thanks to the Orange Revolution. Civil society has become more muscular and no one has a monopoly on political power.  The press is remarkably open and interesting, so much so that top Russian journalists like Yevgeniy Kiselyov and Savik Shuster have fled Moscow's censorship to set up shop in Kiev.  A lot of good has been done.

But the Orange Revolution has failed when it comes to obtaining steady, statesman-like leadership from its architects.  None of the players has shown the ability to put aside pettiness and ambition to advance the abiding interests of the country.  In post-Soviet places, just like anywhere else, the key to long-term, value-added economic growth and the realization of human potential comes from changing a culture of corruption, breathing life into the rule of law and creating institutions that work for people, not despite them. Making this transition requires striking while the iron is hot through reconciliation, collaboration and the hard work of reform.

Voronin cannot be president again and it is very unlikely he will be able to nip four opposition votes to be re-elected speaker. For the sake of his country, it is time for him to relinquish the dream of being Moldova's mini Deng Xiaoping and make room for a new generation.  For their part, the opposition needs to be very mindful that the Communists have a legitimate and solid base of political support that should be respected, and that refusing to work with them is like refusing to use the left half of your body.  Lupu, both patriot and opportunist, must do everything in his ability to negotiate an outcome that takes into account the many passions and currents in Moldovan society, even if it means that he does not become president.

All Moldovans should be proud of what they have done with these elections. Let us hope they can be equally proud of their leaders in the next months and beyond.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData