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Moldova’s political tourists

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In Moldova, party allegiances are for sale. MPs are increasingly crossing the floor, and over a quarter of the electorate are now misrepresented by their current parliament.

Stefan Grigorița
8 April 2016

It took only 32 minutes. On the evening of 20 January, Pavel Filip, leader of Moldova’s new government, managed to present his programme, to answer questions and call for a vote from MPs. As people in Chișinău began to protest outside the parliament building, Filip’s government won the vote. Several protesters forced their way through the back doors into the parliament building; others started a fire around the corner.

This vandalism was, of course, condemned by all parties, but it was, at least, understandable. After all, Moldova’s new government had also come to power through the back door with a contested majority.

Filip’s majority was formed in part thanks to 26 MPs “collected” from Moldova’s communist and liberal democratic parties. All of a sudden, these MPs abandoned their parties, “embracing social democracy” and “saving the European dream”. Liberals and democrats were thus united with former communists — quite a development for Moldova. The key word, of course, was “stability”.

Who is buying off Moldova’s MPs, and to what end?

Politicians do change their principles. “Crossing the floor”, as it’s known, is not uncommon in democracies around the world. But in Moldova, this change of heart smells more of corruption than conscience. Who is buying off Moldova’s MPs, and to what end?

A change of heart?

How did MPs from such diverse parties come together? Most importantly, why did 26 MPs decide to go solo, becoming the biggest faction in the entire parliament as a result?

“It is obvious that after 2009, the only politician who won in this situation is Vladimir Plahotniuc,” says political analyst Ernest Vardanean. “In one way or another, these 26 ‘political tourists’ are acting in the name of this puppeteer.”

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"Tourists" are now the biggest group in Moldova's parliament. Source: Radio Moldova

Sociologist Doru Petruti added that “the people voted for something else, but the legislative branch allowed their will to be thrown away.”

When I met Igor Boţan, a political analyst from the Association for Participatory Democracy, I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Boţan has seen much during his experience, but even last year shocked him. “They have absolutely no morality,” he sighed. “They have only their interests. Now everything depends on us.”

When principles pay

“They offered me money in exchange for leaving the Communist Party,” began Elena Bondarenko, a Communist MP, in an interview in January. “I was offered a sum of six figures, in dollars. The final amount would have been discussed after I made my decision. Had I chosen a political position for myself, or for my relatives, the amount, obviously, would have been lower. If I had wanted just money, the sum would have been bigger.”

Bondarenko’s candour did make some waves in Moldovan society, though people soon moved on. Soon afterwards, she visited the National Anti-Corruption Centre — with few results. Meanwhile, the interim leader of the Liberal Democrats, former PM Valeriu Streleț, mentioned a “standard package”, which is offered to MPs who decide to leave their party.

“You can get a fixed amount of money and positions in government for you or your relatives. Moreover, you can have a fixed fee paid monthly, but that depends on your loyalty”

“From what I heard, some colleagues were made interesting proposals. You can get a fixed amount of money and positions in government for you or your relatives. Moreover, you can have a fixed fee paid monthly, but that depends on your loyalty. This is called the ‘standard VIP package’,” Streleț stated in an interview for Timpul.

“In general, the ruling coalition won the most from this situation. Probably the Democrats and Liberals, but I don’t rule out the possibility other people’s interests could have guided the situation, away from democratic principles,” said Ina Șupac, parliamentary leader of the seven Communist MPs who remained after two thirds deserted in December.

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21 January: Riot police officers stand in line in front of protesters outside Moldova's parliament. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP / Press Association Images.Many people believe that a single figure is behind these proposals — Vladimir Plahotniuc, the vice-president of Moldova’s Democrat Party. This oligarch who once bankrolled the communists before having an abrupt change of heart is widely regarded as one of the country’s most powerful — and most secretive — people.

According to the latest polls, Plahotniuc is seen negatively by over 90% of the population. Many of his opponents accuse him of being behind this operation. True to form, Plahotniuc hasn’t responded or even acknowledged these accusations.

Setting the stage

During the most recent parliamentary elections in November 2014, the Moldovan people gave three disgraced parties (the Liberal Democrats, Democrats and Liberals) a third chance. There was just too much at stake: a visa-free regime and association agreement with the EU.

The alternatives on the left weren’t too appealing — the fading Party of Communists, whose leader Vladimir Voronin’s main role was to appear on TV or hold concerts with Russian pop stars. Two other pro-Russian politicians, Renato Usatii and Igor Dodon (leader of the Socialist Party), won little more than a photo opportunity with Vladimir Putin.

“Our voters were expecting something different from us”

Thus, Moldova’s new parliament was made up of 25 socialists and 21 communists on the left, 19 democrats on the centre-left, 21 liberal democrats on the centre-right and 13 liberals on the right. Soon enough, everything started to change.

“Our voters were expecting something different from us,” said Iurie Leancă, former Prime Minister, in his speech in February last year after announcing his departure from the Liberal Democratic party, along with another liberal-democrat MP, Eugen Carpov.

During the summer of 2015, another three MPs left their parties. In their statements, they presented a familiar message — a crisis of trust in their party, the need to change, and that they no longer shared the values of their party.

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Protest march in the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, January 2016. (c) VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.The Liberal Democrats took another huge hit on 15 October, when their leader and former PM Vlad Filat was arrested for corruption.

Soon afterwards, the coalition government lead by Valeriu Streleț collapsed, and the negotiations began again with the democrats. Their informal leader Marian Lupu announced that they would “have some talks with individual MPs, not the party”. It was an unconventional approach.

Direction: exit west

In the early hours of 21 December 2015, Vlad Plahotniuc posted an interesting message. The “puppetmaster” of Moldovan politics announced that, after “leaving politics” in when Vlad Filat was arrested in October, he was “coming back” to politics.

That same morning, a group of 14 MPs left the Communist Party, and Democratic Party representatives led by Vladimir Plahotniuc started talks with these MPs immediately on the creation of a Social Democratic Parliamentary Platform, representing the centre of the pro-European parliamentary majority.

A coalition was signed on Christmas Eve, and the former communist MPs and democrats formed the “For Moldova” platform. “In the coming days, all 34 MPs [of the platform] will meet the president and propose a candidate for Prime Minister,” announced a recent “ex-communist” Igor Vremea.

“Crossing the floor”, as it’s known, is not uncommon in democracies around the world. But in Moldova, this change of heart smells more of corruption than conscience

The next step in forming a new majority was to involve Moldova’s Liberal Party, and the rest was history. Six liberal democrats joined. They even had a prime ministerial candidate — Vladimir Plahotniuc. However, president Nicolae Timofti rejected him, and Plahotniuc’s protege Pavel Filip was instead appointed PM one week later.

Overall, over 1.6 million people voted in the 2014 parliamentary election, meaning that one MP represents over 16,000 people. Moldova’s high and mighty must have asked themselves which path was cheapest: to buy over 400,000 voters, with less than 100 lei apiece (£3.60), or to buy 25 MPs, with a million dollars each?

In the past year, 26 MPs have either become independent or crossed the floor.

Deja vu

“Crossing the floor” in Moldova has a history, of course: 14 such cases took place between 2009 and 2014, in a period of just five years.

The first was Marian Lupu, who left the communists to take control of semi-dead Democratic Party. It paid off. In the election of April 2009, the Democratic Party had received only 3%. A few months later, in July, with a new leader and a new message, the Democrats received 12.6% and 13 MPs. Just a month later, their votes in Parliament threw the communist into opposition after eight years of government.

The longer term danger of political tourism is that it diminishes trust in political parties and the parliamentary system as a whole

The trend continued. That December, another four communist MPs left the party. Then in 2011, Igor Dodon, Zinaida Greceanîi and Veronica Abramciuc also left the Communist Party; Dodon and Greceanîi took over the leadership of Moldova’s Socialist Party. After a few months, their votes played a decisive role in electing the new president of Moldova, Nicolae Timofti.

In 2013, the liberals lost more than half of their parliamentarians when “reformists” within the party decided to support a new government led by the liberal democrat Iurie Leancă.

Can someone explain this?

In sum, over a quarter of Moldovans are now misrepresented by their current parliament. That alone is cause for concern.

Tudor Deliu, parliamentary leader of Moldova’s Liberal Democrats, told me that this political corruption is dangerous for Moldova’s fragile democracy.

“The law doesn’t prohibit these steps. In the end, it’s up to the politician’s conscience,” says Deliu. He stresses the principle of imperative mandate, advising MPs that “if you don’t agree with your party’s line of politics anymore, just leave and give up your mandate.”

Whatever its slogan, a governing coalition that wins power through bought parliamentarians cannot be “pro-democratic”

Deliu sees the Democratic Party as the main promoter of these defections, and not just in Moldova’s parliament. Mayoralties and district councils are affected too.

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Others, such as Dumitru Diacov, take a more positive view. “It was bad for the parties [in question], but it good for the country. Their act of bravery saved our homeland,” stated the honorary leader of the Democratic Party during a recent talk show. Votes are counted during Moldova’s parliamentary elections, April 2009. Photo (c): Ruslan Shalapuda / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.  Ernest Vardanean sees this phenomenon as typical for Moldova, but adds that it has only recently prompted much outrage, describing the defections as nothing less than a betrayal of voters and an abuse of political responsibility. The longer term danger of political tourism is that it diminishes trust in political parties and the parliamentary system as a whole, adds Vardanean.

But with the “tourist group” now at 26 MPs, more than any political faction, what particularly disappoints Vardanean is that many do not believe they’ve done anything wrong.

Moldova’s parliament must make reforms, and in the current tense situation, the normal solution would be early parliamentary elections. In such a case, both the liberal democrats and liberals may have trouble overcoming the six percent barrier for entering parliament.

Whatever its slogan, a governing coalition that wins power through bought parliamentarians cannot be “pro-democratic”. The short term political prize is outweighed by a longer-term and more damaging cost — the degradation of an already fragile democracy.

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