A victory for real politics? Chișinău’s mayoral elections in perspective


By electing a mayor who has consistently promised to fight oligarchic control and corruption, residents of Moldova's capital have voted for the return of politics. 


Vitalie Sprinceana
8 June 2018

Andrei Năstase. CC BY-SA 4.0 Andy.redbrick / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Andrei Năstase is the new mayor of Chișinău. The candidate from Platform “Dignity and Truth” won 52.57% of the vote in Moldova’s capital, compared to his opponent, Ion Ceban, the candidate of the Party of Socialists, who won 47.43% of the vote.

As with all recent electoral campaigns in Moldova, the Chișinău mayoral race was a dirty electoral campaign. At one point, an audio recording of Andrei Năstase talking to his mother about her participation in a party event was leaked. But it was also a campaign marked by a lack of any “grand visions” of the city which could capture citizens’ imaginations and inspire them to dream and act.

But Năstase’s victory on Sunday is, in a way, less surprising than his progress into the second round two weeks ago. Before the first round of elections on 20 May, the polls and most of the political commentators put Năstase firmly in third place. Năstase, 42, was considered a potential but somewhat improbable contender for the second round. He doesn’t have a strong local profile in the city: he has no experience in dealing with urban problems, and his political party has not participated in any significant local urban battle (the city was almost totally absent from his party’s political agenda). Likewise, Năstase’s programme for the city was far from original and not much different from those of his opponents, and comprised the traditional mix of better urban governance, transparency and anti-corruption.

It is almost axiomatic in Chișinău that a pro-western, anti-Russian candidate wins the local elections. This is the way the capital imagines a “progressive political orientation”

But Năstase took advantage of several crucial factors: a) his active, motivated and disciplined electorate that went to the polling stations; b) the low general participation (especially among younger age groups); and c) the media coverage provided by Jurnal TV, a TV station funded by the fugitive oligarchs Victor and Viorel Țopa, which fully supported him. These factors, plus his consistent  “anti-oligarchic” position and the support of Maia Sandu, his partner in the “anti-oligarchic coalition”, helped Năstase to qualify for the second round against all the odds. In the end, he took 32.12 % against the 17% of votes for the “big favourite” of the first round, the pseudo-apolitical — but closely related to the Democratic Party — Silvia Radu.  

Once in the second round, it was much easier to imagine Andrei Năstase’s victory. For one thing, he was the only openly “pro-western” candidate remaining in the race. And it is almost axiomatic in Chișinău that a pro-western, anti-Russian candidate wins the local elections. It is the way the capital imagines a “progressive political orientation”. In the Moldovan context, where all the parties and political movements package their messages in geopolitical terms (I have called this elsewhere “the geopolitical guillotine” — in which right corresponds to pro-western and left - pro-Russian), this makes perfect sense.

No “leftist” candidate (in the Moldovan sense) has won the local elections in the city since 1991. This is why it was important for Andrei Năstase (and, indeed, Silvia Radu or any other candidate) to make it into the second round against the Socialist candidate. Because after that you (no matter what your name is) usually win. This worked for Serafim Urechean in 2003, when he fought an unknown candidate supported by the then ruling Party of Communists of Moldova, and for Liberal Party vice president Dorin Chirtoacă in 2010 and in 2015. And it has worked now for Andrei Năstase. No matter what they say, Năstase’s opponents had the same strategy: to get into the second round and then to try to appear the “reasonable” candidate at any price.

Why did Ion Ceban lose?

In the aftermath of the campaign, an ironic observation started doing the rounds in Chișinău: it’s not that Andrei Năstase won the elections, it’s that Ion Ceban lost. Here, the irony was that Ion Ceban had, in theory, all the advantages that would allow him to win a local electoral campaign in the city easily: a strong and visible profile, a rich history of involvement and action at the local level, some experience in dealing with urban issues. He also leads the most numerous faction in the City Council., and enjoys the support of Moldova’s president Igor Dodon, as well as the parliamentary faction of the Party of Socialists of Moldova.

Despite being known as an eccentric, colourful, sometimes uncontrollable and unpredictable public figure — in 2015, he hit now former mayor Dorin Chirtoacă in the ear in public — in this campaign, Ceban chose to play the figure of the sober technocrat, the expert, the man that knows how to manage the city. But it didn’t work: neither for him, nor the party he represents. For one thing, the strong party that backed him was both an advantage and a liability. Though the party brought a numerous, disciplined and very active electorate to vote for Ceban, the “technocratic”, “apolitical” figure of Ion Ceban stood out on his own against the background of a Socialist Party that lacks any technocrat profile. The party breathes identity politics, geopolitics, culture and identity wars — and in this context, the figure of Ion Ceban as a “pragmatic” politician for the city looked insincere.


Ion Ceban, candidate from Moldova's Party of Socialists. Source: Ion Ceban / Facebook. Moreover, the candidate himself was more than ambiguous: on the one hand, he was playing the figure of the pragmatic politician (discussing streets, sidewalks and parking spaces), while on the other he was still active on the culture war fronts: anti-LGBT, pro-“traditional” family and against unification with Romania. At one point in the campaign, Ion Ceban declared that he would forbid public demonstrations by supporters of reunification with Romania. This was a “reasonable” thing to say as a culture warrior, but a very poor statement for a “pragmatic” mayor.

Add to this the fact that in the context of the Party Ion Ceban has a clear, strong, but not different  profile, than other party members. It might sound paradoxically but he is just a regular figure in the Socialist Party (and has a similar profile as many other member of the party, including the president). He is, for sure, the best man to the president Igor Dodon, his companion and closest ally, but he is not a distinct figure, with distinctive vision and attitudes. He is a regular member of the party that does and says whatever the party does and says at the moment. If it is geopolitics, he does it, if it is a play in “pragmatism” to win the local elections in Chisinau, he does it. And so on.

And then there was geopolitics, as usually happens at elections in Moldova. Bad geopolitics, of course: people agitating other people to go to the ballot box because “democracy was in danger” — threatened, in one story, by “Russian tanks” and, in the other story, by “behind the scenes games” from the Romanian, EU and US embassies.

Finally, the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of Moldova has a relatively low potential to grow its electorate. Being very vocal on “identity issues” and positioning itself as the only true friend of the Russian Federation in Moldova, the party offers little prospects and bridges for collaboration for parties that do not share its agenda. For example, in the second round, Andrei Năstase attracted more than 50 000 new votes, while Ion Ceban only 25,000. These numbers matter crucially if we take into account that the difference between the winner and the loser was less than 13,000 votes.

Also, this time the Party of Socialists was deprived of the direct support of other smaller pro-Russian parties. Renato Usatîi, a powerful ally in the past, whose support proved crucial in the 2016 presidential campaign, and whose candidate won impressively the elections in Bălți directly in the first round last month, withdrew his support for Ion Ceban and called his voters to chose his opponent.

What next?

The new mayor of Chișinău now has two tight and demanding schedules to face. Regular local elections are scheduled to take place one year from now, in the spring of 2019, which means that Andrei Năstase doesn’t have too much time to implement radical changes in the city and at City Hall. He has a hostile City Council. Moreover, his opponent, Ion Ceban, has already declared that he will quit his job as a media counselor for the president in order to focus only on local problems in Chișinău. In a way Ceban has already started the new electoral campaign: although he declared that he will support the “good” initiatives of the new mayor, he will hardly want to act only as a supporter of Andrei Năstase and will probably try to put pressure on the new mayor at each and every step.

By electing a candidate that claimed from the day one of his campaign that his priority is to fight oligarchic rule and corruption in the country, voters have rejected the city's “apolitical” agenda

On the other hand, parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place this autumn. And Năstase will want for sure to use his high profile function at City Hall as a trampoline to push the anti-oligarchic bloc of his party and Maia Sandu’s “Action and Solidarity” party into parliament. It is hard to believe that he will choose to leave his newly gained office in the City Hall for a place in Parliament (as the trajectory of former mayor Serafim Urechean shows, this is a sure route to political oblivion). But still, he’ll take part in the campaign: his “deeds” in Chișinău will be part of his party’s bid for seats in Parliament.

It is hard to predict how these two schedules will interfere (a safe assumption, at this moment, is to presume that a good result at the parliamentary elections will be the top priority of Andrei Năstase and his party), but it is sure that both of them are important and specific. Meanwhile, each misstep will be punished by his rivals, both at the national and local level.

Post-scriptum: Politics, apolitics, anti-politics

Andrei Năstase’s victory has temporarily dismissed the “anti-political” agenda of Silvia Radu and, to a lesser extent, the “technocratic platform” of Ion Ceban. Both Ion Ceban and Silvia Radu attempted to play the electoral game as a non-political contest between plumbers managers. By electing a candidate that claimed from the day one of his campaign that his priority is to fight oligarchic rule and corruption in the country, voters have rejected the city's “apolitical” agenda. But this return of politics should be treated very carefully. It shouldn’t mean the return of party politics in the city. The capital has already suffered by being treated as the “own” domain of one party under former mayor and Liberal party vice-chairman Dorin Chirtoaca. What is needed in Chișinău is not any politics, especially not party politics, but urban politics.

Thus, a cornerstone of the new urban politics in Chisinau should be increasing the participation of citizens in the decision making process by improving existing institutions and platforms or/and by creating new ones. Participation could be both the solution to take the country back from the oligarchs (as both the parties of Ion Ceban and Andrei Năstase seem to want this), but also putting the city into a path of inclusive, democratic development of the city. So far, the record of the city in terms of participation is, to put it mildly, bleak. And this means there is space to grow.

In a way, the most important job for Chișinău’s new city administration is an old one: ensuring that the city’s most important element, its residents, are included in decision-making processes

To begin with, the City Council for Participation (CCP), a municipal institution that was supposed to offer representation and possibilities for participation for activists, civil society organisations and regular citizens, still remains an empty promise. The creation of this institution was envisaged by the City Council of Chișinău several years ago. But the Statute of CCP was lost in some commissions in the City Hall and there is no will to change things. The other participatory initiative (Participatory Budgeting) was started one year ago and to this date is has an equally poor record. From the more than 50 projects that were presented and voted by the citizens last year, only a handful have been implemented. This year, the online vote had to be cancelled because City Hall’s website didn’t work properly.

This hardly advertises the capacity of the City Hall to absorb and foster participation in a positive light. At the same time, it doesn’t increases the willingness of citizens to participate in political process at the local level. When authorities pervert the participation of the citizens, the result is usually decreasing interest in participation itself. The distortion the case of participatory budgeting has an even worse side: residents’ total ignorance of the process of approving the city’s formal budget. This process took place in the last years with almost no participation from city residents.

Finally, besides ignoring and distorting participation, there is another trend — the co-optation of participation in order to achieve exactly the opposite. Public consultations, one of the mandatory procedures at the city level, has become, in the absence of clear rules and procedures, a way to tame potential subversive and radical effects of participation. To give an example: often, during public consultations on a real estate project — the most common in Chișinău, whereby powerful private interests take over public infrastructure in order to build more flats — the contesting voices of activists and citizens are taken and considered to be just “an opinion among others” and do not affect the overall process. This is despite the fact that activists and citizens usually point out blatant violations of the law or procedure.

In a way, the most important job for Chișinău’s new city administration is an old one: ensuring that the city’s most important element, its residents, are included in decision-making processes. To my mind, this is the surest recipe of success for any local administration.

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