August 2018: Adoptă un Vot and OccupyGuguță action in Chișinău, with the "classic" symbol of life abroad. Source: OccupyGuguță
On 24 February, Moldovans are due to vote in parliamentary elections. Except the current government – which the World Bank has recently described as “captured by oligarchic interests” – is trying to prevent some of its electorate from voting. Indeed, there are reports of people who work state institutions being threatened that if they don’t give their votes to the ruling Democratic Party, they will lose their jobs. As the Democrats have never managed to get more than 20% of the vote, they instead rule by “converting” parliamentarians of other parties.
The biggest group that the government is concerned about, and trying to limit, is Moldova’s diaspora.
They have their reasons. According to some estimates, there are one million Moldovans living abroad – compared to the three million that still populate Europe’s poorest country.
In 2016, the Moldovan diaspora mobilised politically for the first time. Some 138,000 citizens outside Moldova went to polling stations to choose between Igor Dodon, leader of the pro-Kremlin Party of Socialists, and Maia Sandu, one of the two leaders of pro-EU accession opposition bloc ACUM.
Postal votes are not permitted in Moldova. So a few weeks before elections, a Facebook group called Adoptă Un Vot (“Adopt a Vote”) helped the diaspora organise. People offered free seats in their cars to others living in areas without polling stations; many living in big cities hosted those living further away. It was a moving moment for Moldovans abroad and at home. Some Moldovans travelled thousands of kilometers across the Americas, Central Asia and the Middle East to vote. For the first time in many years, there was hope for change.
Yet despite queueing for hours, thousands of Moldovans abroad (myself included) were unable to vote. Polling stations in Bucharest, Verona, Parma, Padua, Frankfurt, London, Dublin, Montreal and other cities ran out of ballot papers. Igor Dodon won the vote by a small margin, with 52% in the second round, and despite breaches of the electoral law cited by the opposition and civil society. But Moldovans in Europe and America voted in droves for Maia Sandu.
Queues outside a London polling station, November 2016. Source: UniMedia / Moldova.org.
Perhaps the diaspora’s support for Sandu and her political bloc ACUM is unsurprising: what the two share is a genuine anti-corruption sentiment and a vision for Moldova as a liberal prosperous state with a rule of law. And the diaspora’s broadly anti-oligarchic position is precisely why the current government has tried to limit their vote. How have they done that?
Firstly, following the 2016 election, the ruling Democratic Party, together with Dodon’s Party of Socialists, voted to change the electoral system from a proportional vote to a mixed one, whereby half of the 101 seats in Moldova’s Parliament are elected proportionally, and half – based on circumscription lists (local MPs). This change was introduced in disregard to specific recommendations by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
The government has forbidden people from using out-of-date passports as voter identification. Yet most Moldovans in Europe, Canada and the US use Romanian passports or permanent residence papers to travel and work
Under this new arrangement, the diaspora only gets to decide three seats in Parliament – there is one MP for Europe, one MP for Russia and the East, and one MP for North America. This means that, if in the past the diaspora was able to influence the seats of 101 MPs, now they can only influence 53 seats. Moreover, the way the polling stations have been set in the US and Canada does not reflect the number of Moldovans living in specific cities. For instance, in Montreal, where in 2016 the ballot papers finished before all citizens queueing could vote, no poll station was opened.
Secondly, the government has forbidden people from using out-of-date passports as voter identification. Most Moldovans in Europe, Canada and the US use Romanian passports or permanent residence papers to travel and work. And many Moldovans voted with out-of-date passports in the 2010, 2014 and 2016 elections. In 2014, Moldova’s Supreme Court of Justice irrevocably and definitively decided that voting with an expired passport is legal. But a recently appointed Constitutional Court declared in mid-January that voting with expired passports in the diaspora is illegal. The reasons they invoked include preventing fraud and double voting. Yet the personal numeric code in a passport is unique, which means that the same person cannot vote twice. Likewise, observers in previous elections have not reported significant fraud at polling stations outside Moldova. Legal experts’ opinions vary on whether the Constitutional Court’s decision is binding for Moldova’s Central Electoral Committee.
While the Central Electoral Committee says that only 175 Moldovans voted with out-of-date passports abroad in 2016, the opposition bloc ACUM estimates there are currently 500,000 Moldovans living abroad with out-of-date papers. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and somewhere where it really matters. On the Adoptă Un Vot group, a Facebook poll said 263 people had valid passports and 132 had invalid passports. Similarly, diaspora Facebook group FreeMoldova states they have received over two hundred comments and questions about voting with out-of-date passports. If citizens living in Moldova with out-of-date or no ID can still get a temporary ID to vote, then in the diaspora this is impossible.
Despite these limitations, Moldovans abroad are still organising themselves online — Adoptă un Vot has now reached over 80,000 members. But in addition to this, a new diaspora movement has formed, FreeMoldova. This group started in June 2018, when the Moldova Supreme Court declared local election results in the capital Chișinău null, ruling that the winning candidate – Andrei Năstase, a leader of opposition bloc ACUM – breached the electoral code by encouraging people to vote in a Facebook Live video the day before elections. In the same period, young people in Chisinau organised the OccupyGuguță initiative, initially posed against the property development of an iconic city cafe. They have since made themselves known by distributing their own newspaper across the country and playing drums at protests, thus animating the more traditional top-down protest style in Moldova. Both groups are crowdfunded – a first for Moldova.
Giving out newspapers. Source: FreeMoldova.
This month, members of FreeMoldova flew back to Moldova and, together with OccupyGuguță, are trying to inform people across the country of the changes in the electoral system, encouraging them to vote on 24 February without fear of intimidation. Mostly, they get very positive reactions. Along with the thanks and cheers for being active citizens, many Moldovans tell the youths about their own relatives abroad. Only a few reproached FreeMoldova members that they shouldn’t have left in the first place.
The Moldovan diaspora has drastically expanded following the 1998 economic crisis. Initially, people left illegally, with false papers, passing borders under trucks or in refrigerators, risking their lives. But in the past 20 years, people have managed to receive the right to stay in countries where they found work. Romania’s 2010 simplification of the citizenship process, and Moldova’s 2014 EU visa liberalisation regime has helped Moldovans migrate legally.
Throughout the years, the diaspora’s remittances sent back home have constituted an astonishing 20% of the former Soviet republic’s GDP. What are they looking for? A better standard of life, and a society in which one’s political allegiance or success in business isn’t threatened by the rule of a mafia-style government.