The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties

The most shocking result of the Moldovan elections has been the rise of the Socialist Party, closely associated with Russia. “It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead, their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty, Europeanisation and a growing dissatisfaction with Moldova’s Communist Party’s leadership”, argue Daniel Brett and Eleanor Knott.

Pure democracy is three wolves and two sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. Benjamin Franklin

“Towards Europe, towards a decent future”

With Moldovan society split in half, as opinion polls show (Chart 1), it is no surprise that Moldova’s parliamentary elections, held on 30 November 2014, failed to produce a decisive mandate for Moldova’s seemingly zero-sum geopolitical direction. PSRM went from zero seats in the previous parliamentary elections, in 2010, to win the largest number of votes and seats in 2014. For the established parties this defeat came as a shock. The tripartite pro-European alliance, consisting of the Democrat Party (PDM), Liberal Democrat Party (PLMD) and Liberal Party (PL), still managed to gain sufficient seats to form a parliamentary majority, despite losing 9 seats since 2010. Secondly, Moldova’s Communist Party (PCRM) who have been the biggest party since 2001, lost 50% of their seats (from 42 to 21 seats) and about 400,000 voters since 2010.

Chart 1: Support for EU in Moldova over time (source: IPP)
Chart 2: Election results for parliamentary elections (2009-2014)

The two real losers of Moldova’s elections are the most established and supported parties. Pro-European forces failed to win the hearts and minds of the electorate and to convince them of their progress, even in the shadow of some achievements, such as EU visa liberalisation (April 2014) and signing of the EU Association Agreement (June 2014). However PLDM, the biggest and most moderate party of the pro-European alliance, did far worse than other parties in the alliance (losing 9 seats, while PDM gained 4 while PL gained 1 seat). Secondly, PCRM saw their support cut in half, with defections both of voters, national and local level politicians to PSRM. PCRM has been plagued by the persistence of Voronin as leader and a lack of new blood rising up the ranks. PCRM may then not recover from this blow, with PSRM continuing to gain from those apathetic or antagonistic towards the pro-European parties.

Who are the Socialists (PSRM)?

‘Together with Russia’, PSRM electoral posters featuring Vladimir Putin, Zinaida Greceanîi and Igor Dodon. Photo: Amy Samuelson 

The biggest shock of the election was the success of the PSRM. Despite polling in single digits prior to the election, they became the single largest party. Although the party formed in 1997, PSRM had not stood in elections since 2005. In 2011, a number of disaffected but prominent PCRM politicians joined the party including former Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanîi, and former Finance Minister Igor Dodon. Politically, Greceanîi can best be described as neo-Soviet. Shortly before leaving PCRM, Dodon proposed reforms for the party, warning that without modernisation it would die electorally. It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty and Europeanisation, but also those who are dissatisfied with the direction and stagnation of PCRM (and Moldova) under Voronin.

The poster reads: “Only PCRM! Only Voronin!” – perhaps part of the problem for the PCRM and the reason for the success of the PSRM. Photo: Amy Samuelson

In the three elections since the 2009 “Twitter Revolution”, which ousted the PCRM government (2001-2009), there has not been a consolidation of the party system towards fewer parties. The number of parties contesting elections actually increased from 8 in July 2009, to 20 parties in 2010 and 19 independent candidates (despite mergers of parties with PLDM and PL). By 2014, 20 parties stood for election as well as 4 independent candidates and 1 electoral bloc. More interesting is that only 6 parties have stood in all elections since 2009, while of the 12 new parties in 2010, only 3 re-appeared in 2014. Meanwhile activists, such as Oleg Brega, though unable to garner enough support for the 2% threshold, were still able to attract significant support (14,085 votes, 0.9%).

However barriers to entry, from being on the ballot to being in parliament, remain high. Electoral thresholds which were lowered after 2009 (from 6% to 4%) have, since 2013, been raised back to 6%, just as they were during Voronin/PCRM’s term. Whether to curb, ahead of time, the potential threat posed by PSRM, it had the effect of preventing the Communist Reform Party (PCR) from entering parliament. An alternative interpretation, suggested by Dorin Chirtoaca, the mayor of Chisinau and senior PL figure, is that PCR was set up deliberately to confuse voters and, hence, reduce the vote of PCRM.

Both of these possibilities demonstrate a desire for pro-European parties to play, legally, with the limits of what is fair, to secure the best outcome for themselves at the expense of a clean election. Moreover they show a resistance to make Moldova’s political system more competitive, with Moldova having one of the higher PR thresholds (lower only than Iran, Turkey and Russia) and lowest conversion rates between votes won and seats allocated (according to Council of Europe recommendations). Since 2009, Moldova’s legislature has also changed the way votes to seats have been allocated: from theD’Hondt system (the most commonly used system in PR), which was seen to favour larger parties like PCRM, to the ‘equality system’ (or Robin Hood system) which favours seat allocation to smaller parties.

More than between Europe and Russia?

Analyses of Moldovan elections need therefore to go beyond the simple narrative of western mediawhere elections are conceived as a referendum between Russia and Europe, and Moldova constructed as Ukraine in waiting. Nor should ethnic cleavages be framed as reinforcing this geopolitical binary because not everyone voting for PSRM is an elderly Russian peasant fearful of the decadent European Union. Indeed the new batch of PSRM deputies show the widest spread of ages: from those born in the 1930s to those in the 1990s.

Moreover the dichotomy between ‘left’ parties in Moldova as Pro-Russia and ‘right’ parties as pro-Europe does not fit reality. Instead, geopolitical orientation is just one axis upon which parties pivot, the second is social values, and the third is economic orientation. Parties tend to be dominated by charismatic and powerful leaders with strong local power bases and networks (e.g. parties do well in the home-towns of senior party figures). Policy, especially geopolitical and economic, tends to be defined by the leadership’s material interests and their networks. Discourse tends to shift in search of an electorate to enable the party to gain votes in order to achieve those aims, thus parties such as the PCRM have shifted from Pro-Russian, to Pro-European attitudes and back again with the interests of the elite rather than the voters.

Europeanisation is therefore not just a geopolitical issue, but also a cultural and economic issue. Thus, those who vote for parties that advocate closer ties with Russia are mobilised around a variety of discourses – the threat of war and instability, the perception of Western culture as decadent and degenerate, as well as the fear that EU membership will not improve their economic lives but make them worse.

Moldovan society is also divided by far more than ethnicity and geopolitics, with stark differences between the rich and everyone else, between generations, and between rural and urban. It is these socioeconomic questions and divisions, as well as low and declining trust in political institutions (Chart 3) and high perceptions of corruption, in particular in political institutions, which remain key problems. While the electorate continue to perceive that deep socioeconomic inequalities remain (Chart 4), the political elite appears disinterested to work on improving the welfare of ordinary Moldovans. And this is perhaps where Moldova is most divided, between the political class and electorate, in particular between a pro-European political class who see Europeanisation as a panacea for Moldova – if Moldova could only get on a European track, then all other problems will be fixed – and an electorate who remain unconvinced both by this track and by its salvationist potential.

Corruption not Europeanisation

What is most concerning about the 2014 Moldovan elections is the extent to which the pro-European parties are unwilling to play a clean race, such as modifying electoral thresholds to restrain who can enter parliament. Secondly, is the lack of transparency in politics, for example in determining how many polling stations are opened abroad, allowing Moldovan authorities to increase the number of polling stations in the EU while contributing to ‘public perceptions that the government sought to discourage voting in the Russian Federation’ according to the OSCE, for the high number of Moldovan diaspora residing there. This will continue to be a hard fought battle in the next parliamentary term between the pro-European parties and PSRM, who are now appealing for a recount of diaspora votes.

The Moldovan political system continues to be plagued by over-partisan politics and institutional overreach. Moldova’s constitutional court is pro-European both as a highly partisan and highly politicised institution, ruling in October that only a pro-European path for Moldova would be legal. The constitutional court then ruled, days before the elections, to suspend the right of Patria (Homeland), from running in the elections, because they had received evidence of foreign funding. Patria, and its frontman Renato Usatîi, made headlines as a recent wealthy returnee from Moscow, alleging close ties to Russia.

As much as the allegation of funding may be true, as may be Patria’s ties to criminal military gangs, the issue remains that pro-European elite are willing to use asymmetrical justice to punish opponents and constrain electoral outcomes. Campaign financing is certainly an issue in Moldovan elections, but as theCouncil of Europe have argued, the Moldovan authorities are far from having a transparent and accountable handling of these wider issues. The Moldovan judicial and electoral commission need to do far more than selective partisan enforcement of the electoral code. These duplicitous tactics are also paradoxical. Firstly, they likely cemented PSRM’s vote by picking up those disaffected by this ruling, rather than scaring pro-Europeans into mobilising to oppose the pro-Russian parties. Secondly, they supply Russia with more material to discredit Moldova’s elections and the desire for pro-European parties to steer Moldova towards the EU (and away from Russia).

Chart 3: “How far do you trust …” (source: IPP)
Chart 4: What are the main problems in Moldova? (source: IPP)

The Moldovan electorate are likely less concerned with the running of the electoral system than they are with important socio-economic issues and corruption. However, the willingness of the pro-European parties to play a dirty game, presents a bigger problem. It demonstrates that the Moldovan political class are no nearer to reforming themselves, away from “hungry wolves” seeking to use power and privilege for immunity, towards greater transparency and accountability. This remains at the heart of debates concerning the unmet promises of the pro-European alliance, since they took office in 2009 in what was seen as a critical juncture, not just for Moldova’s geopolitical orientation, but also in terms of politics and socioeconomic questions.

We therefore need to go deeper than viewing Moldovan politics and these elections as a simple zero-sum ethnic or geopolitical cleavage between Russia and Europe. If democracy is to become consolidated in Moldova, then the political elite must confront the problems of inequality, corruption, and the absence of agency and trust, and move beyond their fixations with the “civilizational choices” (as Iurie Lenca, current Moldovan Prime Minister described) that Moldova faces.

Instead, the pro-European parties have to deal with domestic political problems of corruption, transparency and trust if they want to hold onto power. The EU can sign as many agreements with the Moldovan political elite as they like, but as long as the Moldovan political elite remains corrupt, self-interested and remote in the eyes of the population, and europeanisation continues to be something that will result in economic and social trauma for them, then those who offer a populist alternative will continue to flourish. While Moldovan politicians are starting to recognise this, it still requires a strong commitment to shift attitudes to power and politics away from a culture of immunity-seeking behaviour.

Table: 2014 Parliamentary Results
2010 2014
Party Votes Seats Votes Seats
Communist Party of Moldova (PCRM) 677,069 (39%) 42 279,372 (17%) 21
Liberal- Democratic Party (PLDM) 506,253 (29%) 32 322,188 (20%) 23
Liberal Party (PL) 171,336 (10%) 12 154,507 (10%) 13
Democratic Party (PD) 218,620 (13%) 15 252,489 (16%) 19
Alliance ‘Our Moldova’(AMN) 35,289 (2%) 0 n/a 0
Movement for European Action (MAE) 21,049 (1%) 0 n/a 0
Socialist Party of Moldova(PSRM) n/a 0 327,910 (21%) 25
Reformed Communist Party(PCR) n/a 0 78,719 (5%) 0
Others 91,452 (5%) 0 183,357 (11%) 0
Invalid 11,907 (0.6%) 50,948 (3%)
Total(Turnout) 1,720,993(65%) 101 1,649,508(56%) 101

This post was originally posted on South East Europe at LSE the blog of LSEE Research on SEE, the Research Unit on South Eastern Europe of the London School of Economics: The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties

What can Ukraine learn from a post-2009 Moldova? It’s not just institutions that need to change.

After events in Ukraine in 2014, there’s been a lot of reflection on what this means for other post-Soviet states, and in particular Moldova, with its own separatist regions (Transnistria, Gagauzia) and upcoming elections at the end of November. However, Moldova’s recent political experiences also offer a useful point of reflection for key lessons that Ukraine needs to learn going forward. Most importantly, this concerns the way in which Ukraine constructs itself as a post-Euromaidan state, in particular how politicians interact between themselves and whether they act for primarily to serve their own interests, or those of the wider Ukrainian society.

Moldova: the Twitter Revolution and After

In 2009, protestors took to the streets in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, to protest against the victory of the Communist Party, who had been in power since 2009, in April’s parliamentary elections. Elections were then held again in July, unseating the Communists’ overwhelming majority of the Moldovan parliament, and allowing a tripartite coalition, to form the Alliance for European Integration (formed by the Liberal Democrat Party/PLDM, Democratic Party/PDM and Liberal Party/PL). 

This change of power was seen as a turning point in Moldovan politics particularly for the young, who had been the key participants in the April protests, as a turn towards a more democratic and European-style of politics, and away from a Communist/Soviet style of governing. Indeed, many people I met often referred to the coalition as just the “Democrats” as opposed to the “Communists”.

Fast forward to May 2013, the Alliance for European Integration hit rock bottom, having been shocked by a scandal between the key players of the coalition (then Prime Minister Vlad Filat, from Moldova’s Liberal Democrat Party, and Moldova’s richest man and Democrat Party politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc). This served as a focal point for considering all that the Alliance had promised and all they had failed to deliver.

Those in power had changed, but they still used power in much the same way to the Communists: to line their pockets, and those of their friends and family, and gain immunity from investigation. Essentially, being in power had allowed the three parties ownership over different parts of the state (such as ministries and the judiciary) and allowed them to manipulate them, via putting their various allies in positions of power, to their advantage.

In some ways, Moldova’s relationship with the EU has benefited, ironically, significantly from post-Euromaidan Ukraine. It encouraged (perhaps forced) the EU to want to “speed up” its Association Agreements with Moldova and Georgia, at a time of deep turmoil in Moldova, and many unsettled problems. At the same time, the desire to “modernise” Moldova, and Ukraine, has focused just on institutions of power, in the hope that these might change behaviour by promoting, and requiring, greater transparency and accountability, without understanding the basis on which these institutions need to function.

Moldovans know well what needs to change: Cumătrism / Kumovstvo / Кумовство

кумовство́ (kumovstvón

1. relationship of godparents

2. nepotism, cronyism

Alena Ledeneva‘s research, though focused on Russia and not Ukraine and Moldova, has many salient points when it comes to understanding the barriers to modernisation in post-Soviet states. Her thesis centres on importance of informal governance, phenomena such as “telephone law” and blat“, an economy of favours, which prevent institutions from changing much because they are bound by sistema“, the informal networks that govern power and politics.

In Moldova, there’s a local consensus, I’d argue, that when it comes to changing how the state is governed, and trying to weed out corruption, the main problem cumătrism (or Nănașii). Cumătrism is the system of godparents that couples appoint when they get married and is the key binding tool between friends and families. An infamous problem, and a banal phenomenon, cumătrism is the way that power and informal networks function, both within and outside politics. Ledeneva mentions briefly a similar phenomenon of kumovstvo in Russia, of godparent networks.

But, cumătrism (in Moldova) is beyond our gaze. Academically, you’ll find no mention of it in Google Scholar or Web of Science, no reference in Google Books. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. So to most outside Moldova it slips out of sight. Yet it’s the focal point, from a local perspective, as to why institutions stumble and why the system is so hard to change, both from the outside and from within. Essentially, political parties and institutions feed off these networks and demonstrate the extent to which, particularly in a small society like Moldova, it’s hard to weed out those who have embedded themselves and their close friend-family networks into the system, because they’ve also manufactured a network of protection by the system.

Lessons to be learnt: Institutions vs. Nepotism

family yanukovych

I’m not suggesting that cumătrism necessarily exists in Ukraine exactly as it does in Moldova, but the importance of informal networks in Ukraine is fundamental to the system of power, privilege and wealth. We know that Yanukovych operated via through “Family Yanukovych” and through a system of oligarchs originating out of his home region, and while power has obviously shifted to a new group of politicians, led by Poroshenko, it’s not clear that he is willing to run a Ukraine that is drastically different in the way it gives positions of power, and contracts, than the previous administration. Victoria Nuland, US Deputy Secretary of State, in a recent address to Shevchenko University in Kyiv, argued that Ukrainians had to continue to fight and demand that institutions function differently, that a free media be created.

But this is only the start. As Moldova showed after 2009, there was a lot of hope and since there has been a lot of disappointment. The Ukrainian political class needs to show not just that it’s willing to bring in new laws, but that it’s willing to be accountable to them, and that it’s willing not just to penalise its enemies, but also hold its allies to account, where necessary, rather than offer them protection from the system. When you have the Ukrainian president owning one of Ukraine’s main media channels, Channel 5, this is not a great start.

My point is, as academics, policy-makers and journalists, we need to focus not just on the institutions through which states are governed, but look at how they’re actually governed, via informal networks that are the key building blocks of the political and business class (and to a great extent link these classes together). We need to investigate cumătrism and kumovstvo in Ukraine, Moldova and Russia further.


UPDATES:


For more on the importance of informal networks in post-Soviet states:

  • Interview: How Russia’s ‘Sistema’ Leads To The ‘Modernization Trap’ on RFERL
  • Alexander Tymczuk “Public Duties and Private Obligations: Networking and Personalisation of Relations in Ukraine” in Anthropology of East Europe Review 24.2 (2006): 62-70.
  • How to get rid of post-Sovietness by Viitorul (2012)

See also: Ukraine’s Ensconced Corruption by Devin Ackles

Whatever happened to Moldova’s Twitter generation?

This article was originally posted on SSEES Research Blog.

Young people spearheaded the 2009 Twitter Revolution in Moldova but are now deeply disillusioned with electoral politics. The country’s future direction in Europe may depend on whether they can be re-engaged, argues Ellie Knott.  

It commonly assumed that young people in Moldova are politically uninterested, inactive and inert. However they were among the most active during the 2009 Twitter Revolution against the re-election of the Communist Party.

Young people also formed a crucial part of the electorate: 18-29 year olds are the base electorate of the two of the three parties in the previous Alliance for European Integration (AIE), and the recently formed Pro-European Coalition, comprising 43% of Liberal Democrat Party’s (PLDM) votes and 41% of the Liberal Party’s (PL) votes. To hold on to power in next year’s parliamentary elections, for at least two of the three parties in the Pro-European coalition, ensuring that young people vote – and that they vote for them – will be fundamental to their continuing success.

Young people often describe the change of government in 2009, which saw the AIE displace the Communists, as a turning point for Moldovan politics. It inspired them and encouraged them to believe that things would be different. Many concede that since the ‘democratic’ parties took power the situation has improved, particularly in terms of personal and media freedom and Moldova’s progress with EU integration. But this initial positivity has been often dampened. Several interviewees described how they had stopped following the political situation in the media of late because as one put it  ‘the more I watched news, the sadder I got’. They often spoke of the ‘drama’ and ‘theatrics’ of Moldovan politics, the constant fighting between politicians and how lying and stealing are running rife.

‘Hungry wolves’

There was a lot of anger that politicians were just ‘hungry wolves’, acting in their personal business interests and rarely in the interests of society. One woman spoke of how Moldovan politics was just about ‘a few people […] dividing everything’; she said that ‘everyone knows’ what is going on but ‘no one speaks about it’. Another interviewee told me how politicians treat political parties as their ‘property’ using them to protect their interests and were unwilling to share power even within their own parties. The ‘democratic’ parties could not now be counted on to be better than the Communists. Politics was just a way for individuals to ‘have some kind of immunity and no one can touch you’ from their corrupt businesses and ‘dirty stuff’ that politicians were involved in.

Many felt voting had no impact. One interviewee explained how he felt his vote could influence who was elected, but you could not then count on those elected to follow through on their electoral promises. Several people I encountered said that they would not be voting in future because they felt let down by the current political environment and by the failure of changes that they had hoped, and campaigned for after 2009 to materialise.

A more alarming aspect of this disenchantment was that some saw a need for authoritarianism in a desperate attempt to achieve the social and economic changes necessary, for example, for EU integration. One conversation along these lines began with a man discussing how he wanted more power to lie with the president because Moldova needed ‘one good, responsible leader’. He continued by saying that a ‘dictatorial system is needed for sometime’ because Moldovans were spoilt by ‘democratic concepts’, ‘too free’ and ‘don’t respect anyone’.

Divisions over integration

Four years after it was formed, for many young people, the leaders and parties of the Alliance for Integration, and now the Pro-European Coalition, have failed to show themselves to be anything other than dirty and corrupt. The coalition is now faced with the difficult task of convincing younger sections of the electorate that it is worth voting for them, and worth participating in a political process where current politicians inspire little hope.

At the same time, if the Pro-European politicians are not able to do this then the Communists (PCRM) may get back into power, alone or in coalition with the Democrats (PDM). Many of those I spoke to did not think this would change the domestic situation in Moldova much. But in terms of foreign policy, the gap between the AIE parties and PCRM is huge. While the AIE is resolute in pursuing EU integration and the Communists support ties with Russia, the CIS and the project of Eurasian Integration. While the electorate overall is split in their preferences for European or Eurasian integration, Moldovan youth are stronger in their support of European integration. The future direction of Moldova may rest on how its post-Soviet generation can be inspired to participate in politics.


Further reading: