Moldova’s Broad-Based Governing Coalition Falls Apart (Part One); Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 159

By: Vladimir Socor

On November 12, Moldovan President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party joined forces with the opposition Democratic Party (formerly led by the now-fugitive tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc) to overthrow the ACUM (“NOW”) bloc–led government of Prime Minister Maia Sandu in a parliamentary vote of no confidence (see EDM, November 12). The Socialists and the Democrats mustered a situational majority of 63 votes in the 101-seat chamber. The ACUM bloc holds 26 parliamentary seats (Moldpres, November 12).

The Socialists’ move precipitates the collapse of the broad-based governing coalition that took power from Plahotniuc in June this year. Comprised of the Russophile Socialists and the Western-oriented ACUM bloc (with 36 seats and 26 seats, respectively), this coalition undertook an experiment in joint governance by political and cultural opposites. Such an experiment was not only unprecedented for the fractured Moldova but also without par in contemporary Europe writ large.

This coalition’s declared purpose was not merely to muddle through (as is often the case with multi-party coalitions) but to overhaul Moldova’s governance, economy and external relations, all of which had previously been subordinated to interest groups shaped as political parties—most recently and most thoroughly Plahotniuc’s. The coalition’s domestic consensus included promises to refrain from exploiting issues of national identity and external orientation for internal partisan purposes (the “de-geopoliticization” of domestic politics). This consensus found expression in a “balanced foreign policy,” based on adhering to the Moldova–European Union Association Agreement while seeking to normalize commercial relations with Russia (see EDM, June 21, 26, 27, August 7, 8) .

Four months after the regime change, however, Dodon’s Socialists revealed intentions to take over key posts in the judiciary and prosecution systems, replacing Plahotniuc’s appointees at the top. Thus, a Socialist parliamentary deputy became chair of the Constitutional Court, and an advisor to President Dodon became the new head of the National Anti-Corruption Center. Working with the Plahotniuc-staffed, unexpurgated National Audio-Visual Council (media regulatory agency), the Socialists obtained new broadcast licenses for several party-affiliated media outlets, including a television channel to rebroadcast Russia’s Channel One TV (highly popular in Moldova, rebroadcast hitherto by Plahotniuc’s media holding) (Newsmaker, November 1–12).

These moves clashed with the ACUM’s agenda of freeing the judicial and prosecution systems and market-regulatory agencies from political influence. The Socialists had initially subscribed to that agenda, under the heading of “de-oligarchization” in the coalition’s mission statements in June and the detailed coalition agreement signed in September. Yet, the Socialists seemed, by October, to embark on inheriting Plahotniuc’s system—working with some of its holdovers in that process—instead of joining forces with the ACUM-led government to dismantle that system altogether.

Concurrently, the Socialist Party laid claim to two ministerial portfolios in Sandu’s cabinet (comprised almost entirely of ACUM ministers). This transfer was to occur imminently. And on November 3, the Socialist Party’s Ion Ceban unexpectedly won Chisinau’s mayoral election, against ACUM bloc co-leader Andrei Nastase (IPN, October 18 – November 4).

All those Socialist gains added to the earlier concern (unsubstantiated thus far) that President Dodon had placed Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service under his personal control. The trends, on the whole, indicated a rapid accumulation of power and influence by the Socialist Party at the expense of its coalition partner.

In view of these reverses, hardline supporters of unification with Romania (small but vocal groups within and outside ACUM) deserted and turned against the bloc’s leaders. The hardline “unionists” had objected all along to this governing coalition, and their agitation against the ACUM bloc’s leaders weakened the latter’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the Socialists within the broad coalition (Ziarul National, Deschide.md, passim).

These trends, in combination, caused some key figures in the ACUM bloc to consider exiting from the coalition in the next few months (with sufficient lead time to the 2020 presidential election campaign), unless the Socialists would recommit to the “de-oligarchization” agenda. Concerns that President Dodon was turning into a “Plahotniuc no. 2” were, however, exaggerated or at least premature; and in any case, they could have been addressed in the established format of discussions among the Moldovan president, government, and the European Union’s and the United States’ missions in Chisinau.

Maia Sandu’s government, however, attempted to address those challenges through a make-or-break test over the selection of a new head of the General Prosecutor’s Office. That office had been the alfa and omega of Plahotniuc’s state capture and is, therefore, widely perceived as a possible basis for recidivism, unless its independence and political neutrality are fully secured. A government-organized, open competition to short-list candidates for the general prosecutor’s post was, however, torpedoed by the competition commission’s Socialist member, who gave grotesquely high or ridiculously low scores to candidates depending on political preference. With the botched contest for the Constitutional Court’s chairmanship (taken over by a Socialist politician—see above) fresh in mind, Sandu’s government declined holding a repeat competition for the general prosecutor’s post. Instead, the government moved to change the relevant law and to submit its own short list of candidates, in a three-stage process, whereby the power of appointment to that post rests ultimately with the head of state (Noi.md, October 28–November 12).

The government’s unilateral move used a constitutional provision whereby a government ordinance can take legal effect without parliamentary approval, unless overturned by parliament within 72 hours by a vote of no confidence in the government. The Socialist Party pounced on this opportunity to dismiss the ACUM-led government with the help of the Plahotniuc-legacy Democratic Party (see above), at the cost of bringing the latter back from ostracism and into the political power balance.

Western diplomatic missions in Chisinau were not consulted by the government before it made its high-risk move. The US, EU, German and Romanian missions came out, explicitly or implicitly, for continuation of the governing coalition. The EU and US ambassadors, jointly as well as individually, held multiple meetings with Dodon, Sandu, and other Socialist and ACUM leaders, seeking to mediate a solution that could preserve the coalition.

President Dodon is the undisputed arbiter of any follow-up scenarios, a whole range of which are now under consideration. A further increase in the presidency’s de factopower and influence seems certain under any of these scenarios.

The governing coalition’s collapse was neither foreordained nor predictable as an imminent outcome. Notwithstanding the increase in the Socialists’ power at their partners’ expense, there was counter-evidence that pointed toward continuity. Disagreements at the top of the coalition did not percolate to local levels. Country-wide local elections, held on the quadrennial schedule, on October 20 and November 3, were the cleanest in many years, and resulted in major gains for the ACUM bloc, which caught up with the Socialist Party in the overall vote for mayors and local councils. These two political forces had agreed beforehand to observe mutual “nonaggression” during the campaign, to support each other’s candidates in the November 3 runoff, and to form coalitions at the level of district and town councils, so as to reproduce the model of the central coalition at local levels. While the ACUM bloc’s Nastase did breach those understandings in the Chisinau mayoral race (see above), and ACUM went along with that breach (for fear of antagonizing the “unionists”), the winner, Ceban, did not answer in kind and offered to form a coalition with the bloc in the Chisinau Municipal Council.

Surveying the coalition’s rubble, the net winners and net losers are to be determined. The net losers seem to be the largest category by far.