Moldova’s divided opposition

Commentary



This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The latest clash of Russian and Western geopolitical vectors has given birth to a direct confrontation between the new government of Moldova and its diverse opposition. In mid-January 2016, a parliamentary majority was formed by the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), and led by Marian Lupu and Vladimir Plahotniuc. Their party’s views differ fundamentally from the position of the unregistered right-wing party Dignity and Truth (DA), Igor Dodon’s socialist party Civil Platform, and Renato Usatii’s Our Party “Partidul Nostru” (PN), which currently holds no seats in parliament.

The political division amongst the opposition forces emerged as a result of the Democratic Party’s success in forming a parliamentary majority. On 20 January, 57 of the 101 members of parliament voted in favour of Prime Minister Pavel Filip’s cabinet. The new prime minister is a member of the Democratic Party and a close associate of Vlad Plahotniuc, a well-known but controversial Moldovan politician and businessman. The fact of this close relationship gave the opposition grounds to claim that the new cabinet was no more than a facade. It should be noted that Vlad Plahotniuc, try as he would, failed to become prime minister, as President Nikolae Timofti declined his candidacy. The newly formed parliamentary majority is extremely patchy and includes two mainstream parties - the Democrats and the Liberals - two breakaway groups of Communists and Liberal Democrats, and some independent deputies.

The Moldovan opposition is not as united as it might have appeared at the 24 January joint protest rally attended by all three opposition leaders and their supporters. The result of this rally was the creation of a “National Salvation Council”, uniting the forces of right and left, and on 29 January a concerted protest action was organised under the aegis of the Civil Forum - an opposition platform made up of NGO activists, political parties and different opinion leaders, predominantly of right wing orientation. The National Salvation Council is headed up by the leaders of the three opposition blocs — the DA party, the socialist Civic Platform and the PN party. In February, several protests were held by each camp separately outside government buildings. Currently, the main dividing line between the parties is tactical. The right wing opposition wants to give the government 30 days to fulfil its various demands, while the left-wing parties (especially Igor Dodon’s party) do not accept this “wait and see approach” and maintain that the protests should continue. The fragmentation of the opposition means that the pressure on the ruling government and Pavel Filip is dropping, and the ruling coalition has the time to consolidate its power. Nonetheless, while the pressure may be dropping it still exists, and the government has been applying several strategies to earn public approval. The most immediate challenge facing the government is the need to legitimise itself by winning foreign support. From the very beginning, the process of forming a coalition was supported by several Western countries, including the United States and Romania. Moldova’s limited capacity meant that it could not meet all the conditions at once, and Western backers had to choose between Moldova moving further away from Russia, or preventing the consolidation of Plahotuniuc’s oligarchic rule. In the end, Plahotniuc was perceived as the lesser of the two “evils”, but was urged to embark on real reforms. Not all EU officials were convinced that this was the right track to pursue, sceptical as they were of the Democratic Party’s ability to reform. At the same time, they were quite open about the prospect of left wing parties coming to power. In their mind, socialists would be less inclined to stand in the way of European integration.

Because Western support is not unanimous, Prime Minister Filip cannot ignore it. On 26 January he visited Bucharest requesting the first installment of much-needed Romanian credit, to the value of €150 million. In response, the Moldovan government received a letter of conditions attached to the funds, including commitment to implementation of the EU-Moldova Association Agenda; appointment of a Governor of the National Bank and extension of the audit process of major banks; establishing a road map for reaching a stand-by agreement with the IMF as soon as possible; initiation of a legislative package to improve the business environment and encourage economic growth; presenting a plan to implement its Justice Sector Reform Strategy and National Anticorruption Strategy, including an assessment of the performance of the Prosecutor's Office, and the National Anticorruption Centre; and finally, consultation and close cooperation with civil society representatives. These requirements do not seem draconian by any means and probably were crafted in such a way as to make them easy to implement. The government has already declared that it needs just 30 days to tick most of these boxes.

The conditions formulated by Western partners seem to be in stark contrast to the demands submitted by the right wing opposition, led by the DA party and grouped around the so called Civic Forum. The Civic Forum’s resolution of 4 February contains a set of demands to be met within 30 days and asks for snap parliamentary elections, amendment of the constitution (specifically on sections dealing with the election of the president by the people), getting rid of the prosecutor general and the leadership of the Anti-Corruption Centre, and amendment of banking sector legislation to make the industry more transparent and ensure there are sufficient safeguards against money laundering. Such a politicised agenda differs sharply from the more constructive approach taken by the Romanian government in its interaction with Moldova. But these discrepancies between the views of Moldovan civil society and Western partners are not as bad as they look because civil society is seen as additional leverage to put pressure on the government.

The government is trying to change the public mood and adopt policies which have a visible impact on the living standards of Moldovans. This optimism stems from the so-called “theory of broken taps” that there are several strategic places in Moldova, like customs, tax service, banking and the energy sector, where resources are drained because of misuse of pubic money and the financial channels of oligarchs. In the view of the government, it is enough to just stop this draining of resources and to do so by lowering the tariffs on gas, adjusting taxes, pushing forward on reforms of the customs service, and returning, at least partially, the “stolen billion” from the banking sector. Prime Minister Pavel Filip even declared that recovering the money stolen from the banking sector is one of the government’s main priorities. Yet, there is no sign that this could happen any time soon. A breakthrough could come from a successful investigation of the former Prime Minister - the “Vlad Filat case” - but the process hasn’t even gone to trial yet. 

There are several important challenges ahead. The first one is the election of the president, which should take place in the spring. The opposition is pushing hard to change the constitution so that in future the president will be directly elected by the people. Constitutional change could happen in two ways – either by referendum or through a decision taken by the parliament, with a majority of two thirds of the vote. Democratic Party speaker, Adrian Candu, declared that the ruling majority could accept the idea of organising a referendum on this issue but it would take place later, perhaps at the end of the present parliament term, only after electing the president according to the existing rules. Here, the ruling alliance is well backed by the law, and the opposition will be probably forced to give up lobbying for this change.

The next challenge is the selection of the candidate for president. There are some rumours that after his failure to be appointed prime minister, informal leader of the Democrats, Vlad Plahotniuc, has his eyes on the presidential palace. Such rumours, however, are hyperbole. There are big doubts that after managing to calm the protest mentality, Plahotniuc will put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency – something which would anger the protesters further. Democrats must also give some important ministerial portfolios to their coalition partners – liberals, former communists, former liberal democrats – and that is why they will probably not run for this position. At this stage nobody can predict who the next president of Moldova will be.

The authorities have consolidated their position and are conditionally supported by Western partners. The opposition is still vocal but irresolute. However, it does face one significant and unresolved problem: the political future of the Democratic Party’s unofficial leader, Vlad Plahotniuc. His political prospects are murky. He wanted to be prime minister and failed. For these reasons, the political landscape of Moldova is far from settled. It’s clear that despite his controversy in Moldova, he wants to be back at the political helm.

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