On July 20th, 2017, the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova voted to adopt a new mixed electoral system that would replace the old proportional one. According to the proposal, voted for by 74 deputies out of 101, 51 Members of Parliament will now be elected through the “first-past-the-post” electoral districts, while the remaining 50 will continue to be selected through closed party lists. The institutional change, opposed by the pan-European constitutional law body Venice Commission, came about from unexpected collaboration between the country’s Socialist president Igor Dodon and its wealthiest oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. This alteration of the rules of the electoral game will solidify the position of Vlad Plahotniuc’s party in Parliament in the next general elections and thus further strengthen his yet unofficial grip over this small European nation. In order to understand the ramifications of this move, it is worth highlighting the extent of Mr. Plahotniuc’s influence on his nation’s politics.
Vladimir Plahotniuc, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Moldova, is widely considered to be the most powerful man in Moldova. Mr. Plahotniuc owns most of the country’s TV channels and social media networks through his Casa Media corporation, which collects almost 80% of the country’s commercial advertising. Rumored to hold influence over the judiciary and control more than half deputies in Parliament, Vlad Plahotniuc is Moldova’s de facto showrunner, acting as the puppeteer of the nation’s political institutions. Incidentally, Mr. Plahotniuc is perhaps the most disliked politician in the nation, in part due to countless allegations of corruption.
In the 2014 legislative elections, the oligarch’s Democratic Party won only 19 seats in the Parliament, but that number has increased to 42 since then thanks to defections from the Liberal Democratic and Communist parties. This “hostile takeover” by the Democratic Party propelled it to become the ruling party in the current coalition government, formed in late 2015. Nonetheless, in order to adopt the mixed electoral system, Democrats had to rely on support from an unlikely ally – the Socialist Party.
Public rivals, secret lovers
When Mr. Plahotniuc proposed a purely majoritarian electoral system in early 2017, he faced immediate backlash from the majority of MPs. Then it was the turn for Igor Dodon, pro-Russian president of Moldova and leader of the rival Socialist party, to propose a surprising compromise in the form of a mixed electoral system. Together, bolstered Democrats and helpful Socialists affirmed the proposal on the Parliament’s floor.
President Dodon’s proposal came as a surprise especially because, on the surface, the two men differ vastly on their fundamental geopolitical positions. Their corresponding factions pull the nation in the opposite directions – Socialists wish to return the former Soviet republic into the Russian fold, whereas Mr. Plahotniuc’s Democrats seek closer ties with the European Union. However, this facade may conceal an insidious connection. President Dodon’s election allowed Mr. Plahotniuc to consolidate the pro-European Parliament majority around him, as predicted, and it is thus not unreasonable to suspect the oligarch’s hand in selecting the president. If that’s the case, President Dodon could very well be returning the favor.
Upon examining the current makeup of the Parliament of Moldova, another potential reason for Socialist collaboration becomes clearer still. The Socialist Party, with 24 seats, is currently the second largest in the legislature. Mr. Dodon seems to know his Duverger’s Law well: plurality electoral systems tend to establish two-party legislative systems, and Socialists thus stand to gain from the transition of 51 electoral districts to the “first-past-the-post” mechanism. The geopolitical division between the two parties has taken a backseat in favor of something that every politician desires – more power.
This move plays directly into the Democrats’ hand. In a country that saw one of the most daring manifestations of corruption imaginable, creation of plurality electoral districts opens even wider opportunities for voter bribery and fraud. Assuredly, Vlad Plahotniuc has the resources to spare on these opportunities.
The circle closes
Moldovan Democrats are now poised to capture an even greater seat share in the 2018 legislative elections, meaning that Mr. Plahotniuc is about to solidify and legitimize his grasp on the Parliament. Once that happens, the oligarch will hold sway over all political institutions of Moldova.
This does not bode well for ordinary citizens. Protesters against the shadow dictator’s regime already face persecution from the law enforcement agencies in Mr. Plahotniuc’s pocket. Independent journalists cannot breach the businessman’s monopoly on state media, and Moldova’s restricted press freedom is not likely to expand any time soon. Add a legislative proposal for requesting army interventions during violent protests into the mix, and the painted picture of Moldova’s dying democracy is a bleak one.
While these dismal conditions justify the populace’s glaring distrust in Moldova’s political institutions (in October 2016, only 7.7% of those surveyed trusted political parties in general), there is hardly any recourse left that citizens can employ against the seemingly omnipotent oligarch and his proxies. The ascension of the Democratic Party to a securely dominant position in the Parliament will accelerate the ongoing suffocation of the country’s democratic freedoms. No help is going to come from abroad; Mr. Plahotniuc’s pro-European stance grants him immunity against the selective wrath of the Western international community, which does not want to see the country delivered into Vladimir Putin’s clutches by its pro-Russian bloc. That indicates that citizens of Moldova are on their own, abandoned as prisoners of the “captured state.”
It has been rumored that the unpredictable ruling by the Constitutional Court of Moldova to reintroduce direct presidential elections in 2016 would pave a way for Vlad Plahotniuc’s inevitable ascent to the position of head of state. Whether the rumors will prove true remains to be seen. However, it is evident that, from this point on, any form of official legitimization of Mr. Plahotniuc’s personal power will just be the icing on the cake – his invisible dominion over the helpless nation appears to be completely unshakable.
*Photo by Ernests Dinka and Saeimas Kanceleja, CC BY-SA