“Moldova’s election to test EU credentials” – new op-ed published in the framework of the Berlin Policy Hub

Iulian Groza (IPRE)

The Republic of Moldova has close ties with the EU, but abuse of rule of law and democ­ratic principles puts that relationship in danger. The country is part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy. It is imple­menting an associ­ation agreement with the EU, aiming at political associ­ation and economic integration. The EU has become its main trading partner and devel­opment aid donor and, since April 2014, Moldovan citizens can also travel to the EU without a visa.

However, Moldova faces a number of key challenges, including a lack of respect for the rule of law, the absence of an independent and effective functioning judiciary, corruption, and controlled state insti­tu­tions by the ruling Democ­ratic Party. It also faces shrinking space for civil society, the absence of a free and fair compet­itive democ­ratic environment, and limited political will to pursue a real reform agenda that goes beyond catering to vested interests.

The June 2018 decision by Moldovan courts (also confirmed by the Central Electoral Commission) to cancel the results of the vote in early local elections for the Mayor of Chisinau — the vote was won by Andrei Nastase, one of the leaders of pro-reform opposition parties — threatens the functioning of democ­ratic insti­tu­tions in Moldova. It also under­mines people’s trust in the judiciary and the electoral process, which is partic­u­larly troublesome in the context of the 2019 parlia­mentary elections.

Moldova will hold these elections under a new, mixed electoral system, which the parliament adopted without a clear cross-party consensus and while ignoring the Venice Commission recom­men­da­tions. Under the new rules, 51 out of 101 MPs will be elected in one-round elections in single-member constituencies.

The dangerous judicial precedent generated by the annulment of the results of elections in Chisinau raises concerns about the possible abuse of this annulment power by district courts respon­sible for confirming the results of elections in these constituencies.

Moreover, the new electoral system could endanger the functioning of the multi-party system in Moldova, as it mainly favours the two political parties that hold most of the financial, admin­is­trative and media resources — the Democ­ratic Party (which leads the current governing coalition) and the Socialist Party (formally in opposition, an anti-European/pro-Russian party, affil­iated with the current president of Moldova, Igor Dodon).

EU condi­tions

The way in which the new electoral system was adopted is one of the main reasons why the EU has imposed political condi­tions on the macro-financial assis­tance package of €100m to Moldova agreed in November 2017.

In light of recent events, the EU has suspended any disburse­ments of this assis­tance until after the inter­na­tional recog­nition of the upcoming parlia­mentary elections, which are to be held on 24 February 2019. For the same reasons, the EU’s direct budget support to Moldova scheduled for 2017 has been postponed.

The situation around the electoral processes is sympto­matic of the current state of affairs in Moldova. It confirms the negative trend with respect to democ­ratic insti­tu­tions in Moldova, flagged by inter­na­tional reports such the Freedom House 2018 Nations in Transit Report or the Economist 2017 Democracy index, which downgraded Moldova to a “hybrid regime”.

The internal situation in Moldova continues to be monop­o­lised by opposing geopo­litical agendas, which are mainly fuelled by an alleged struggle between the pro-Western Democ­ratic Party and government on one side and the pro-Russian Socialist Party and the president of Moldova on the other. This geopo­litical divide prevents Moldovan society from addressing the actual issues and challenges it currently faces.

Corruption remains high in Moldova, according to the 2017 Trans­parency Inter­na­tional Corruption Perception Index (it is ranked as number122 out of 180 countries). Media freedom is declining too: the World Press Freedom Index has downgraded the country (from 80 in 2017 to 81 in 2018), largely due to limits on the indepen­dence of its media and the concen­tration of power in the media adver­tising market, which is dominated by two companies linked with the two media holdings polit­i­cally affil­iated with the Democ­ratic Party and Socialists Party. The local propa­ganda actively used by the media holdings is equally affecting the media space and democ­ratic environment in Moldova. Russian propa­ganda is an added problem.

There are, however, a few promising signs.

Promising signs

Despite a series of attacks on civil society organ­i­sa­tions critical to govern­mental policies and initia­tives, Moldovan civil society is becoming more vibrant and more effective at promoting core democ­ratic values and reforms alongside the key devel­opment partners of Moldova. This is also due to increased support from the EU and US to empower civic activism, defend partic­i­patory democracy, and strengthen the capabil­ities of civil society organ­i­sa­tions.

With parlia­mentary elections approaching, both the governing Democ­ratic Party and the Socialist Party have already initiated de facto electoral campaigns, even though the official campaigns are not meant to begin more than 30 days before election day. This campaigning is accom­panied by activ­ities that shrink the space for free and fair political compe­tition for the main opposition parties (i.e. Solidarity and Action Party; Dignity and Truth Platform).

This is why the EU and other inter­na­tional partners should closely monitor and observe not only the election day, but even more the pre-electoral environment in Moldova. This refers in particular to the decisions and activ­ities of the Moldovan author­ities and political parties. They should also monitor party financing activ­ities, the trans­parency of the decision-making process, the role and the activity of the mass-media in reflecting the pre-electoral and electoral process, and other aspects that could affect the existence of a compet­itive political environment.

Does Moldova’s democracy have any chance to recover and to deepen its Europeani­sation process? The answer to this question will very much depend on whether the upcoming parlia­mentary elections will be free and fair and inter­na­tionally recog­nised, which would pave the way for a legit­imate government able to challenge the incumbent vested interests.

 

The opinions expressed in this publi­cation are those of the author(s) and do not neces­sarily reflect the opinions or views of IEP

Iulian Groza is Executive Director of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), based in Chisinau, Moldova.

This op-ed has also been publish on EU Observer: https://euobserver.com/opinion/143527