Following a game-changing decision of the Constitutional Court on March 4, 2016, Moldovan voters were keen to vote for a new, directly elected president. The idea of choosing the highest official of state in direct elections appealed to regular citizens: more than 90 per cent approved of the idea. It was the political parliamentary parties, who had elected the president until then, who were less keen.
Moldova’s first direct presidential election duly took place in November and December of 2016. Over two rounds of voting, the Russophile Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) narrowly defeated the pro-European Maia Sandu of the Party of Action and Solidarity.
Why? Well, between 2009 and 2016, public support for EU integration saw a significant drop (from 63 per cent in 2009 to just 41 per cent in 2016), concurrent with the rise of support for the Russian-led Customs Union to almost 45 per cent in 2016.
Throughout 2017, polls have shown that large numbers of Moldovans (46.2 per cent) still feel the social and economic impact of the 2014 banking fraud, when almost 1 billion US dollars disappeared from three of Modova’s banks. Since the cash was stolen while a pro-EU coalition was in charge, citizens linked (and continue to link) growing inequalities with the leaders of the pro-European parties. Moreover, people strongly disagree with the idea of paying back the lost assets from the state budget or introducing new taxes to alleviate financial disaster. A majority of Moldovans (52.9 per cent) do, however, blame the country’s oligarchs for the banking fraud and clearly favour ‘a radical confiscation of property from those officials involved in the banking fraud,’ and have little confidence in a government that is currently controlled by the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM), the only political entity that has outlived the pro-EU Alliance (AIE).
It is a well-known fact that the DPM is chaired by one of the most affluent oligarchs in Moldova, Vladimir Plahotniuc, owner of several TV channels, banks, estates, hotels and other assets abroad. The presidential race therefore fit many of the public’s complaints, and allowed anti-EU forces to seize the moment. Dodon indeed did not even decide to run for president until November 13, 2016, just over two weeks before election day. He won by running a vocal campaign to strengthen ties with Russia, increase presidential powers, punish the banking fraudsters, and abolish the Association Agreement with EU (or at least amend it to an extent that would enable Moldova to also be part of the Russian Customs Union).
While there were clearly some voting irregularities, Mr Dodon won because he benefitted from substantial support in the second round from the Democrats (DPM). The DPM thus sealed a political deal with the would-be president and enjoyed its role as king-maker. After being elected, President Dodon knew very well to whom he must be grateful.
Despite his earlier statements to fight judiciary corruption or dismantle existing oligarchies, once in office Mr Dodon began to do the DPM’s bidding, confirming its judicial nominations and appointing its selections as foreign ambassadors. Mr Dodon even went so far as to actively lobby Moscow to appoint a DPM insider as the CEO of Moldova-Gaz (the largest subsidiary of Gazprom operating in Moldova). All talk of dismantling the oligarchy disappeared.
In March and April 2017, two draft laws on the modification of the electoral system were passed by parliament: one law introducing nominal voting for parliament (submitted by the DPM) and another (submitted by the PSRM) introducing a mixed electoral system (50 per cent of MPs will be elected using the existing system of party lists in a national constituency, and the other 50 per cent using the new, nominal constituency system). To change an electoral system so close to a general election (due next year) is to utterly ignore the principles, norms and procedures of the Code of Good Practices in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission. Not that the PSRM and DPM care: they are primed to do very well out of a system they themselves have designed.
At the president’s office meanwhile, strange things began to occur. Firstly, the EU flag suddenly disappeared from the building’s façade. President Dodon then strongly voiced his disagreement with the installation of a NATO Bureau in Moldova while remaining silent about the illicit presence of Russian regular troops (OGRV) on the territory of Moldova, which is part of the extended Western Military District of the Russian Federation. Rumours also circulated that the new election system would in fact lead to implicit federalisation of the country, with reserved seats for Transnistria and Gagauzia.
In January 2017 President Dodon made his first official visits to the EU and to NATO, attempting to revise the EU-Moldova Association Agreement, and demanding recognised neutrality status from NATO. He failed on both counts. He also paid five consecutive official visits to Kremlin, meeting Vladimir Putin as one of the most loyal leaders of all the CIS states.
Becoming increasingly aware of growing dissatisfaction on all sides, Mr Dodon decided to begin demanding more powers. In April 2017 he announced a national referendum (for September 24) on a number of issues: (1) Whether the president should be allowed to dissolve parliament and announce early elections; (2) Whether the number of MPs in the single chamber legislative house should be reduced from 101 to 71; (3) Whether history classes (called ‘History of the Romanians‘) should be renamed as ‘History of Moldova.‘ On July 27, Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled out the proposed referendum and called his idea of broadening presidential powers as ‘unconstitutional.’ In response, Mr Dodon vaguely threatened to call for active protests, in favour of ‘early elections and a transition towards a stronger presidential regime.’ All of this was seen as a way of mobilising his PRSM supporters and perhaps reducing his need to co-exist with the DPM.
To gain the upper hand on parliament, Mr Dodon then made clear that he will toughen his personal oversight of law-making and his political appointments, and in October refused to validate a DPM nomination for the vacant position of Minister of Defence. (The position has been vacant since mid-2016, when the previous president dismissed the minister, only for the new president to refuse to name a new one. This in fact resulted in the end of a fragile political armistice between the DPM and Liberals, the last remaining pivot of the former pro-EU alliance).
On January 24, 2017, the Constitutional Court stated clearly that the president may only refuse to accept a ministerial candidate proposed by the prime minister once. The court failed to elaborate what sanction the president could face if he continued to refuse nominations.
That, for some time, was the end of it.
Then, in September, the DPM nominated a new candidate for the defence minister’s job. Quite why it became so important just then (having been a non-issue for months) is probably part of a DPM electoral strategy ahead of next year’s polls.
The bombshell was dropped on October 17: “The president’s refusal to fulfil his constitutional duty to nominate the candidate, proposed for a second time by the prime minister amounts to a serious violation of his constitutional duties and of the oath taken when sworn in.”
And there was more. The court held that, in the spirit of Article 91 of the Moldovan Constitution, “the president finds himself in a temporary impossibility to discharge his respective duty, which represents a justification for the establishment of an interim office in order to fulfil this constitutional duty.” The court also stated that although President Dodon had violated the constitution, “a referendum to dismiss him is too difficult to achieve” and “does not guarantee a solution to the deadlock.”
In other words, somebody else (the speaker of the parliament and prime minister) would have to fulfil the president’s duties for a very brief time in order to expedite the appointment of a new defence minister.
On October 24, Eugen Sturza — a DPM nomination but taking the post on behalf of the PPEM (European Popular Party of Moldova) — was sworn in as Moldova’s defence minister by speaker Andrian Candu, acting as interim president and PM Pavel Filip. Mr Dodon did not attend the ceremony, which lasted just 20 minutes. That’s how long Mr Dodon was “provisionally suspended of presidential power” in one of the strangest constitutional moments ever seen.
Back in office, Mr Dodon has reason to be pleased with the bizarre outcome. Rather than undermine the tacit power-sharing agreement between the PSRM and DPM, the shenanigans allow Mr Dodon to save face. A mechanism has been created which allows the two parties to go their separate ways for 20 minutes at a time. While this will only strengthen suspicions amongst many people that the rulings of the Constitutional Court are politically elastic, neither Mr Dodon nor Mr Plahotniuc will be too worried. It is those people who care about fundamental checks and balances being shattered even by those who should guard these principles who have most cause for concern.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.