Moldovan voters will head to polling stations on November 23 to elect a new parliament, a vote that is seen as a key test of the country’s course for closer ties with the European Union.
Opinion polls show between four and six parties were likely to pass the six-per cent threshold to win seats in the 101-seat unicameral parliament, split into two camps – the pro-Western parties and those campaigning on a promise of reversing course in favour of closer ties with Moscow.
The parties in the current government coalition are running independently, but with the same message that they would pursue the same policies if they secure a new majority. They can point to the visa liberalisation and association agreements signed with the EU in the past year and a half as the government’s major accomplishments.
Of the three parties in government, the Liberal-Democrat and Democrat parties are ranked second and third in voter preferences, with 16-18 per cent and 14-16 per cent, respectively. The third party in the ruling coalition, the Liberal-Reformists are not expected to clear the electoral threshold, but the party from which the group split, the Liberals, are credited with 7.3-8.5 per cent support.
The Liberals were part of the ruling coalition until March 2013, when it joined the motion of no-confidence that brought down the cabinet of Liberal-Democrat leader Vlad Filat. The party remained in opposition after Filat was replaced by another Liberal-Democrat, Iurie Leanca, as prime minister.
The largest party in the new legislature is once again expected to be the Communist Party, which has dominated Moldovan politics between 2000 and 2009, but its support has eroded in recent years, with polls giving it between 19 and 23 per cent support.
During the campaign, Communist leader and former two-term Moldovan president Victor Voronin, who has flirted with both Moscow and Brussels over the years, has said that the party would seek to re-negotiate the association and free trade agreement with the EU, saying that Moldova’s economy was not ready for its implementation.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Socialists and Patria (Homeland) parties, which attracted the more pro-Russian former supporters of the Communist party. The two campaigned on the promise of tearing up the EU association agreement and enter the Moscow-led customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Patria and its leader Renato Usatii have been the main sources of controversy for months before the campaign period officially started. A self-described “Soviet man”, Usatii has business interests in Russia – some critics go as far as accusing him to ties to Russian organised crime – who first became known in Moldova for his charity initiatives.
He attempted to enter politics twice over the past year, only to be denied registration both times, but finally succeeded earlier this year with his takeover of the little-known Patria party. He has repeatedly accused the government of trying to bar him from politics because he was a threat to the status quo.
On November 26, the police said it had proof that Patria’s campaign had been funded illegally using money – about 430 000 euro – from abroad. Based on the police evidence, the electoral authority asked the appellate court in capital city Chisinau to strike down Patria’s electoral registration, which the court did on November 27.
An appeal can be lodged in the high court within a three days, which could rule on the matter as early as November 28, local media said. It was not clear how the logistics of the court decision could be implemented, given that ballots have already been printed.
Adding fuel to the fire is a series of raids carried out by police, also on November 26, against a several members of Antifa – an organisation described by some observers as paramilitary and extremist – who were allegedly preparing to instigate unrest in the immediate aftermath of the election. Arms, ammunition and explosives, as well as large amounts of currency were seized, with five people detained, police said.
The link to Usatii is that Antifa’s founder is MP Grigore Petrenco, a former member of the Communist party ejected from the party for his calls to civil disobedience, who is now running for parliament on Patria’s list.
On top everything, an audio recording between Usatii and an unknown person was posted on YouTube (in Romanian) on November 26, in which Usatii admits to “taking orders from [Russian intelligence service] FSB”. Usatii confirmed that the recording was authentic, but that he was aware that the other person was “an agent of a Western intelligence service” and lied to “figure out what they wanted from me”.
The timing of these developments, on the final straight of the campaign, was peculiar – under Moldovan law, parties can change their electoral lists up until five days before the election, a deadline that expired on November 25.
Moldovan public opinion remains fairly evenly split, with one recent opinion survey finding 44 per cent in favour of closer ties with the EU and 43 per cent in favour of joining the Moscow-led customs union.
The government parties have the endorsement of president Nicolae Timofti, who asked Moldovans in a televised address earlier this week to go out and vote and “vote for Europe”. About 3.2 million voters are eligible to vote, at 2066 polling stations in Moldova and abroad.
Romania’s president-elect, Klaus Iohannis, was scheduled to visit Chisinau on November 28, the final day of the campaign, to show support for the pro-EU parties.
A simple majority of 51 MPs is needed to invest a cabinet – a majority that becomes easier to attain if Patria’s ejection from the race is allowed to stand, provided the three pro-EU parties manage to overcome their disagreements, like the one that caused the fall of the Filat cabinet last year.
Another possible option discussed by analysts is the scenario of a coalition between the Liberal-Democrats and Democrats with the Communists. So far, the two parties in government have denied the prospect of such a coalition, but it would provide a large majority in parliament.
In the short term, the pro-EU parties might be able to form a government, but not one that would last the full four-year term of parliament. In Moldova, the president is elected by parliament, with the next election due in 2016 – a winning candidate requires 61 votes in favour, which might require a compromise with the Communists. Parliament can only attempt such a vote twice and if it fails, early elections have to be called.
(Outgoing European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, left, with Iurie Leanca, prime minister of Moldova. Photo: Council of the European Union)