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In early March 2017, Vlad Plahotniuc, media mogul and head of the ruling Democratic Party in Moldova, proposed a bill to change the country’s parliamentary electoral system from proportional to first-past-the-post. Plahotniuc realized that under the current proportional electoral system his party stood no chance of remaining in power after the 2018 legislative elections. The move was no surprise, as many analysts predicted that Democrats would attempt to change the electoral system in order to hold onto power.
Questions of Legitimacy
With a conformable majority in parliament, one would expect Plahotniuc easily to get his way. In reality, things are more complicated because the majority that Plahotniuc relies on is contested. Despite winning only 19 seats in the last election, the Democratic Party has more than doubled its faction, which now has 42 seats. Eleven seats belong to the Liberal Party, a junior coalition partner. On May 25, the party announced its withdrawal from the coalition a day after the mayor of Chisinau and senior vice president of the Liberal Party had been detained on corruption charges. However, Liberal Party Chairman Mihai Ghimpu considers the arrest political retribution for the party’s refusal to support changing the electoral system. The Liberal Party is likely to be replaced by the nine Liberal Democrat defectors who are currently part of the newly created European People’s Party parliamentary group led by Iurie Leanca. Leanca is often viewed as a Plahotniuc ally and potential future Minister of Foreign Affairs. Plahotniuc co-opted defectors from the Party of Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party after orchestrating a hostile takeover against these two opposition groups in parliament. Thus, since 2014, the Democratic Party was joined by one Socialist, 14 Communists, and 8 Liberal Democrat defectors. Many Moldovans view Plahotniuc’s 42 seats and, therefore, the entire ruling majority as illegitimate.
Similarly, the Democratic Party controls about half of the country’s 900 mayors, despite winning less than a third of mayoralties in the 2015 local elections. Plahotniuc’s tactic of getting lawmakers and mayors to defect and join his party by hook or by crook—coupled with his vast financial, media, and administrative resources—make all of the other parties vulnerable in the face of a single member majoritarian system. Under the proposed system, Plahotniuc could make better use of his unfair competitive advantage by employing either corruption or coercion to turn promising candidates to his sideFor these reasons, every other major political party opposes this bill, including the Action and Solidarity Party, the Dignity and Truth Party, as well as the Party of Communists. That is why Plahotniuc has channeled all of his resources towards building a perception of vast popular support for the proposed change. A national media campaign was launched along with a massive effort to collect signatures in support of Plahotniuc’s bill. Yet, the Democratic Party public relations team may have gone a bit too far when they claimed to have collected almost one million signatures, which amounts to about half of Moldova’s adult population. It did not stop there. The Democratic Party just commissioned the largest poll in Moldova’s history with over 12,000 respondents, compared to the usual national polls of only 1,200 respondents. Apart from the data that was made public, the Democratic Party now is likely to have access to information that allows it to gerrymander electoral districts and co-opt candidates to further cement its competitive edge.
Nonetheless, electing legislators directly in single member districts is an appealing proposition for many voters. Prior to Plahotniuc’s monopolization of political power, some of the parties that now oppose the bill, such as the Liberal Democratic Party, once favored a first-past-the-post system. But more importantly, Plahotniuc and his team have presented first-past-the-post as a simple system of direct political representation, which provides voters in a district a clear choice between individual contenders. This new system is contrasted with the more cumbersome proportional representation system based on party tickets. However, as political science literature indicates, majoritarian systems are generally better suited for consolidated democracies, while countries in transition, such as Moldova, tend to benefit more from a proportional system of representation. Majoritarian systems over-reward the winner, being prone to “electoral dictatorship,” reducing the need for compromise and consensus-building. These negative features can exacerbate tension in multiethnic societies. The unfairness of the majoritarian system also results from the systematic exclusion of smaller parties with more diverse views, in time leading to a two party system alternating in power.
Facing strong domestic contestation, Plahotniuc’s ruling majority is hard pressed to find external validation of this major electoral reform. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, is the leading authority in this regard. It has already stated that a national consensus is advisable for such an overhaul of the electoral system. The support of President Igor Dodon’s fellow Socialists would help to provide the appearance of national consensus that Plahotniuc needs.
Dodon and Plahotniuc: Reluctant Partners?
A compromise solution in the form of a mixed electoral system could be presented as a national consensus between the ruling majority dominated by the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists, which is nominally in opposition to the government even though its former leader serves as president of the country. The compromise bill envisages that 51 MPs would be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 would be elected if they received a plurality of votes in single member districts. Many, including people in his former party, were surprised when President Dodon proposed a mixed system on April 18. However, this was not the first time Dodon and Plahotniuc adopted similar positions, despite their fierce public rivalry.
At the same time, the ad-hoc coalition in support of political pluralism also cuts across geopolitical preferences of the five political parties, three of which are pro-Western (Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party), while the other two are more Russia-oriented (Party of Communists and Our Party). Despite risk of a major political crisis, the current situation has a silver lining. Geopolitics, no matter how pervasive, does not pre-determine policy positions. Therefore, the hope that Moldova can become a country with parties focused less on geopolitics and more on governance still lives on.