Moldovan pro-EU tendency fails to impress at local elections

At the first glance, it is Maia Sandu’s pro-European PAS party who won recent local elections in Moldova. A more cautious look reveals a more complex picture: pro-Russian and/or oligarchic parties will rule the biggest cities and even the president’s personal engagement did not motivate most of citizens to go and vote. In addition, a shadow of Russian interference has not stopped to haunt Moldova.

The entire transcription of the recording is available below.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks. Today we are going to discuss the local elections in Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, which started to catch more attention than ever after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when a lot of commentators started analyzing the probability of Moldova getting invaded as well. But Moldova is also an example of how anti-oligarchic forces are trying to do some change in a country which used to be totally dominated by oligarchs and fake politicians. These Moldovan elections were also quite unusual, with accusations against Russia trying to influence the final results and with the President of Moldova and her party fighting to get recognition from the citizens for the efforts she has done so far to to make Moldova a real partner for European Union, to curb the oligarchs and to change the social and political life. We will be discussing the outcomes of the elections together with Cristian Bolotnicov, who is a journalist of Agora.md, a Moldovan portal specializing in politics and social issues written by young journalists. Cristian is also a historian by education, so he will certainly have a large perspective of what happens in his country. Hello to Cristian. Hello to Vladimir Mitev, the cofounder of Crossborder talks, who will be asking questions together with me in this episode.

Vladimir Mitev: Hello everyone, and let me first start with a very general attempt to discuss the outcome of the local elections. First of all, to what extent can these elections be considered successful by the ruling party of President Maia Sandu? What do the results say about the society’s attitude towards the government in the pro-European course which Sandu takes? What were the main motivations for voting in these elections? Was it once again the geopolitical and identity considerations? Was it more some kind of reaction to the government policies? Was it some local factors in every region and city which differ from one another?

Hello again everyone. Thank you for the question. From my perspective as a journalist that followed the whole election campaign, I have to say that this election campaign was quite, let’s say, a party-driven one. I mean, it wasn’t an election campaign with a lot of debates about the local problems. It was more about geopolitics. The ruling party thought that such approach would mobilize their electorate to come and vote. But the final results show that despite the calls from the president, that made the national address on Friday evening before elections, despite all the visits that the Prime Minister and other government members and the party members made in different regions, the results shows in the first place that there is a quite, let’s say, disappointment. It’s a sentiment that is pretty obvious.

There were towns and the regions where in 2021, on the early parliamentary election, the current ruling party won a huge victory by 80%. However, during these local elections, they haven’t even had a victory. They had like 30% or 40%. This happened, for example, in Orhei County, which is known as Ilan Shor’s base in Moldova. People of Orhei voted for PAS in 2021. But in 2023, they didn’t even won the post of mayor of the city. They got only a few local councillors. These results show in the first place that there is a disappointment about how the PAS party ruled the country. Let’s be honest, we had a lot of crises when PAS came. When the pandemic was over, the energy crisis started, then the economic crisis started. After that, security crisis and the influence of Russia was still high because of the oligarchs.

So could you please remind me about the second question?

What do these elections demonstrate about the attitude towards the government in the course?

The ruling party, as I said, they tried to discuss more geopolitical issues. Even during the campaign there were some messages, even from the president, there were messages that in the towns and villages where the citizens were tempted to elect a mayor from Shor’s party, PAS‌ wanted to block the European funds to develop these town and these villages. Such messages were quite popular. But in the end, we have seen that this geopolitical topic didn’t work quite well. Why? Because, I think just like in the other countries in Moldova, the local elections are first about the people who have their image in the community. It’s not about the party from or the platform on behalf of which they are running. These elections showed that the support for the idea of European integration and the ruling party is still quite strong, but nevertheless the ruling party had a major setback after two years and half of government because there are a lot of failures in the justice reform, a lot of fails in economy, and so on.

Is this the reason why PAS didn’t win the mayor positions in Chișinău and Bălți or are there other reasons for that?

My perception is that in Chișinău PAS probably didn’t want to win… First, the candidate was announced too late. In the second place, they even didn’t had a campaign, they did not really try to show why the people shouldn’t vote for the actual mayor, who is quite pro-Russian. The reason that PAS didn’t win in Chișinău is because the voter turnout wasn’t so high.

I don’t think that in the history of Moldova, any European party made a successful attempt to win the Bălți. Chișinău, when it was created, included suburbs that had a more pro-European, pro-Romanian population in the 90s. But in Bălți, during the Soviet times, there are not enough suburbs with citizens that would vote for the European ideas, pro-Western voter. In that area, it’s very, very difficult.

In addition, PAS lost not only in Chișinău or Bălț. They didn’t won the mayoral post in any major city center of Moldova, major district capital. More precisely, they won one in Cahul, but there, the candidate ran as an independent, supported by the ruling party. In Gagauzia they didn’t even have a candidate for one of the towns or villages.

This election was marked by a huge scandal in the beginning of November, when Aleksandru Musteață, head of Moldovan intelligence, claimed that Russia spent 90 million Moldovan lei, which would correspond to more or less $5 million, to undermine Moldovan political system, to support pro-Russian forces in Moldova, and to influence, as a result, not only the results of this elections, but also the shape of Moldovan political life as such. As a result, Șansa party, which translates as Chance party, was eliminated. All the candidates of this party were crossed out of the lists. Could you tell us more about Russian influence and Russian attempts to destabilize the situation in Moldova? Was this event important in the shaping of the electoral campaign and the election results?

When we are talking about Russia attempts to destabilize Moldova, we don’t only talk about these attempts that have started only after February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. They were taking place even before, for example, when PAS came into power in August 2021, we had a scandal with the gas contract. Initially, the Russians were saying: OK, we would continue to work based on the oil contract. Just a few days before the contract was going to expire, they announced they did not want a new contract. They started to reduce the gas volumes.

These actions continued during the 2022 with a huge protest organized by Shor party. The government tried to fight with this attempt, and we know that at least the effort was quite successful because right now we are still talking about attempts. Chief of the intelligence services of Moldova defined the whole sum that Russia invested in those attempts since 2022 as almost one billion lei. A huge amount!

In addition, Alexandru Musteață recognized that we did not have enough people to follow all the members of the former Șor party or all the members that are involved in this operation to destabilize the country, to affect the elections’ electoral process. Despite this fact, he tried to ban and to expel the Șansa party from the elections and he succeeded. And it was not only Șansa party. There were plenty of other candidates. And I have to say that the Șor, for example, showed that oligarchs and his team were prepared. When the Șansa leader Alexei Lungu, former journalist at Șor’s television, was expelled, they announced, “Oh look, there is no problem. We had another candidate from a no name party that you should vote for”. That candidate was also a journalist from Șor’s television. This shows that they still have a lot of influence and they had the backup plans that the government couldn’t or didn’t want to advance further.

But at the same time, some analysts sayt that the decision to expel the Șansa party wasn’t quite right. It is not only about legal reasons, althought it is important, that the candidates were expelled a few days before the election, so they didn’t even have the chance to go to justice. They did go into justice. But the case is still pending in the court. The other reason why this decision was so bad is that in Chișinău, if Sor’s party would have remained on the ballot, there would have been the probability that the votes for Ion Ceban would have been lower and there would be a second round. This didn’t happen because all the votes went to Ceban.

It wasn’t the only action that the government tried to do to undermine Russian influence. In the beginning of the electoral campaign, the Constitutional Court, just days before the beginning of the electoral campaign, declared that the law that banned former Șor party members from running in the elections was unconstitutional. Immediately after the government just issued a new decision, a government order by which they again banned the former Șor party members from running in the elections. All these attempts from the government were exceptional.

We are going to find out soon if Moldova will get the green light to continue to open the negotiation or not. But the government in this electoral campaign tried a lot of exceptional measures that quite undermine the rule of law.

We could say that an exceptional measure was used also when Maia Sandu declared she would not make the bașkan of Gagauzia, Evghenia Guțul, a member of the government, even though it is a constitutional provision that the head of the autonomous area of Gagauzia should be a member of the government. Maia Sandu explained that Guțul was a member of a criminal group, that is, of the former Șor Party, and so she could not, as such, join the government. What is your take on this situation?

In the first place, when we are talking about this issue – Maia Sandu didn’t have to make or to appeal to any exceptional matters because all she had to do was just to sign the decree, and she just didn’t want to sign. However, according to some lawyers, this could be seen as unconstitutional. What Maia Sandu is trying to do is to isolate the executive branch of the government and the Gagauzian government. The central government is trying to cooperate only with the local mayors, the local authorities. Sandu is trying to assure that Evghenia Guțu, who is a Șor party member, Sor’s team member, does not have another stage where she could express his opinions or her opinions in prime time. The last bașkan of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, used to go to all the government meetings, and in the last months of her term, almost at every meeting she had tense discussions with the Prime Minister Dorin Recean. Maia Sandu is also trying to avoid such situations. But I think the first reason is just to isolate the executive branch, because that is where the most Șor members are and where they have a lot of power.

And these elections will also be remembered for a low turnout. It was 41% in the first round and 36% in the second round. What does this say about the level of importance or intrigue of the elections?

Yes, the turnout is lower and lower by year. I think that one of the reasons why this is happening is that the people just lost their confidence that their vote could mean anything. There are mayors that are running the towns and villages for more than 20 years and they just are doing what they promised only before the elections.

But I also would say that we should look at this official data with a bit of skepticism. At every election in Moldova we’re discussing: oh, look, the young people don’t go to vote. But the stats, the data on which we know that young people, their turnout is very low, is based on the assumption that all the young people are in Moldova. In fact more than 60% of them are not, even if officially they are in the country. So officially the turnout is lower. But when you check the reality… on paper, there are 100 young people in the community, but only 40 of them are really there. The rest has gone abroad. And we don’t know at how many of those 40% went and vote. Because when you calculate in such a way, you know that the turnout of those who are in the country actually is much higher.

But overall, I would say that the main reason is that the people just lost their confidence. In 2021, the turnout was quite high. Тhis was because of the enthusiasm. Message of anticorruption and pro-Europe has worked after two years of pro-Russian government and the pandemic. I would say that another explanation or a bit of analysis, is that the appeal from Maia Sandu or the Dorin Recean or other party members didn’t work so well. Sandu, in those two weeks, between the first round of election and the second round, made a lot of visits in the communities, in the towns or villages and tried to help to grow the chances of PAS candidates. But in the end, they lost nevertheless. So I think the people just lost their confidence in the whole electoral process because there were a lot of scandals.

And another thing is, when PAS was an opposition party, they constantly accused the government party of using administrative resources in their favour. Now, PAS was doing the same. Another piece of evidence that helps us to see why the people lost their confidence in the whole process, because it’s not an independent one. It’s not a process when you have real chances to see your candidate winning.

We see that the local elections put a slap in the face of the ruling party, and maybe they now have to find some way to show that their policy remains relevant. Thank you for this Cross-Border Talk, Cristian. We will be certainly following further the difficulties and the tests before change in the Republic of Moldova. And I invite our listeners to continue to follow us on social networks and to subscribe to our various channels YouTube, SoundCloud, Substack and others.

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