Moldovan Political Realignments Stop Billionaire Tycoon’s Bid for Power

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 89

Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, head of the Liberal Democratic Party
Moldova’s governing Alliance for European Integration (AEI) has collapsed in slow motion, de facto in February and officially on April 22. Interrelated with this development, the Liberal-Democrat Party of Vlad Filat has reversed its position and halted the state-capture efforts of its nominal partner within AEI, billionaire Vlad Plahotniuc, instead of acquiescing as it did until April 22. 
This overall outcome must not jeopardize Moldova’s front-runner position among the European Union’s six Eastern Partner countries to conclude association, trade, and visa-liberalization agreements with the EU at the upcoming Vilnius summit. Prime Minister Filat’s team, in charge of the ministries relevant to the European agenda, had until now borne the brunt of technical and diplomatic work to advance Moldova-European Union integration goals. That team remains in the interim government (alongside the two nominal coalition partners), albeit without the direct participation of the deposed prime minister Filat (see EDM, April 25). 
The tripartite AEI had become deeply dysfunctional ever since the signing of the December 2010 secret agreement, leaked in 2012, to partition state institutions among AEI’s component parties. In due course, Democratic Party leaders Vlad Plahotniuc and Marian Lupu along with Liberal Party leader Mihai Ghimpu scuttled the AEI through protracted joint attacks against Filat and his Liberal-Democrat Party (see EDM, February 26, 27; and see accompanying article). 
The AEI’s collapse has necessitated a tactical realignment of the two largest parliamentary parties—Liberal-Democrat and Communist—to avoid either state capture by Plahotniuc (who was rapidly advancing toward that goal in April), or outright state collapse, pending new elections. The Liberal-Democrats’ and Communists’ combined voting strength in parliament has become a stabilizing factor in an otherwise unmanageable political situation. Their alignment is strictly temporary and functioning strictly on an issue-by-issue basis, with no reciprocal commitments. These parties with mutually opposed ideologies and goals have now combined to stop Plahotniuc’s bid to gain de facto control of the state. 
On April 25, this evolving majority dismissed Lupu from the Parliament’s chairmanship following his recent, crucial vote miscount (see below); and on April 26 the same parties combiend to elect Liberal-Democrat Liliana Palihovici, hitherto the vice-chair, to the Parliament’s interim chairmanship. This enactment authorizes the interim chair to exercise the full powers of that office, pending a regular election to that post, presumably after the next parliamentary elections (Moldpres, Unimedia, April 25 – 27). 
On May 3, the evolving parliamentary majority adopted a package of seven laws, which on one hand stop and reverse Plahotniuc’s moves to control the political system, while on the other hand seek to ensure that the work of governance continues, and the European integration agenda remains on course. The entire package was adopted on a single day in two readings. In their essence, the seven laws enacted on May 3 stipulate (Moldpres, Unimedia, May 4, 6): 
— 1 and 2. The interim prime minister and government are endowed with powers that practically equal the powers of a regular prime minister and government, thereby enabling the continuation of reform efforts, against the ticking clock of the EU’s summit. These two newly adopted laws supersede the previous legislation, which had curtailed the interim prime ministers’ and interim governments’ powers, with paralyzing effects on policy and governance. 
This legislation should protect the government from obstruction, both in parliament (where the tactical alignment of Filat’s party with the Communists is far from secure) and within the coalition government (where the AEI’s third component, Mihai Ghimpu’s Liberal Party of Romanian-Unionist persuasion, has continually agitated against Filat’s Liberal-Democrats). 
— 3. The Anti-Corruption Center is being transferred from Parliament’s jurisdiction into the government’s jurisdiction. The Center’s Director shall be appointed by the head of state, upon the prime minister’s proposal, for a four-year term; and can be dismissed in the same way during that term of office. 
This legislation reverses two earlier gains of the Lupu-Plahotniuc tandem. In December 2010 they had compelled Filat to accept their control over the Anti-Corruption Center and other institutions, threatening to form a Kremlin-brokered coalition government with the Communist Party, unless Filat yielded; which he perforce did at that time. On April 19, 2013, under the last Filat-Plahotniuc deal, their two parties confirmed Viorel Chetraru, a protege of Lupu and Plahotniuc, as Director of the Anti-Corruption Center; and they pushed through legislation barring the Director’s dismissal for any “subjective reasons” (implying potentially unlimited tenure). The new arrangement is incomparably less politicized. 
— 4.  The Prosecutor-General, approved by Parliament on April 18 under the last Filat-Plahotniuc deal, is being removed from that post, due to insufficient qualifications (less than 15 years of work experience in this field) and a vote miscount. Chairman Lupu had counted 51 votes (the minimally necessary number in the 101-seat chamber) in favor of nominee Corneliu Gurin. Following the vote, two deputies from Filat’s party came forward to testify that they had not voted, thereby invalidating the procedure. Gurin was hitherto the vice-chairman of a small party deemed loyal to Plahotniuc. 
The Prosecutor-General’s Office was also within the quota of state institutions that fell to the Democratic Party of Lupu and Plahotniuc, under the December 2010 AEI coalition agreement. Filat succeeded in removing Prosecutor-General Valeriu Zubco in February 2013 for covering up the deadly hunting accident that sparked this political crisis and Plahotniuc’s nearly-successful counteroffensive. Gurin’s deputy now takes over as interim prosecutor-general while Filat’s party seems determined to clean up that office.
— 5. Soviet-era passports shall again be accepted as valid identity documents for Moldova’s voters. This is a concession of the Liberal-Democrats to the Communist Party within this overall package deal. At least 200,000 voters, mostly elderly and Communist-leaning, are said to have neglected to change their Soviet-era passports into Moldovan ones. 
— 6. The Electoral Code is being revised in the following ways. First, the changes enacted on April 18-19, under the now-defunct Filat-Plahotniuc deal, are cancelled. That short-lived legislation would have changed the proportional system, whereby all the 101 parliamentary deputies were elected on party lists, into a “mixed”system, with 51 deputies to be elected on party lists and another 50 in single-mandate electoral districts (winner-take-all races). Plahotniuc had initially demanded that all 101 deputies be elected from single-mandate districts. Extrapolating from general post-Soviet experience, which shows that the “mixed” system favors wealthy candidates and the wealthiest party leaders, Chisinau’s observers concluded that the “mixed” system would produce a large contingent of deputies beholden to Plahotniuc in the next parliamentary elections. Furthermore, since electoral districts are impossible to organize in Transnistria, doing so only in a rump-Moldova would tacitly have recognized the country’s partition. 
Apart from cancelling those April revisions, the new changes adopted on May 3 raise the threshold for parties to be represented in parliament, as follows: 6 percent for individual parties, 9 percent for electoral blocs comprised of two parties, and 11 percent for blocs comprised of three or more parties (the thresholds until now had been 4 percent, 7 percent, and 9 percent, respectively, enacted by the AEI in 2010). The entire country including Transnistria is again treated as a single electoral district, as has been the case for two decades. This reinforces at least de jure the country’s territorial integrity, even if in practice Transnistria’s residents can only vote by crossing onto the right bank of the Nistru River. The raising of the threshold is not merely in the interest of the two large parties. It also seeks to limit party fragmentation and factionalism, which have demonstrably rendered the current Parliament dysfunctional. The situation would further deteriorate if the small, radical leftist-Russophile parties, which have split from the Communist Party, enter the next parliament. Preventing this is not merely in the Communist Party’s interest but also in the country’s interest. 
— 7. An unprecedented law, adopted within the May 3 package, instituted a procedure for removing justices of the Constitutional Court with at least 61 votes in Parliament, if any justices are deemed to violate their oath or to have lost the Parliament’s trust (the 61 vote minimum is the same as that required for adopting organic laws). This law violated the constitutional principles of the inamovibility of judges and separation of powers, as well as contravening the existing legislation on the functioning of the Constitutional Court. Politically, this law was a quick reaction to the Court’s April 22 unanimous ruling, which: a) declared Filat and members of his ministerial team (without naming anyone explicitly) ineligible for holding government office; b) asked them to prove their own innocence from corruption accusations (launched selectively by Plahotniuc-controlled prosecutors, and publicized by Plahotniuc’s television channels); and c) cited media stories and even “leaks” to substantiate its ruling. Western diplomats in Chisinau criticized that ruling in varying degrees; none more strongly than U.S. Ambassador William Moser, who cited the Court’s breach of the presumption of innocence and its resort to “unsubstantiated accusations and rumors” (Vocea  Basarabiei, May 3). 
The Court’s six seats had mostly been allocated on informal party quotas by AEI’s parties; but Filat’s Liberal-Democrats no longer control any seat, whereas Ghimpu’s Liberals and the Lupu-Plahotniuc Democrats have demonstrated on this occasion how far they can sway the Constitutional Court politically. For a slight silver lining on this gloomy horizon, not a single serious observer in Chisinau has defended either the Court’s April 22 ruling, or the Parliament’s May 3 retaliation against the Court. Filat’s party has quickly backtracked on its support for the May 3 law. The Constitutional Court’s chairman, Alexandru Tanase, has singularly defended the Court’s ruling and rejected Moser’s assessment (see EDM, April 25; RFE/RL, April 30). 
The seven laws, adopted on May 3 by the evolving parliamentary majority, can only enter into force if promulgated by the head of state. 
On May 8, President Timofti returned the law on the Constitutional Court to Parliament for reconsideration. Timofti’s main objections emphasize the violation of the inamovibility of judges. Along with this admonition, however, Timofti is urging the Parliament to work out new legislation that would “clearly and exhaustively define the limits of the Court’s competencies”—an allusion to the Court’s exceeding its competencies through that politicized ruling (Moldpres, Unimedia, May 8). 
On May 9, Timofti promulgated: the two laws on the competencies of the interim prime minister and of the interim government, respectively; the law on the Anti-Corruption Center; and the changes to the Electoral Code adopted by Parliament. The latter’s promulgation is especially timely by heading off recommendations to lower the parliamentary threshold. Such recommendations might perhaps correspond with political representation theory, but would risk aggravating the Moldovan parliament’s dysfunctions in practice (see point 6 above). President Timofti is still considering whether to promulgate the remaining two laws in the May 3 package (Moldpres, Unimedia, May 9).