Moldova’s Broad-Based Governing Coalition Falls Apart (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 160

Supporters of the Government of Maia Sandu rally in front of the Parliament building in Chisinau (Source: EPA/EFE)

*To read Part One, please click here.

The collapse of Moldova’s governing coalition (in office from June to November 2019) puts an end to joint governance by political and cultural opposites—an experiment unprecedented for fractured Moldova and without par in contemporary Europe (see Part One in EDM, November 13). Yet, the coalition of the Socialist Party and the ACUM (“NOW”) bloc did not collapse over national identity, ideological, or geopolitical issues—none of which came seriously into play within or outside the coalition. Rather, the coalition fell apart over conflicting conceptions about rule of law and the integrity of state institutions.

This short-lived, Socialist-ACUM coalition was the most broadly representative political construction in Moldova’s post-1991 history. The coalition’s composition reflected all the currents of opinion extant in Moldova’s splintered society and political system: Western-oriented and Russia-oriented, Moldovan/Romanian-speaking and “Russian-speaking” groups (most members of which are not Russians), Romanianists and Moldovanists, as well as Europhiles, Russophiles, and Romanian irredentists, left-wing, centrist, right-wing—all in the local-specific understanding of those terms, which often require quotation marks for relativization. Yet, beyond all these nuances, Moldova’s electorate is enduringly divided roughly evenly between the Western and the Russian orientations. This stubborn division significantly contributed to frustrating the erstwhile ambitions to fast-track Moldova’s European integration. When the ACUM bloc took over the government by agreement with the Socialist Party to implement the European Union Association Agreement, an unprecedented chance to integrate both halves of Moldova’s society into a common political construction seemed at hand. But the experiment and the chance ended when President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party embarked on concentrating formal and informal powers at the cost of the rule of law.

The ACUM bloc’s cabinet of ministers under Maia Sandu signified a cultural breakthrough for Moldova. Most of its members were graduates of prestigious Western universities and had made careers in international organizations. Unscarred by the perennial struggles over national identity and history—standing above the fray in that sense—their agenda was to bring Moldova into the modern age. This cabinet’s physiognomy, overall, was that of the third generation of Moldovan intelligentsia since 1991, the first generation having been educated in a Russian-dominated environment and the second generation in a mainly Romanian milieu. The third, English-speaking generation of ministers was unburdened by the local culture of corrupt clientelism, and it set about uprooting it. This government’s departure from office marks, in that sense, a loss and regress for Moldova.

President Dodon has lost no time appointing a new cabinet of ministers today (November 14). The list, at first sight, includes at least seven of Dodon’s presidential advisors, out of eleven cabinet members under Prime Minister Ion Chicu. In that sense the new government is simultaneously one of experts as well as politically partisan. It is a minority government, dependent on parliamentary support from the Democratic Party, a legacy of the former ruler, now-fugitive Vladimir Plahotniuc. Without claiming ministerial positions, the Democratic Party has opted for now to play junior partner to Dodon—a reversal of roles by comparison with their relationship from 2015 until June 2019. At present, the Socialists hold 35 actual seats and the Democrats 30 theoretical seats (this number includes several seats of fugitive members) in the 101-person parliament (Moldpres, November 14).

Dodon and the Socialist Party are rapidly expanding their power base. They now control the government, the Chisinau mayor’s office (since November 3), as well as the Parliament’s chair, Constitutional Court’s chair, and now seem likely to appoint the new General Prosecutor (see EDM, November 13). The Socialist parliamentary group has long demonstrated its discipline and loyalty to Dodon. Media organizations connected with the Socialist Party have recently assembled a media holding as powerful as that bequeathed by Plahotniuc to his party. Although Moldova’s constitution is that of a parliamentary republic, President Dodon will probably be able to rule it as a presidential republic if he chooses to do so. Whether he does or not, the ongoing accumulation of formal and informal powers should facilitate Dodon‘s re-election for a second presidential term, in 2020. A negotiated reelection in the parliament could work more smoothly for Dodon than campaigning for the popular vote.

The president’s and his party’s main challenge will be to gain more support among Moldovan/Romanian-speaking voters in the conventional “center” of the political spectrum. The Socialist stalwart Ion Ceban has just won election as mayor of Chisinau by reaching out to that center, even renouncing the “Red” Socialist brand, with Dodon’s approval. Without a rebranding, Dodon and his Socialists would have to fall back on the divisive tactics of mobilizing Russophile and “Moldovanist” voters against the other currents in Moldova’s society. Such tactics come with the cost of perpetuating society’s fractures along ethno-linguistic lines and re-geopoliticizing Moldova’s domestic politics (see above).

For its part, the ACUM bloc is settling into the role of parliamentary opposition, with 26 seats in the 101-seat chamber, pending the next legislative elections (these are due in 2023 on the quadrennial calendar, but Dodon may call them already next year, in conjunction with the 2020 presidential election). In the meantime, ACUM will almost certainly lose most of the mayors and district councils the bloc won in the country-wide local elections on October 20 and November 3. Traditionally in Moldova, mayors and local councils abandon opposition parties and switch to governing parties. ACUM still has no funds for campaigning and limited media support, dwarfed by the Socialists’ and the Democrats’ respective media holdings. In these circumstances, ACUM’s two component parties, led by Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, respectively, seem ready to consider fully merging into one party.

Apart from those organizational challenges, ACUM will undoubtedly tackle the unaccomplished task of reaching “Russian-speaking” voters with ACUM’s own message, focused on improving the country’s governance. Although ACUM abjures the politics of ethnic identity or geopolitical choice, the bloc’s electorate is all Romanian-speaking thus far. While the Socialist Party holds a near-monopoly on the “Russian-speaking” electorate (catering to it through rhetoric and symbols), the Moldovan/Romanian-speaking vote is divided in three ways: Romanian-“unionists,” Moldovan and Romanian “centrists,” and Russia-sympathizing Moldovans. The ACUM bloc transcends those divisions, drawing support across those lines, but it has yet to make inroads among “Russian-speaking” voters.