Moldova’s Socialist-led government, loyal to the Russophile President Igor Dodon, has narrowly survived a no-confidence motion brought by a stunning combination of parties: the two pro-Western parties of the former ACUM (“NOW”) bloc together with the Pro Moldova Party and the Shor Party, which represent the interests of fugitive billionaires Vladimir Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor. It is a dramatic shift by the former ACUM bloc’s parties, led by Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, respectively. Until not long ago, the two were champions of a fight against “oligarchic” corruption, but they have now aligned themselves with those same plutocratic groups.
The anti-government motion gathered 48 supporters in parliament, 3 fewer than necessary for passage in the 101-seat chamber. Technically it received 46 votes because 2 supportive members were diagnosed with the COVID-19 coronavirus and could not vote. The “oligarchs” made all of their 23 votes available to Nastase and Sandu for the motion; all 23 had made it into parliament on Plahotniuc’s coattails in the 2019 elections, which were rigged against the ACUM bloc of anti-corruption crusaders. All four groups—Nastase and Sandu, Pro-Moldova and Shor—consider resubmitting a no-confidence motion at an extraordinary session of parliament in August. Looming ahead are presidential elections in November, and pre-term parliamentary elections shortly thereafter (Ziarul National, July 20).
Against that background, the shift by Nastase’s and Sandu’s parties can only be explained as a pre-election gamble from positions of weakness. They hope to use their former political arch-enemies’ parliamentary strength against their current arch-enemies: President Dodon and his Socialist Party. The plan, aired by Nastase’s and Sandu’s teams in the mass media, is to topple the pro-presidential government and form a new government that would prepare the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The incumbent government is, by definition, not trusted to guarantee free and fair elections. Why a government installed by agreement with the “oligarchic” bloc could be so trusted—particularly after the 2019 elections’ rigging—remains unexplained.
However stunning, the pro-Western parties’ shift did not come as a surprise. They had considered it internally and hinted at it publicly for almost three months. Being in the opposition, with modest resources, underdeveloped territorial structures, relatively limited media access, and no powers of patronage, Sandu’s and Nastase’s parties cannot with any confidence expect to win the upcoming elections even if they were to reconcile, which is far from being the case. External support also has its limits and cannot fully compensate for the domestic imbalance in terms of resources.
Current opinion polls show Sandu clearly trailing Dodon in the presidential contest; Sandu’s party is similarly behind the Socialists in the run-up to the pre-term parliamentary elections; and Nastase’s party is uncertain of passing the parliament’s entrance threshold. Nastase’s party nevertheless aspires to form a new government ahead of the elections; and Nastase himself claims to be entitled to run for president on behalf of the opposition, notwithstanding Sandu’s distant lead over all other opposition presidential hopefuls (Cotidianul, Ziarul National, June 29; Cotidianul, Ziarul National, July 2; RFE/RL, July 7, 10).
The parties of Sandu and Nastase are now rivals and acting on the basis of conflicting plans, but they share the goal of removing the incumbent government preemptively, ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The two leaders may believe that their combination with those who had “stolen the billions” and “captured the state” is merely a tactical semi-alliance, a temporary expedient. But they do not seem to reckon with the long-term adverse consequences of a potential loss of credibility or erosion of voter support to themselves and their parties.
A rapprochement with the “oligarchy,” which they once excoriated for capturing the state and destroying the rule of law, looks like a desperate step by Nastase’s and Sandu’s parties. Nastase initiated that rapprochement in his characteristic, impetuous style, pulling a somewhat more cautious Sandu reluctantly along. Nastase needs a life preserver—almost any, it seems—to keep his party and his career afloat, whereas Sandu’s and her party’s status as opposition leader is strong and questioned by none except Nastase. Yet, this status does not alone provide resources for winning elections.
Both parties are acting defensively from positions of weakness resulting from a chain of mistaken decisions they have taken in the last eight months.
In November 2019, Sandu personally decided to resign as prime minister of ACUM’s five-month old government, bringing the latter down. That decision stunned her government, political allies, and Western embassies in Chisinau. That was a coalition government of Sandu’s and Nastase’s minority parties, based on an agreement with Dodon’s Socialist Party, which ensured majority support in parliament and yielded almost all ministerial portfolios to the ACUM bloc. The apparent trigger of Sandu’s resignation was a dispute over the selection of the prosecutor general, but it was not necessarily the only or the main reason. Moldova’s Constitutional Court—whose composition is ACUM-friendly—subsequently pronounced Sandu’s procedure of the prosecutor’s selection unconstitutional (Unimedia, July 15). Sandu had, in any case, by November 2019, decided to prepare her presidential run against Dodon.
That government’s fall turned the ACUM bloc instantly from a power incumbent into a disadvantaged opposition group—one, moreover, lacking the internal discipline of the Socialist Party. ACUM’s leaders lost much of their access to mass media, powers of patronage, and the control they had begun establishing at the level of local administrations. At that point in time, local coalitions of Sandu’s and Nastase’s parties were taking shape in one half of Moldova’s more than 30 district-level administrative units and many towns. Most of these local coalitions fell apart almost instantly after the ACUM government’s fall, depriving the bloc of crucial levers in future presidential and parliamentary elections. The government’s fall also poisoned the already uneasy relationship between Sandu’s and Nastase’s teams.