The Moldovan constitution stipulates that within three months of a parliamentary election, a government must be formed, otherwise the president has to dissolve the parliament. After an inconclusive election on 24 February 2019 produced a hung parliament, a dramatic power struggle ensued.
In the election, the Russian-backed Socialists won thirty-five out of 101 seats; the Democratic Party, led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, came second, with thirty seats; and the liberal-conservative and pro-European alliance ACUM entered the parliament for the first time, with twenty-six seats. It seemed for a long time as if no coalition would be formed. All three parties have traditionally been hostile to each other, defining their respective identities through rejection of the others.
By the time the three-month deadline (after the confirmation of a new parliament by the Constitutional Court) was approaching, a lot of activity was unfolding. Three high-level officials from the European Union, the United States, and Russia visited the country to talk to major stakeholders, incidentally or in a concerted manner remained unclear. As a result of these talks, ACUM—an alliance of the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) and the Dignity and Truth Platform (PDA)—offered on 6 June to enter negotiations with the Socialist Party of President Igor Dodon about a joint coalition.
Initially, the Socialists did not respond. Allegedly, Dodon was at the same time leading secret talks with Plahotniuc. Hidden camera footage leaked by Plahotniuc-owned media later compromised Dodon, who was recorded admitting to receiving financing from Russia.
Two presidents, two governments
On 8 June, ACUM and the Socialists, who together have a comfortable parliamentary majority, formed a government based on a ‘temporary political agreement’, with the common goal to break Plahotniuc’s political monopoly. The swearing-in of the new prime minister, Maia Sandu of the PAS, took place under exceptional circumstances in the parliament. To obstruct the process, authorities cut off the electricity and withdrew all parliamentary officials.
The same day, the Constitutional Court of Moldova, which is largely dominated by judges loyal to the Democratic Party, ruled that the new government was illegal because the deadline for forming a government had expired on 7 June. Accordingly, the incumbent Democratic Party government refused to resign. On 9 June, the court issued another judgment that temporarily suspended Dodon from office and declared incumbent prime minister Pavel Filip interim president. On 10 June, Moldova had two acting presidents and two cabinets, which held meetings simultaneously in Chișinău.
Clash of supporters
Democratic Party supporters were mobilised to occupy government buildings. In the parliament, the new ACUM-Socialist government decided as one of its first measures to establish a committee to investigate the so-called stolen billion, a corruption scandal that hit Moldova in 2014, when about $1 billion US Dollar disappeared from the national banking system.
The parliament, in turn, voted to revoke Moldova’s mixed electoral system and reinstate the previous proportional system. Several police officers of the General Police Inspectorate, which had publicly backed the Sandu government, were suspended and had their offices searched. Andrei Năstase, the new interior minister, tried to enter the inspectorate building but was obstructed by the head of the inspectorate, dismissed by Sandu.
International observers urged both sides to show restraint. In an unprecedented situation for one of Eastern Europe’s ‘in-between states’, the US, the EU, and Russia were unanimous in their backing of the coalition.
Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, called the decisions of the constitutional court ‘arbitrary in the light of the text of the Constitution and of international rule of law standards’. He requested an urgent opinion on the decisions from the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe; the commission found that the conditions needed to dissolve the parliament had not existed on 7 or 8 June.
Resignation of the Democratic Party
Due to increased international pressure, the Democratic Party government eventually resigned on 14 June. A day later, the Constitutional Court announced that it had reconsidered and reversed the decisions it had taken between 7 and 9 June.
Plahotniuc made no statement after the government’s resignation, and his whereabouts are now unknown. It seems that he left the country, but he announced later on Facebook that he would return to Moldova to fight in the opposition and bring back stability and calm to the country.
On the right track?
Is Moldova now on the right track? While there are some enthusiastic voices, optimists should be cautious. There are signs that the new government will face challenges from all those authorities into which the Democratic Party co-opted officials. The line between cleansing authorities of political appointees and retaliating against a previous government is thin. Moreover, both Sandu and Năstase keep repeating that the alliance with the Kremlin-friendly Socialists ‘is not a natural one’ and will only last ‘until the country is liberated from the mafia’.
The common denominators in the new government are few: essentially, a common desire to de-oligarchise Moldova, improve economic growth, and fight corruption. Last but not least, there remains a president who wishes to increase his powers and has already used the crisis to bring the State Protection and Guard Service, under his responsibility. The potential for conflict remains considerable.