ZOiS Spotlight 7/2019

The Moldovan parliamentary elections and the Transnistria conflict

by Sabine von Löwis 20/02/2019
Polling station in Chișinău, Moldova during the presidential elections 2016. Ramin Mazur, n-ost

On 24 February, Moldova will elect a new parliament – and for the first time, will do so under new legislation adopted in July 2017 – in the face of considerable criticism at home and abroad, which transformed the existing proportional system into a new mixed system. As another innovation, voters in the de facto republic of Transnistria – the self-styled Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) – will be able to directly elect two MPs to represent their interests in the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova. Ultimately, though, the electoral reform is less about ensuring fairer elections and more about securing a majority for the currently most influential parties, a prospect which seemed elusive under the previous law. Nevertheless, the election outcome could inject fresh momentum into the negotiations on a solution to the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria.

Electoral law reform and political parties

The electoral law was passed with the votes of President Igor Dodon’s Party of Socialists (PSRM) and the ruling Democratic Party (PDM) led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. After many years of government by a nominally pro-European coalition, the 2014 parliamentary elections marked the beginnings of a surge in support for the PSRM, which is keen to strengthen Moldova’s relations with Russia. The Socialist candidate Igor Dodon narrowly defeated the alternative candidate Maia Sandu, who stood on a pro-European platform, in the second round of the presidential election in 2016.

In place of the old proportional system, which was based on nationwide party lists, the new legislation has introduced a mixed system, comprising elements of first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation and introducing a number of local constituencies where candidates will stand for direct election. In all, there will be 51 of these single-member constituencies, while the remaining 50 out of a total of 101 MPs will be elected from lists. The aim of the electoral reform is ostensibly to ensure that independent candidates also have a chance of being elected to parliament. However, this has attracted criticism, for with the current state of Moldovan politics, these candidates may well be receptive to inducements to join one or another of the parties that fails to gain enough votes.

That is certainly in the interests of the Democratic Party (PDM), currently in government, whose opinion poll ratings in 2017 stood at just 3-11 per cent. The direct election of independent members in the constituencies could significantly boost their number of seats in Parliament, provided that they can win over these candidates before or after the election – easy pickings for a party headed by an oligarch. The Party of Socialists (PSRM) gained the most votes in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and its candidate scored a narrow victory in the 2016 presidential campaign. Its aim now is to expand its majority and form a government. The party has a long history and a strong institutional base across the country.

ACUM (“We Win Now”) – a two-party electoral alliance of the Dignity and Truth Platform (Platforma DA) and the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), along with several civil society organisations which have emerged in recent years and work for closer ties with the European Union – is very popular with the younger generation. However, these parties are small and lack the established regional structures and financial resources needed to conduct a broad-based election campaign. The new electoral law could well push down their share of the vote.

Notwithstanding all the criticism of the new electoral law and the possible advantages that it confers on established and well-resourced parties, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the upswing in voter support for the Party of Socialists also has to do with economic and social developments in Moldova in recent years. The country is one of the poorest in Europe, and the transition which followed the demise of the Soviet Union came at a very high economic and social cost. Under these challenging socio-economic conditions, the bank fraud scandal in 2015 – under a pro-European coalition government – led to a loss of confidence in Moldova’s ruling parties and ultimately also to a decline in the EU’s credibility.

Transnistria and the unresolved conflict

The election of MPs in Transnistria – a territory outside Moldova’s control – is another innovative feature. Five or six candidates are standing for election, either as independents or on a PSRM or PDM ticket, in the two Transnistrian constituencies. Although Moldova and Transnistria do not normally recognise each other’s elections, the Transnistrian president has this time given his Moldovan counterpart his assurance that residents of the de facto state will be able to exercise their right to vote unhindered.

The people of Transnistria (population: approximately 475,665 in 2015) regularly participated in Moldovan elections in the past. These voters usually have to cross the Dniester River and then cast their votes in designated polling stations on Moldovan-controlled territory. The last time they did so was during the 2016 presidential elections. On that occasion, only 6,964 people turned out for the first round – roughly the same number as in previous years – but this rose to 16,728 in the second round of voting. Perhaps it was the choice between the Socialist Dodon and pro-European Sandu that persuaded the Transnistrians to turn out and vote. But some mobilisation may also have been in play, including comments by the PMR’s then President Yevgeny Shevchuk the day before the run-off about the importance of stability in Moldova and a pro-Russian president in Transnistria. The PSRM reportedly laid organised buses to take voters to the polling stations.

It is apparent that the interests of the de facto authorities and Dodon’s Party of Socialists overlap in some respects. How far their mutual support will go remains to be seen. Around 230,600 voters from the PMR are registered to vote in the forthcoming elections, although it is unclear how many  will actually use their vote and thus influence the outcome of the election. The PSRM is almost the only party in Moldova to produce a well-crafted policy on the PMR’s future role in the Republic of Moldova and therefore to address, albeit indirectly, the interests and concerns of the Transnistrian populace. What’s more, Dodon regularly talks about Transnistria’s potential role within Moldova, although his terminology changes, referring by turns to integration, federalisation or association. These shifting statements are unwelcome to the PMR’s officials, who reiterate  Transnistria’s desire for independence. Nevertheless, a victory for the Party of Socialists in Moldova would boost expectations of a resumption of the negotiations on federalisation, frozen since 2003.

Sabine von Löwis is a researcher at ZOiS. It is unclear at present whether or not people in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) will turn out to vote in the Moldovan elections and what would motivate them to do so. Her research project on every-day life in conflict settings explores these and other questions.