Cristina Gherasimov
Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
A proposal to change to a mixed electoral system in Moldova would entrench corruption and harm the young democracy. EU and other Western governments should use their economic clout to stop it.
The Moldova parliament building in Chisinau. Photo: Getty Images.The Moldova parliament building in Chisinau. Photo: Getty Images.

If free and fair elections were held in Moldova today, the current ruling Democratic Party would win about 4 per cent of the vote. Under the country’s current proportional representation system, this would not secure them any seats in parliament.

But if they cannot secure a parliamentary presence through popularity, the party seems intent on securing it through technicality. They are proposing an electoral change to a ‘mixed system’ that would secure up to 40 seats out of 101.

The party claims the new system, introducing elements of first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting,  will ‘bring policy-makers closer to their constituents’. But the experience of other struggling democracies in Moldova’s neighbourhood, where clientelism and corruption also thrive, shows that such a system in fact inhibits political pluralism and cements corrupt networks of power.

Past experience

Amidst stalled domestic reform and increasing societal revolt against corruption scandals, the Democratic Party is in a rush to rewrite the law before the next parliamentary elections in autumn 2018. The departure from current proportional representation (PR) system was first announced by Vladimir Plahotniuc, the controversial oligarch, president of the Democratic Party, and informal leader of the ruling coalition. On 5 May, after campaigning for the benefits of a FPTP system for nearly two months, the ruling coalition passed in first reading the opposition Socialists’ ‘counter offer’ of a mixed system – casting one vote for a party list in a PR tier and one for a candidate in a single-member district tier. The vote was preceded by an artificial debate, and did not wait for the opinion for the Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional law in central and eastern Europe for the Council of Europe.

If the rule of law underpinned democracy in Moldova, a mixed electoral system would be a good replacement to the current closed-list PR system. Proponents point to consolidated Western democracies such as Germany. But as the experience of young democracies in central and eastern Europe illustrates, a mixed electoral system proposal may cause lasting damage. In weak democracies with endemic corruption such as Moldova, such a change will increase the cost of electoral campaigns, favour the ascent of inappropriately powerful business tycoons into politics, and limit the electoral chances of new and smaller political parties.

This has been the experience of Romania, which returned to a PR system in 2016 after flirting with a mixed electoral system with FPTP elements for two electoral cycles. This period limited pluralism and brought people into parliament who were more interested in the immunity it brings than in undertaking reform. Ukraine and Georgia suffer from similar democratic deficits under FPTP and mixed electoral systems, and are both considering electoral reform.

The rollback in Moldova is compounded by the broader political context. The bill displays serious flaws. First, the criteria for forming electoral constituencies are not clearly defined which can encourage gerrymandering. Second, the delimitation of constituencies rests upon rigged and conveniently contradictory national statistics. Third, the bill does not specify how the voting rights of citizens from the separatist region of Transnistria will be ensured. Fourth, it is not clear how many constituencies will be allotted to the Moldovan diaspora. The last is critical considering around 753,800 Moldovans live abroad, according to the International Organization for Migration, and they have propped up the economy with nearly $17 billion in remittances over the last 15 years. Their votes in the last two elections proved crucial to the final outcomes. The details of the bill are vague leaving space for manoeuvre after its passage.

Finally, the government is mimicking a dialogue with civil society over reform to please the West. Using a politically controlled media, the Democratic Party creates the impression that there is vast public support for reform. Large sums of money of non-transparent origin are mobilized to build support. Obscure financing of political parties, the lack of independence of the Central Electoral Commission, and the ease by which elections can be manipulated are the real problems in the electoral system, as highlighted recently in an open letter from Moldovan civil society, experts and NGOs addressed to Western partners. Moving to a FPTP or mixed system does not solve any of these.

The EU’s economic leverage

The EU has provided over €1 billion of European taxpayers’ money as financial assistance to Moldova during the last decade. This is a significant sum for a country with a total population of only 3.5 million. Little progress has been achieved.

At the moment the EU is subsidizing a corrupt and barely legitimate government that is concerned solely with promoting narrow private interests. While the nominally pro-EU coalition drains funds from Western partners who are understandably primarily concerned with spillover from Ukraine, no assistance trickles down to society. EU funds are therefore damaging rather than supporting democratic consolidation in Moldova.

The EU should reconsider its financial support to Moldova in the absence of meaningful reform, in accordance with their Association Agreement. As in more high-profile Hungary, Moldova gladly accepts Brussels money but does not want to commit to European values of good governance. The Moldovan state would not survive without Western donors’ assistance. It would then have to seriously reconsider its tenets of statehood, institution building and state-citizen relations. However Russia’s interest in a ‘loyal’ government in Chisinau means Vladimir Putin would surely be interested in filling the vacuum, despite his country’s current financial troubles. President Igor Dodon has repeatedly and openly expressed his Socialist party’s support for more Russian influence.

The European People’s Party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament have condemned the proposed electoral change via a joint declaration. However, public shaming does not work on Moldovan politicians. Western donors should use their economic clout to leverage change.

The EU, via the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, has strengthened its position as Moldova’s main trading partner; 63 per cent of Moldovan exports are directed towards EU markets. Economic integration improves the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized enterprises, and infuses new technologies into the Moldovan economy.

The new EU member experience has shown that economic integration as a tool for reform has proven effective. Investing in stronger economic cooperation and bringing Western economic standards to Moldovan producers will have a more powerful impact on democracy consolidation than subsidizing corrupt political elites via ‘good governance’ reforms.

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