The myriad of ways in which post-Soviet democracies choose to break down

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Elections are fundamental to democracy, but elections are merely one pillar supporting a democratic system and there are growing numbers of countries where that pillar is crumbling.

The last decade in Europe and the US has shaken our faith in democracy. The US is no longer the archetype that others aspire to. Its electoral system, many features of which were exported around the world, have proved to be quite dysfunctional and manipulable. And while much of Europe still maintains strong elections which accurately reflect the views of the voters who participate, there are also countries where this is no longer always the case.

Elections by themselves are not enough to maintain a healthy democracy. They may increase accountability and inspire citizens, but they may also lead to nationalist hysteria, the oppression of minorities and can legitimise dictators. In post-Soviet Eurasia, many elections have had a negative effect on democratic progression and the events in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in recent weeks have shown that change comes not necessarily from elections but from protests or rejection of elections.

International organisations in the West have focussed on elections as the lynchpin of successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s two turnover test – two changes of power as a result of elections – is just one example of the western fixation on elections as central to democratic success.

But electoral fundamentalism, as David van Reybrouck calls it, is a gross simplification of how democracies function and survive. 

On a practical level, Paddy Ashdown thought similarly. When he became the High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina he criticised the idea that elections were enough to bring peace and democracy to that country. He pointed out that the rule of law was vital and his efforts were in combatting corruption as a precondition to engendering citizen confidence in the system.

In the post-Soviet world there are a number of examples of what might happen. But as Tolstoy suggested, there is no single model for how democracy breaks down. Whilst we may think of the space as being solely led by authoritarian regimes, this is not the case and it is not possible to read across from one to another except to understand that our focus should be wider than simply counting ballot papers.

Belarus is perhaps the closest to the perceived authoritarian model. A leader who has been in power for many years – in this case having won in a genuinely competitive contest in the first place – dictates the desired result before election day. The state then makes his wishes come true.  In that case there was, for the first time, a sea change in public mood that has resulted in many weeks of street protests. Rather than a rise in pro-Western or anti-Russian feeling as some would have it, this may be a case where citizens see the types of democratic freedoms across their borders with Lithuania and Poland and desire some of that progress for themselves. In this case it is geography that may set them apart from, say, Tajikistan where a very similar result was declared in similar circumstances, but without any apparent public objection. So whilst the incumbent attempts to portray his rivals as stooges of the West, the protests continue to be successful precisely because they are homegrown and not dependent on American (or Polish, or German) money or influence.

Whilst Belarus looks to be a long and drawn-out battle, some recent elections have been set aside with remarkable swiftness. Kyrgyzstan has been referred to on many occasions as an island of democracy in a sea of central asian authoritarianism. The truth is that this is another country where electoral practices are a veneer over a deeply flawed democracy. The different parties there are not ideologically based but instead founded on clans and regional identity. Elections have long been a battle between the north and the south with most electors controlled either by clan loyalty or by payment. Even after a peaceful handover of power in 2017, the new President chose to imprison his predecessor rather than risk him trying to control the country from behind the scenes.

After last month’s parliamentary elections produced a deeply unconvincing result with just four parties declared to have met the 7% threshold, the public took to the streets. This was the third such revolution in two decades and Kyrgyz people are so used to rioting that there are established civilian groups that coalesce to protect property and businesses. In double quick time President Jeenbekov acknowledged the result was flawed and promised fresh elections. But this was not enough for the mob who demanded, and got, his resignation. The presidency, prime ministership and parliament itself is now in the hands of a nationalist politician who was elected to none of these roles and fresh elections are due next year. The EU has rung the alarm bells at this change and has stated that Jeenbekov is the only legitimate leader in the country until such time as new elections are held. But whilst these might result in additional parties being elected to Parliament and a formal change in President, it is unlikely that the institutions will be more firmly grounded. A fourth revolt is only a matter of time.

In Kyrgyzstan, as with any other country in the region, the role of Russia is a constant question. Russia has a lot on its plate at the moment with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin does not appear to be paying much attention to Bishkek, mostly because they know there is little they can do, but also because there are none of the potential leaders who scare them. There is no move to unite with the West, with China or with any other strategic opponent. And Russia has proved able to squash every attempt so far among the central Asian states to co-operate more closely in their economies – the issue that concerns Moscow the most. These efforts are being led by the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but are routinely dampened down by Russia which wants its Eurasian Economic Union to be the only game in town.

Other countries – outside the former Soviet world – give greater hope that constitutionality and the rule of law can win through. In both Malawi and Kenya, deeply troubled elections have been declared void by constitutional courts and re-runs have ben ordered. But these results have only been possible thanks to strong and independent judges, something that is very rare in even the best of the former CIS countries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan and countries which are very different politically. Azerbaijan has modelled itself closely on the authoritarian model with an unwritten deal that promises economic prosperity and good living conditions in return for a loss of political and electoral rights. This trade, however, relies on the continued prosperity bought by petro-chemical resources and the gas price crash and general economic slowdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic may start to induce tensions.

In contrast, Armenia has long practised the concept of seemingly competitive elections and changes of power. But at crucial moments the country has had to rely on street protest and revolution to change course.

In both cases, a fundamental flaw has become the absolutist nature of policy over the disputed territory of Karabakh, or Artsakh to the Armenians. During Soviet times this island of mainly Armenian inhabitants surrounded by the Azeri SSR was not a major issue. But since independence in 1991 there has been an almost constant conflict and the current battles demonstrate that it shows no sign of abating. This is not a frozen conflict but the positions of each combatant have atrophied to the extent that no person can come to power in Armenia unless they promise that Artsakh is and will always remain Armenian. And whilst an authoritarian ruler is not so hidebound to electoral promises, the Azeri position has become a lot stronger in recent years as they have developed their military with modern weapons including drones and now have the overt support of Turkey as that country seeks to demonstrate its aspirations to become a regional power. If parties come to power time and again promising the impossible then this weakens faith in the electoral process.

Three elections are imminent in the post-Soviet world and each presents a different case to show how democracy is weak when it relies simply on elections.

In Ukraine, contests are taking place to choose mayors and local authorities. These polls follow the overwhelming victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election last year and his party, Servant of the People, in the parliamentary vote which followed soon after.

A novice politician, Zelensky has seen that in a country which has stronger democratic institutions than many, it is not possible to rule by presidential fiat. He has not been able to magic a solution to the Donbas or Crimean occupations, nor to solve the economic woes of the country. Frequent changes in government ministers do not help and, whilst his predecessors would marvel at his opinion poll ratings, these have been going steadily down as it becomes clear that likeability is not the same as administrative competence. In this case public confidence is not just waning in the individual, but also in the hope that a genuine change in the political system was in the offing. 

It is perhaps not too late to turn the situation around, but to do so probably relies on correcting the major failing in Ukraine which is the oligarchical system. With so many industrial leaders behind, and sometimes in front of, the scenes, the public realise that their elected leaders are not answerable to them but to the paymasters who control the media and jobs.

When it comes to local and municipal elections the system fails further. Most incumbent mayors do not align themselves with national parties but have their own local groupings. These groupings then control the allocation of municipal jobs and contracts. The national parties may divide the seats on local councils between them, but the power lies with mayors who are not answerable to anyone other than their oligarchic paymasters.

Moldova is another country where oligarchs have run riot, but the prominence of Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor does not tell the whole story as they control only one of three factions within political life. The second is the pro-Russian Socialist Party of incumbent President Igor Dodon and the third is the technocrat pro-western party led by Maia Sandu. Each of these groupings has at times aligned with another in an attempt to eliminate the third. The oligarchs were exiled for a while but then allied with Dodon to oust the government of Sandu before it could implement real change. Now it seems the oligarchs are backing Sandu as the best chance to knock Dodon off his perch – but at what price? In all of this, voters will continue to choose between contestants but their wishes only hold sway on a temporary basis as the real battles continue to take place behind closed doors. All the while the economy falls further and a portion of the country remains under effective Russian control.

In Georgia, elections exemplify a misplaced faith in parties as instruments of accountability and promoters of diffusion of power. Since 1991, some elections in Georgia have been genuine expressions of voter will, but most have solidified the parties in power and cemented the privileges of Georgia’s ruling political circles.

This is another country where street protests have borne fruit. In this case it is the opening up of the electoral system such that opposition parties are now more likely to gain representation. It is not quite the ‘everyone must have prizes’ system of the 1992-95 parliament when 26 parties were represented, but nonetheless the reduction to just 30 majoritarian seats (out of 150) and the lowering of the threshold to 1% represents a substantial change. In addition, the requirement that one in four list candidates must be a woman should ensure that female representation rises from the present, pitiful, nine, although there is no equivalent quota for national minorities. 

All these are important concessions from the ruling Georgian Dream grouping and they are a recognition of the need for compromise. Most importantly no one knows what the outcome will be – or at least whether Georgian Dream will win an overall majority. Uncertainty about the results is always a good sign. An NDI poll in the summer suggested an 88% turnout although 59% still didn’t know who they are voting for. Most voters will now have made up their mind, but the absence of constant polling – as in the US – means that the public, and parties, will enter election day uncertain as to the outcome.

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive and enjoy voter confidence, with accessible information on party policies and the differences between them and they have to lead to visible outcomes. One would also hope the elections would promote a degree of social integration rather than fragmentation. But despite the signing by over 40 Georgian parties of a code of conduct on September 12, there is little evidence of electoral features which will lead to a more qualitative democracy. 

Most seriously, elected representatives should govern because they have been given the power to do so by electors. But in Georgia they will not due to Inashvili’s overwhelming economic and political influence. This is the greatest challenge in Georgia right now.

The increased party list system helps opposition parties but it also helps solidify the powers of party leaders who control the lists and reduces the accountability of MPs to constituents. The elections are competitive, but how fair will they be. Georgian Dream has overwhelming financial resources and the apparatus of the state, particularly in the regions where the election process is opaque and GD has significant control over local government and over who gets appointed to the precinct electoral commissions. Polls suggest voter confidence in political parties and knowledge of what the parties are offering is very low. This is because parties have no staying power and appear and disappear frequently. There are a raft of new parties in this election, as in almost every election since 1991. But most parties – old and new – represent a clique or are crafted in the image of a strongman. Very few represent a coherent ideology. 

What is perhaps more worrying is that every election since 1991 has operated under different rules. This suggests a persistent disconnect between the population and the politicians. If every parliament so fails to reflect the will of the voters that the system needs to be changed then perhaps it is not the voting system that is failing. It is good that public pressure can bring political change, but in a democracy that should be through the ballot box rather than protests on the streets. 

For these reasons the 2020 election is unlikely to foster greater democracy or accountability. If these elections once again fail to produce a positive outcome such as better prosperity or increased accountability then they will chip further away at Georgian peoples’ faith in democracy.

All of this gloom and doom is not to suggest for a minute that elections and a wider democratic model should not be the aspiration of each country and should not be promoted by those in a position to influence things. There are signs of progress, albeit very slight. That Uzbekistan wants to eliminate polling day fraud and the ruling party in Kazakhstan is choosing its candidates through primaries are to be welcomed, even if they are comparatively tiny steps forward in countries which remain deeply undemocratic.

The UK Government is set to announce its strategic foreign and defence policy review next month and a focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights must surely be front and centre. Equally, the election in the United States may well produce the return of an administration which values multi-lateral institutions and looks to promote its values more actively. Both Germany and France remain active in promoting liberal internationalism around the world, but the EU also needs to look close to home as both Poland and Hungary continue to present worrying evidence of democratic backsliding.

Moldova’s election looms – and so does trouble

There is a presidential election coming up in a former soviet country on the EU’s Eastern flank. It’s going to be a close contest between an incumbent who embraces Russia and a challenger whose outlook is more western.

The country is Moldova and, whilst the situation is very different from that faced by Belarus two months ago, there are sufficient similarities that should worry the west. The country will go to the polls on November 1st and then again for an almost certain second round two weeks later.

Moldova has been the site of a so-called frozen conflict almost since independence. Following a three month war in 1992, Transnistria has been a breakaway state subject to a tripartite agreement that doesn’t look like being resolved. Apart from anything else, the status quo allows for a Russian army base (and huge arms dump) to be sited on NATO’s eastern flank (and, considentally, on the border with Western Ukraine). There have been proposals to help end the stand-off, but the most likely was hijacked to form the basis of a solution to the Donbas conflict. It always seems to be the case that Moldova’s needs play second fiddle to wider regional or geo-politics.

Moldova’s major political problem is that it has three major forces which tend to balance each other out. The incumbent president is Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He has claimed to be equidistant between Russia and the EU, but few have ever believed this to be the case and that mask has slipped in recent months as his true colours as a Kremlin ally are to the fore.

Dodon’s main challenger is Maia Sandu of PAS. Sandu is a technocrat who was briefly prime minister and who lost to Dodon in the 2016 Presidential run-off by 52-48%. As Prime Minister, she relied on a coalition deal with the rather shaky PPDA party and an informal alliance with Dodon and the Socialists. Although favoured by the west, she has been outplayed by other parties in the past, never more so than when she resigned on a matter of principle that was engineered by the Socialists to expose her naivitée.

The other grouping centres around the country’s oligarchs. Chief among these is Vlad Plahotniuc, the former motivating force behind the Democrat Party. Plahotniuc was run out of the country and escaped to the USA where he is currently under investigation. Nevertheless, he maintains a lot of political influence in Moldova and, although the Democrats have withered away to almost nothing, he and his fellow oligarchs have been shamelessly buying up sitting MPs under a range of party names.

From doing a deal with the Socialists to get rid of Plahotniuc, Sandu is now contemplating a deal with the oligarchs to get rid of Dodon. Certainly she seems like the most likely candidate to make it through to a run-off with the incumbent and she will need to win the votes controlled by the oligarchs in order to triumph. What price she is willing to pay – especilly in terms of credibility – will be watched closely.

Polling in Moldova is not widespread, but the US group IRI carried out a survey over the summer which found that Sandu and Dodon were within 2% of each other in first round preferences, but that neither could manage the support or more than one in five of the electorate (not voting and don’t knows were 33% of the responses). 

Where the Moldovan elections echo those in Belarus is this suspicion of vote rigging. Sandu’s party has put up billboards in Chisinau declaring, “He thinks he can steal the election” (NG-Dipkuryer, September 20). But even as President, Dodon has not captured enough of the state apparatus to declare that he won 80% of the vote. But there might well be significant irregularities on both sides. Dodon would like to face anyone other than Sandu in the second round and Sandu herself will be reliant on the votes of people controlled by the oligarchs who have done so much to ruin the country.

If there are protests – and that seems likely whoever wins – then these will not just be about the election. The Moldovan economy has been wrecked in the decades since independence and GDP is less than a third of what it was in 1991. Dodon is as mired in corruption scandals as the oligarchs were but does not have the state apparatus to control the streets if it comes to that. The same IRI poll found 72% of respondents believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Economic issues feature at the top of the list of concerns with political leadership and unprofessional governance next. Despite having a terrible record dealing with Covid-19, this issue doesn’t make the top three concerns. A despondent country in which neither of the main players can enthuse the electorate leaves the contest wide open to falsification.

Some are suggesting that the country has failed to such an extent that integration with Romania is the only answer. Such a move would not find favour either within the EU or Russia, but is demonstrative of the situation Moldova now finds itself in. With such embedded pessimism, even a solution to an electoral problem might not be enough to end any protests.

Elections to watch – 2020

It’s no surprise that the USA will host the biggest, most expensive and most important elections of the year on November 3rd. Donald Trump’s efforts to gain a second term will be played out across news bulletins around the world, whilst his various Democratic opponents will aim to get airtime when faced with the most media-dominant President in history.

It is often said that a second term president becomes a lame duck almost immediately, but that won’t be the case for Trump who has shown that he is willing to make quick, and often un-signalled, decisions on major issues. Apart from tax reform, Trump has relied less on legislation than almost any President before him. But he has been willing to withdraw from international agreements and upset the established liberal world order like never before.

Down-ballot, the chances of radical shifts in the House or Senate are slim, but we will see how the impeachment efforts will play out on those races.

However the US elections are far from being the only pivotal polls in 2020. Two contests – in Georgia and Belarus – will help us to understand the limits of Russian influence in countries in their immediate orbit and a third – Serbia – is a traditional Russian ally.

There are also re-runs of elections held originally in 2019 which, for different reasons, failed to produce a result. Israel will hold its third election in a year whilst Bolivia will attempt a clean election following the departure of Evo Morales.

There are also key contests in Egypt and Myanmar – countries dominated by the military – and elections in South Korea, North Macedonia and Iran which will be closely watched by foreign governments as they could signal the impact of international decisions on domestic attitudes. 

Iran, Parliament (March)

Iran continues to play its role as the grit in the oyster of Middle East politics with a network of official and semi-official proxies around the region. The country has always had its reformers and its hardliners and the spring election will be another test of strength between those factions.

Elections in Iran are largely conducted on a professional and democratic basis but with all but 5% of candidates (who represent religious minorities) subject to approval by the Islamic authorities.

The last elections in 2016 saw reformists emerge as the largest faction but without an overall majority. Iran has a reputation for huge numbers of candidates as 6,200 candidates ran for the 290 seats in 2016.

As well as its funding for militant groups and factions, Iran has also built up significant cyber capabilities and has allegedly used them extensively to interfere with the functions of other states for the past two years. Its nuclear programme is of concern to the west and the USA has pulled out of the JCPOA leading some to wonder whether military strikes are imminent. Iran’s position on the Staits of Hormuz also gives it unique powers to affect the world’s oil supplies.

Every country will be watching these elections with interest to see if the results may affect any of these interests. But it seems safe to predict that there will be no outcome that would comprehensively reverse any aspect of Iran’s current course.

Israel, Parliament (March)

The third election in Israel in a year will again be between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz with the former having won his Likud leadership primary at the end of 2019. This poll comes after a second indecisive election and the failure to form a government under Israel’s list election system which splits Parliamentary representation between ten different parties. 

It is impossible to foresee a majority party emerging and this contest will see voters tasked with giving either Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White the upper hand. But there is no provision for what might happen if the parties are again evenly split. Netanyahu has refused to give up the post of Prime Minister in any coalition in which his party features and Gantz refuses to serve under the longest serving Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Bolivia, President, Chamber of Deputies and Senate (March or April)

President Evo Morales stepped aside at the end of 2019 after his election win was found to be corruptly obtained. He won’t be a candidate in the re-run, but that won’t prevent the poll being highly controversial and tightly fought. In the aftermath of the failed poll, Morales sought asylum in Mexico as the army took a grip on the country and many of his former supporters were arrested. Since then there has been a general de-escalation in tensions and detainees have been released. Interim president Jeanine Añez will remain in charge until the vote in March or April.

North Macedonia, Parliament (April)

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called these early elections after the failure of EU members (largely at France’s behest) to agree the start of accession talks for his country and Albania. The country is also due to become a full member of NATO in the spring. In the last couple of years North Macedonia has formally changed its name to satisfy a long-standing complaint from Greece as well as undertaken large-scale structural reforms to bring it more into line with EU norms. The reward for these unpopular measures was to be the start of the long journey towards EU accession.

The election will pit Zaev’s SDSM against the anti-agreement VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski. The SDSM candidate won the presidential election in May 2019 but the parliamentary poll will be closely fought.

A win for Zaev’s party might give him and his supporters among existing members of the EU a boost before the next summit in June where France may be persuaded to change her stance. New EU President Croatia hs promised to keep the issue high up the institution’s agenda. A win for the opposition would surely end any prospect of further integration measures for the foreseeable period.

South Korea, Parliament (April)

There are significant domestic issues at play in this year’s legislative elections but these will play second fiddle in the minds of other countries to relations between South Korea and its neighbour to the north. At times President Moon Jae-In has been central to peace talks but has recently been sidelined by both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And whilst left-wing and pro North Korean parties are banned in the South, there are significant differences between the parties which will be a major factor in voters’ minds.

Proposed changes to the voting system would mean the small PR element changing from a parallel to a compensatory system, favouring smaller parties.

Polls suggest that the Democratic Party is well ahead of its main conservative opponents the Liberty Korea Party but effort to game the new voting system could leave the outcome in the balance.

Serbia, Parliament (April)

North Macedonia and Albania may have been seen as being at the front of the queue for EU accession, but Serbia has also been in the frame for membership for a number of years. And for the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, this would represent a significant departure from historic ties to Russia which seeks to maintain at least one friendly presence in the Balkans.

The major hindrance to western integration is the continued failure to establish common ground with Kosovo. Talks of a land-swap to settle a border dispute between the two were effectively quashed by Angela Merkel who saw this as a dangerous precedent for other countries. 

The current government is led by the pro-Western Ana Brnabić but previous elections have been criticised for the misuse of state resources and the lack of media independence and there is a proposed boycott by a number of opposition parties and groups. With decisions on Kosovo and western-oriented reforms likely to hit the popularity of the SNS government, it is possible that the coming election might be more competitive than assumed.

Belarus, President (August)

Few people will predict anything other than comfortable re-election for President Lukashanka but this election will be more notable for the tone than the outcome. Belarus has sought to maintain a balance between historic and economic ties to Russia whilst trying to avoid being perceived as a puppet of the Kremlin.

One of the potential routes for Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his second (and officially final) term in office comes to an end in 2024 is said to be a formal union with Belarus. This seems unlikely, but tax, currency and other financial ties remain under discussion. At the same time, the West, while being careful not to undermine Lukashenka by getting too close, will keep pressing for reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the removal of the only two opposition law-makers from Parliament in what was seen as a retrograde step. Will this contest shed any light on likely succession-planning?

Georgia, Parliament (October)

Electoral reform is not the usual issue to cause mass protests but such is the case in Georgia where a pledge to implement a more proportional system appears to have been abandoned. The state remains heavily dependent on Russia despite the continuing ‘frozen’ conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin recognises as breakaway states but Georgia (and most of the world) does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has seen almost half of its support drain away according to the most recent opinion polls, but the main opposition groups have also lost ground. Such fragmentation, as well as possible boycotts, make the elections unpredictable.

Egypt, Parliament and Senate (November)

Egypt’s flirtation with more genuine democracy resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, President el-Sisi has received significant support from the rest of the world as a bastion against terrorism and he has been able to limit popular expression in the country and put state organs in charge of much of the poll. The removal of the powers of the General Intelligence Directorate to create and approve candidate lists might have been seen as a progressive step, but their role has been taken by the National Security Agency instead. Prominent opposition figures have been arrested but there are reports that the Coalition of Hope, a moderate opposition group, may be about to contest the elections.

Myanmar, Parliament (November)

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for many years the symbol of opposition to military rule in Myanmar, has lost much of her lustre around the world as she has sought to defend what is seen as possible genocide against the Rohinga people in the west of the country and failed to overturn military dominance – the armed forces still has reserved seats in the parliament which makes fundamental change unlikely. 

How the people will react when given the chance to vote – and how free the military allows the elections to be – will be at issue in this contest. 

Venezuela, National Assembly (December)

The constitutional crisis in Venezuela – with two presidents claiming legitimacy and being backed by different countries – continues. The parliament remians the main opposition to President Nicolas Maduro whilst the Constituent Assembly, extablished to write a new constitution, are his main backers. Officially the constituent assembly will lose its mandate shortly after the parliamentary elections. However the outcome of the vote is unlikely to satisfy both sides and the battle for legitimacy will almost certainly continue.

Moldova, President (date unknown)

Moldova faces a Presidential election less than a year after the unlikely coalition government of pro-Western technocrats and pro-Russian socialists fell apart. That deal was done in order to oust the the Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc which was widely perceived to be corrupt. However there has been little time to complete reforms and the coming presidential poll will probably see a contest between incumbent Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Pavel Filip who seems likely to receive the Democratic Party nomination.

Reading List – 27th November 2019

John Lough analyses the state of play in Belarus and argues that the West should not write the state off as a Russian backwater, but should take steps to engage more.

 

Tatiana Stanovaya of Carnegie Moscow Center suggests that senior figures in the Russian regime are looking to make themselves indispensible as 2024 approaches and Vladimir Putin’s mandate comes to an end.

 

 

The odd-couple marriage between technocrat reformers and pro-Russian Socialists in Moldova has fallen apart. The question now is whether this heralds a return to power of key players mired in corruption or whether a new reformist ministry can take charge.

 

Moldova enters political crisis as President Dodon stripped of his duties (UPDATED: Crisis over)

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Protests have been held in Chisinau for many weeks

20/6/19 UPDATE: The political crisis is over as the Democratic Party have resigned and accepted the new coalition’s right to govern. An update written on the (American) International Republican Institute blog gives one take on what has happened.

Moldova has been plunged into political crisis after the Constitutional Court dimissed President Igor Dodon and handed his powers to Pavel Filip who promptly dissolved parliament and called fresh elections. However the Parliament has refused to recognise the court’s ruling and has recognised the new government of Maia Sandu, former World Bank adviser and Education Minister.

The origins of this crisis are the inconclusive elections held in April. At that time no party won an overrall majority and negotiations started to form a coalition government. But with three very different political forces in the country – Dodon’s pro-Russian Socialist Party, Filip’s Democratic Party and Sandu’s pro-Western ACUM bloc – this looked an impossible task. This was exacerbated by the close result of the election in which the Socialists won 35 seats, the Democratic Party 30 seats and ACUM 26 seats of the 101 seat legislature.

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Maia Sandu of the ACUM bloc

In Saturday, Dodon and Sandu announced an unlikely alliance with Sandu being named Prime Minister and a Socialist Party MP taking the Speaker’s chair. This alliance appear aimed at keeping the oligarch leader of the Democratic Party – Vladimir Plahotniuc – out of power. However the Constitutional Court ruled that the coalition had not been formed before the mandated time limit of 7th June and declared Dodon stripped of his office as he had failed to call the fresh elections required when no government could be formed in time. Filip was named President and he immediately called elections for September 6th.

With Parliament refusing to recognise the authority of Filip, the stand-off threatens disorder in the country which is already split with an unrecognised territory of Transnistria claiming independence. Transnistria is home to a vast Cold War Russian arms dump which is guarded by Russian forces. Regarded as a frozen conflict, there is concern that instability in the country could lead to a return to arms. Both the EU and NATO have appealed for calm.

You can find a preview I wrote about the inconclusive elections here.

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.

Moldova Parliamentary Elections 2019 preview

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An election for the Moldovan Parliament was due to be held in late 2018 but has been postponed until 24th February 2019.

A presidential election is due in 2020. Between 1996 and 2012, the President was indirectly elected by the Parliament. However a constitutional court ruling in March 2016 found the indirect electoral system to be unconstitutional and the country therefore reverted to the previous direct two round election system.

Local elections are due in June 2019. Local authorities are elected using a proportional party list system and mayors are elected using a two round system with a second round held (if no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes in the first round) two weeks later.

History

Moldova is one of the smallest of the former soviet republics and currently has a population of around 3.9 million. This number is based on the 2004 census and includes Transnistria. There is significant speculation that the true figure of those living in the country is significantly lower. There is a large diaspora and the country is heavily reliant on remittances sent from abroad with more than 38% of the country’s GDP coming in that form – the second highest in the world after Tajikistan. 

The country is one of a number of former soviet republics suffering from a frozen conflict. Since 1990 the territory on the east bank of the Dniester River has been under the de facto control of a separate government and is known as Transnistria. Transnistria is largely comprised of Russian speakers of Ukrainian and Russian heritage. Violent clashes took place in the winter of 1991 and this escalated into a full military conflict from March to July 1992. There is currently a large Russian force in Transnistria which is nominally present to safeguard large arms caches. The peace agreement is overseen by a tri-partite grouping of Russian, Moldovan and Transnistrian forces. Unlike other conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh, there are close ties between the populations of Moldova and Transnistria and residents are able to cross the borderline.

Various efforts have been made to resolve the Transnistrian dispute with the most significant being that led by Dmitri Kozak, a counsellor to Russian President Putin. His proposal in 2003 would have seen an assymetrical republic which would effectively have given Transnistria a veto on future constitutional changes. Although not the 50-50 split that the Transnistrian government asked for, the government of the territory signed up to the proposal. However the President of Moldova, Vladimir Voronin refused to do so after internal opposition and at the urging of the US and OSCE. In 2011 a further process started in Vienna but has not progressed. The issue is seen as being key in Moldova but a low priority for Western states with little chance for resolution, especially following the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Practicalities

The 101 seat Parliament will be elected using a mixed member system following electoral law changes in 2017. The system is ‘unlinked’ in that the list seats are allocated proportional to the share of the votes using the d’Hondt method regardless of the number of constituency seats won. There will be 51 members elected in individual constituencies and the remaining 50 from party lists. Of the 51 constituency seats, three are for Moldovans living abroad and 2 for Transnistria, although it is unknown how such elections will work in practice.

A varying threshold will apply to the lists. For single parties it will be 6%, for alliances of two parties it is 9% and for alliances of three or more parties it is 11%. Individual candidates running as independents face a lower 2% threshold.

For the election to be considered valid there must be a turnout of 33% or more.

Electoral History

There have been eight elections since Moldova gained independence in 1991. The country is unique in that it is the only one of the former Soviet republics in which an unreformed Communist Party has re-taken power after having been voted out of office.

The first election was held in 1994 with the Democratic Agrarian Party winning 56 of the 104 seats. The Communists (the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) then won the most seats in the following six contests with the number of seats lowered to 101 in 1998. However the PCRM was denied power in three of those elections as other parties combined to force them into opposition.

Turnout levels have fallen from 79.3% in the first elections in 1994 to 55.85% at the last elections in 2014. The threshold for a valid election was cut from 50% to the current 33% before the July 2009 elections.

All previous elections have taken place with a single nationwide constituency using closed party lists. One area where there have been regular revisions is that of thresholds. An initial 4% threshold has been changed numerous times with different levels for single parties, two party alliances and three or more party alliances being adopted in 2005. A lower threshold of 3% for independent candidates had been adopted in 2001 and was lowered to 2% in 2010. However, no independent candidate has ever come close to reaching this level. Indeed, all votes for independent candidates combined have never reached the threshold. The threshold for single parties is currently at its highest level ever. In 2009, the OSCE said that the (then 6%) threshold was a barrier to smaller parties being able to enter Parliament and should be lowered. In the history of elections in Moldova there have never been more than 5 factions elected to the Parliament.

The major stumbling block for Moldovan electoral politics has been the election of the president. In 1996 the system was changed to require the President to be elected by a super-majority of 61 MPs. If Parliament failed three times to elect a President then it would be dissolved and new elections held. This provision came into effect after the April 2009 elections when the PCRM won 60 of the seats. There were widespread accusations of vote fraud and opposition parties organised protests which led to the storming of Parliament and the building being set on fire. The Constitutional Court ordered a recount which was subsequently boycotted by the opposition which feared it would be used to allot the one extra seat that the PCRM needed. In the event the recount made no significant changes.

The opposition parties all voted against the PCRM nominated Presidential candidate and so fresh elections were held in July 2009. Once again the Communists won most seats, but with just 48 PCRM MPs (and 53 for the combined opposition which formed the government), no President could be elected.

In the face of a seemingly insurmountable systemic failure, Parliament looked to change the constitution. The Government and PCRM had different views as to what change was required and so a constitutional referendum was held on the basis of the Government’s plans in September 2010. The proposed changes won 87% support among those who voted, but with a boycott campaign organised by the PCRM and others, turnout was just 30.29% – below the one-third threshold.

This forced Parliament to be dissolved again and fresh elections were held in November 2010. The outcome was similar to the previous contest with the PCRM winning 42 seats and the other parties combined to form the Alliance for European Integration with 59 seats. The courts made the decision that the government would stay in place even if no President could be elected and this Parliament ran its full term to 2014.

The most significant change at the 2014 elections was the emergence of a new party. The Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) was led by Igor Dodon as a breakaway from the Communists. The PSRM came top of the polls with 25 seats followed by the Liberal Democrats with 23 seats, PCRM with 21 seats, Democrats with 19 seats and Liberals with 13 seats. One party (Homeland) was disqualified from the contest for using foreign funds.

In 2016 the courts decided that the indirect system used to elect the President was unconstitutional and the country should return to direct elections for the post. Igor Dodon won the subsequent poll with 52% of the vote in the second round (having secured 47% in the first). He beat Maia Sandu who ran on an ‘Action and Solidarity’ ticket. Turnout in the first round was 49% and 53% in the second.

In the summer of 2018 the mayoral election in the capital Chisinau was annulled following a complaint. The courts (which must certify the result of an election, found that Mr Nastase had received funding from overseas and had campaigned on polling day in contravention of the silence requirement. This led to a series of protests. The ‘winner’ of that election, Andrei Nastase, is standing on the PPDA ticket at this election and OSCE/ODIHR reports that interlocutors raise the possibility of the mayoral election impacting on Parliamentary polls.

Parties

The Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) has been the most successful party historically in Moldova. However it is now largely eclipsed by the Socialists. It is a true communist party and affiliated to the Party of European Left. The party suffered a major split in 2016 which saw 14 MPs leave the PCRM faction and subsequently join the Democratic Party.

Current polling average – 3%

The Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) has largely eclipsed the Communists. Whilst they just beat their rivals in the last elections they are now running at around 50% in opinion polls to 3% for the PCRM. Whilst the party has a history dating back to 1997, it was largely unsuccessful and did not compete in 2009 or 2010 elections, backing the PCRM instead. Igor Dodon joined the party in 2011 and the party gained most seats in the 2014 elections. Dodon won the Presidential election in 2016 and subsequently stepped down from the party leadership to be replaced by Zinaida Greceanii.

Dodon and the PSRM are largely perceived to be pro-Russian. However, the party and its leadership claims that they are pursuing a balanced foreign policy favouring neither the EU and the West nor Russia. Party platforms support the concept of a Moldovan language (although the constitution refers to the national language as Romanian) and Dodon and others choose to speak in Russian as their first language.

Whilst the party claims a socialist and left leaning ideology, many policy positions are nationalist and right wing in character. The party has links to the Europe of Nations and Freedom grouping and to populist parties across Europe.

Current polling average – 47-50%

The Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) is a conservative pro-European party. It is currently led by Viorel Cibotaru, a former Defense Minister. It was founded in 2007 by Vlad Filat and others as a breakaway from the Democratic Party. They were later joined by members breaking away from the Christian Democratic Popular Party.

The LDPM won 15 seats in its first election in 2009 and then 18 seats in the election three months later. Filat became Prime Minister as head of the Alliance for European Integration. In 2010 the party won 32 seats and became the dominant non-Communist party. Iurie Leanca replaced Filat as prime minister in 2013. In the most recent elections the party won 23 seats on 20% of the vote but support has since collapsed.

Current polling average – 1%

The Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) is a centre-left pro-European political party alligned to the Party of European Socialists. It is broadly a social democratic party. It was founded in 1997 and led by Vladimir Plahutniuc and first deputy chairman Pavel Filip currently became Prime Minister in a coalition government in 2016. At the most recent elections the party won 19 seats on 15.8% of the vote. However, as a result of defections, the party currently holds 42 seats in the Parliament and is the largest grouping.

Current polling average – 11-14%

The Liberal Party (PL) is a conservative liberal party affiliated to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The party is led by Mihai Ghimpu whose nephew Dorin Chirtoaca was Mayor of Chisinau. Founded in 1993 as the Party of Reform, the party held a broadly christian democratic platform. It failed to enter parliament in the 1994, 98 and 2001 elections. In 2005 the Party re-branded itself as the Liberal Party and adopted a liberal programme. Ghimpu became President of the Party and in the elections that year they won 15 seats on 13% of the vote. The party again won 15 seats in the second 2009 elections on a slightly higher share of the vote and entered government as party of the Alliance for European Integration. In 2010 the party dropped to 12 seats in Parliament on 10% of the vote.

In 2013 the party suffered a split as members broke away to form the Liberal Reformist Party which joined the new Pro-European Coalition government. In the most recent elections the PL won 13 seats on 9.7% of the vote.

Current polling average – 1-2%

The Liberal Reformist Party (PLR) subsequently lost all seven seats in the 2014 election. It is a centre-right liberal party affiliated with Liberal International and led by Ion Hadarca which believes in Moldovan-Romanian unionism.

Current polling average – not found.

The Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) is a liberal pro-EU party founded in 2016 and led by former Education Minister Maiai Sandu. Sandu came second in the 2016 Presidential elections. The party has a centre-right ideology and is affiliated to the European People’s Party grouping.

Current polling average – 11-15%

The Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA) is a centre-right party led by Andrei Nastase a lawyer who won the annulled mayoral election in Chisinau in June 2018. The party was formed in 2015 initially as a civic movement and calls for a change in the political class. It campaigns against the ‘oligarchic mafia government’ and particularly opposes Vladimir Plahotniuc.

Current polling average – 13-16%

Key Electoral Issues

  1. The rise of the PSRM in the polls appears to guarantee that the party will be the largest single bloc within next parliament. The significant question will be whether they will secure more than half of the seats. This may in turn depend on the performance of some of the smaller parties. If they can reach the threshold to secure seats then it lessens the chance of a single party government. However, the raising of the threshold would seem likely to preclude the Communists, PLDM and PL from reaching parliament through the lists. Based on current polls, only the PSRM, PPDA, PAS and PDM would win seats.
  2. The change to an unlinked mixed member system is also likely to work to the benefit of larger parties as parties with a small plurality of the vote can win an overwhelming majority of the seats. It would be perfectly possible for the PSRM to win more than two thirds of the seats on just under half of the votes. For the small parties to be represented in Parliament they are likely to have to concentrate their efforts on a very small number of constituencies where they are strongest and run big names in those seats. However, in a country which has no history of single member constituencies and where all parties like to portray themselves as being able to win a majority everywhere, this may be a hurdle too high to clear.
  3. The changes to electoral law – in particular the move to a constituency system – have necessitated the establishement of new electoral bodies with new powers. Constituency Electoral Councils will be formally established only 60 days before election day and so will face an uphill task if they are to complete there duties on time and in a satisfactory manner. One major task will be ‘comprehensive voter education’. 
  4. Voter lists – and the registration of people who are deceased or have emigrated – has proved to be an issue in previous elections in Moldova. This time there are approximately 2.8 million people registered and around 1 in 14 of these (some 200,000) do not have a registered home address. Whilst this is not a problem with a national voter list, it is a requirement for a constituency based system. How these people will be allocated to a constituency – or whether they will at all – will be a significant challenge for the electoral authorities.
  5. Candidate nomination will also be a challenge. In particular, candidates are required to obtain an ‘integrity certificate’. This is meant to exclude those who are, for whatever reason, barred from standing and also requires a financial disclosure. Similar requirements in other countries have been used to weed out candidates opposed to the incumbent regime and also to delay candidatures.
  6. The formal campaign will start 30 days before election day. As well as traditional campaigning methods, it is anticipated that there will be extensive online and social media campaigning. Given the fragility of the Transnistria dispute and the geo-political interest in the nation, it is possible that out of country actors (whether state sanctioned or not) may seek to influence the election. Authorities within the country have played down this possibility (maybe because they recognise that there is little action they could take to prevent it) and have instead raised concerns about the misuse of state resources – something that the OSCE premanent mission in Moldova is seeking to help the Central Election Commission to tackle.
  7. Campaign finance is a significant issue in Moldova. Accusations have been made in the past over the misuse of charitable organisations linked to candidates and whether these have been used for vote-buying. And, whilst campaign funds may not come from overseas, with the very high level of remittances, it is perhaps inevitable that a large proportion of campaign funds will have come, at least ab initio, from other countries. Regulations do not state how many times such funds have to have been ‘washed’ before they can be considered domestic.
  8. The level of mistrust in some state authorities in Moldova is very high. The annullment of the Chisinau mayoral election has led to this mistrust spreading to the electoral system. In addition, the significant changes in the alignment of MPs elected in 2014 has also engendered a lack of trust in the system.

OSCE/ODIHR will be running a full election observation mission for the 2019 Parliamentary elections. IRI – the International Republican Institute – has long term observers on the ground already, although the mission overall will be small. ENEMO has previously organised observation missions in Moldova, although a number of observers from Ukraine observing as part of the ENEMO mission in July 2009 were expelled from the country. The CIS organisation has also organised observation missions in Moldova in the past. It is likely that there will also be domestic observers although some organisations have raised concerns about an increase in the registration data required which may lessen the amount of domestic scrutiny.