The small eastern European nation of Moldova goes to the polls tonight, in a three-way contest that looks like bringing both change and continuity.
Moldova is a somewhat artificial country; its population is mostly ethnically Romanian, and it consists mostly of the territory that Stalin’s Soviet Union seized from Romania in 1940. A small strip east of the river Dniester, which was never part of Romania and has an ethnic Russian and Ukrainian majority, has enjoyed de facto independence under Russian protection since 1990.
As is common in former Soviet countries, the primary political division has been not between left and right but between pro-Russian and pro-European. The Communists were in government from 2001 to 2009, when they were succeeded by a pro-European alliance of three parties: the Liberal Democrats (centre-right), Liberals (centrist) and Democrats (centre-left).
Although its internal relations were not always harmonious, that alliance retained its majority at elections in 2010 and 2014. Since then, however, things have gone downhill badly, with repeated corruption scandals disrupting the old party system. In its place, politics seems to be reorienting itself along an axis of oligarchy vs democracy.
After large public protests in 2015-16, the government was reconstructed with the Democrats’ Pavel Filip as prime minister. Real power, however, was believed to be held by the party chairman, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.
In 2016, direct elections for the presidency saw the victory of Igor Dodon from the Socialist Party, which has replaced the Communists as the main pro-Russian party. Although its name and symbolism would suggest it is on the left, its policies line up more with the hard right outlook promoted in Europe by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
In light of the growth in support for the Socialists, Plahotniuc seems to have decided to switch sides and throw his support to them. In 2017 the government legislated for a new electoral system, introducing 51 single-member (first-past-the-post) districts alongside 50 fully proportional seats (previously the whole chamber was proportional).
Since the new system will advantage large parties, and the proportional seats have a minimum threshold of 6% (larger for multi-party alliances), it looks as if all or most of the seats will be held by one of three major forces.
The Socialists have been leading comfortably in the polls, with maybe around 40% of the vote. Opposing them are the Democrats, with Plahotniuc apparently playing a double game, and a new pro-European and anti-corruption alliance, ACUM, which includes the Liberal Democrats, the liberal Party of Action and Solidarity, the populist Dignity and Truth Platform, and the pro-Romanian National Unity.
The old Liberal Party has faded to irrelevance, but the Communists are still polling somewhere near the threshold, as is the Shor Party, a personal vehicle for convicted fraudster Ilan Shor, who seems to have attracted some support from far-right parties in the EU.
The Washington Post’s report suggests that the fix is in for Plahotniuc. But if the Socialists can win a majority in their own right they may be able to dispense with his services – which will bring its own problems in geopolitical terms, but would at least be appropriate payback for his double-dealing.