Why Moldova Keeps Suspending Its President’s Authority
10 January, 2018

When Igor Dodon became the first Moldovan President in 20 years to be directly elected in late 2016, he vowed to fight against the ruling pro-European Democratic Party and the rampant corruption that has plagued the government in recent years.

A year into his presidency, it’s becoming apparent that Dodon — the leader of the Socialist Party, who is widely regarded as pro-Russia — has become little more than a figurehead, says Vladislav Kulminski, Executive Director of the Moldovan Institute for Strategic Initiatives.

On January 5, at the request of the Democratic Party, the Constitutional Court of Moldova temporarily suspended President Dodon’s powers for the third time in as many months. The first two rulings, in October 2016 and on January 2 this year, were handed down after Dodon refused to approve nominees for state office. The most recent, on January 5, follows the president’s refusal to restrict the broadcast of Russian television in Moldova.

But the Democrat-controlled courts have done more than just allow the ruling party to push through its prefered parliamentary candidates and a law against Russian propaganda. Their recent decisions have also demonstrated Dodon’s lack of power.

Dodon’s direct election as president was aimed at curbing mass protests against the ruling government, which is still recovering from a corruption scandal that saw a billion dollars syphoned out of the country’s banks in 2014, Kulminski says.

Kulminski said in his one year of power, Dodon has not only failed to deliver on his election promises but has also started to lose his approval ratings. The recent move by courts to suspend his authority has only served to emphasize his lack of power to bring about changes in Moldova. Dodon has condemned the courts and their ruling.

With parliamentary elections in Moldova coming up in November, Kulminski describes recent events as a “game” to demonstrate “who’s running the show.”

Hromadske spoke to Kulminski about the power struggle in Chisinau and what it means for this year’s upcoming elections.

The constitutional court has suspended President Dodon’s powers for the third time last week in as many months. In October and on January 2 his suspension was related to Dodon rejecting nominations for parliamentary appointments. The latest suspension was imposed on January 5 after President Dodon tried to stop a bill relating to Russian broadcasts. Could you explain what this all means?

There is a fight for power for authority, between the President and the ruling majority, which is run by the Democratic Party. All power in the country is controlled by the Democratic Party and its leader and President Dodon is trying to establish himself as a player in Moldovan politics. There is an election coming up in November, so this is all pretty much a game to show who is running the show in the Republic of Moldova. The government wants to undertake certain moves, they want to change people at the top, they want to change ministers. The President opposes this but he actually has no power, no authority to actually stop this. So he refuses to sign those government reshuffles but the government continues to push them through, regardless of what the president wants. It has happened three times, and by doing this the government is showing to the entire world that the president doesn’t really have the powers or the authority. And domestically it significantly hurts the president's ratings so that his chances of winning the parliamentary elections diminish as more and more people become convinced that he doesn’t have the authority and the power to change things in Moldova.

Photo credit: Igor Dodon/EPA

How powerful is President Dodon?

At the moment the president has largely ceremonial powers. Moldova used to be a parliamentary republic where the president is elected by the parliament. But a year and half ago in order to break up mass protests, the Democratic Party changed the system and the constitutional court restored direct popular elections of the president. This was a controversial decision which was designed to break up the mass protests that threatened the rule of the Democratic Party. So all opposition leaders, rather than fighting the democratic party, they rushed to compete in the presidential elections. But when Moldova became a presidential parliamentary republic, the president still had very limited authority. So the whole idea of Mr Dodon winning that election was that he promised to fight the unpopular government for what he is worth. He promised to investigate the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks, he promised to fight rampant corruption and he promised to fight for early elections….he didn’t do any of that. That is why his political ratings diminish by the day and by the time we get to parliamentary elections in November, it is quite likely that he will not be able to get a parliamentary majority as he and his partners in the Russian Federation hoped. So the power of the presidency at the moment is that it has popular support and by using this popular support the president could organize mass protests in Moldova, take people to the streets against the unpopular government, etc. So direct democracy was the only tool available to him to really  impact and influence the decisions of the government. But otherwise, because the president is not doing it, all the power is concentrated in the hands of the Democratic Party. He is afraid to pick up a direct fight, so he largely does all these ceremonial steps by refusing to sign things, saying I’m not going to do this and then he threatens with consequences but in reality very little of it happens.

You’ve talked about the parliamentary elections, can you tell us what kind of result can we expect to see in November?

The results of the election are going to be momentous. They’re going to have a momentous impact on where Moldova is going. At the moment we have three major political forces that will compete in those elections. First is the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has all the tools and levers of power, they control all institutions in the Republic of Moldova, including the prosecutor's office, courts, the constitutional court and a lot of other institutions. The second political force is the Socialist Party, led by President Dodon. This party has a lot of popular support but very little access to real power. And the third competition is the pro-European right of the centre political forces, led by Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase. They don’t have any access to so called administrative resources but they also have some popular legitimacy and some popular support. The Democratic Party enjoys very little popular support, it is within a margin of error, within 45 percent but it is extremely important for the Democratic Party to keep power because if they lose the parliamentary elections in November of 2018, then over the next four to five years, we’re going to see the next government pretty much investigating what the previous government did. So there are going to be a lot of consequences.

Photo credit: Vladimir Putin and Igor Dodon/EPA

President Dodon is characterized as a pro-Russian politician. How accurate is that?

I don’t think it is accurate at all. What people are fighting for is real power. And coalitions of the Republic of Moldova shift and once people get to power they quickly understand what the limits are. So I think it is more an artificial division between east and west, it’s just different political forces are trying to position themselves in this way to appeal to certain voters, to evoke emotions. Politics is all about emotions. But in reality these alliances can shift quite rapidly. And even if Mr Dodon wins the parliamentary elections at the end of the year it doesn’t mean that he will necessarily turn Moldova towards Russia because there will be certain realities that he will have to deal with, such as Moldova sending over half of its exports to the European Union and the Transnistrian region, which is not controlled by the Moldovan government, doing the same. So to come back a little bit to your previous question, what the Democratic Party did, in order to keep power they changed the election system. Previously Moldova had a proportional election system where all members of parliament, 101 members of parliament were elected on party lists. Under that proportional system the Democratic Party, which has a rating of four to five percent, had no chance of winning this election at all, so they decided to change the system. They moved to a mixed system, where 51 seats would be elected on party lists and 50 seats would be elected in single member constituencies and as we know from Ukraine’s, and from Georgia’s, from Russia’s experience, single member constituencies tend to favor the parties that hold power. So by changing the election system the Democratic Party has significantly increased its chances of winning the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections. So the likely outcome of the elections in November looks as follows: The Socialist Party is likely to poll approximately 38-39 seats in parliament, the Democratic Party will have 30-32 seats in parliament, pro-European forces will have up to 25 seats in parliament. And then the Democratic Party would be the one leading the creation of the new coalition and therefore keeping itself in office. So that’s what the entire game plan here is.

A recent survey from the Institute of Marketing and Surveys says Moldova’s support for joining the European Union is growing, with 60 percent of participants, in late 2017, saying they want to join the EU, up from around 45 percent in early 2017. Is that a shift that you’ve seen on the ground?

I think these are quite relative numbers. What people in Moldova want, they want economic opportunities, they want stability and they want law and order because these basic public goods do not exist in the Republic of Moldova. So whichever party is seen as been able to deliver these public goods, holds power and has the best chances of winning the election. And being pro-Russian and pro-European, it’s quite relative in Moldova’s context today because the country is in a bad economic condition, wages and salaries in the country are quite low, people are leaving so it’s more about the basic things. But with respect to the European Union, I don’t think anyone has serious doubts that this is the way for Moldova to go. Because you can’t really join the (Eurasian) Customs Union over Ukraine, it’s just not possible so whatever Mr Dodon promises in this respect is simply not realistic. Moldova sends pretty much the largest share of its exports to the European Union, as does the Transnistrian region. Moldova has deep institutional relations with the European Union. Approximately 25-30 percent of Moldova’s budgetary support comes from the European Union, which is a lot. And this is the money without which Moldova would not be able to meet its social commitments, pay pensions and salaries. Those ties are very deep and whichever party wins the parliamentary elections in November 2018 would necessarily need to take into account those very deep ties, that simply cannot be broken in one turn. It’s just institutionally not possible for Moldova to make a rapid u-turn and somehow look in the other direction.

/By Natalie Vikhrov