Controversy surrounding electoral changes in Moldova

Tue 1 Aug 2017

Controversy surrounding electoral changes in Moldova

On 30 July hundreds of protesters gathered in Moldova after parliament approved controversial changes to the electoral system that critics say favors the country's two largest political parties. These changes include lowering the threshold for political alliances to enter parliament, creating new constituencies, and requiring candidates to declare their assets.

Political unrest
In the past three months, the Moldovan parliament passed two bills which aim to change the country’s electoral system into a mixed system. The Democratic Party claims the new system will “bring policymakers closer to their constituents,” but critics say the changes will squeeze out smaller parties and benefit the two main political players – the ruling pro-Western Democratic Party led by Vladimir Plathotniuc and the opposition pro-Russia Socialists led by president Igor Dodon. Andrei Nastase, leader of the opposition Dignity and Truth Platform Party, has accused the Democratic Party of colluding with the Socialists in a "cartel" to squeeze out other groups.

Other opponents say the changes are aimed at tilting the system in favor of the Democratic Party, which is headed by businessman Plahotniuc and is the largest partner in Moldova's pro-European governing coalition. The Venice Commission, a body which rules on rights and democracy disputes in Europe, has also voiced opposition, saying individual constituency lawmakers could come under pressure from business interests. The proportional representation system will be replaced with a winner-takes-all system, which means voters would directly choose one candidate for their district.

The Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) of Dodon’s former presidential rival, Maia Sandu, said the new system would allow the ruling party to design electoral districts as it sees fit. PAS also said that because only one candidate would be elected per district, people who vote for candidates who do not make it into parliament would not be represented.

Referendum
Moldova's pro-Russia president, Igor Dodon, signed a decree in late March calling for a nationwide referendum on 24 September. The referendum will decide whether the president should be allowed to dissolve Moldova's parliament and announce early elections. The referendum also asks voters whether the number of parliamentary seats in the single-chamber legislature should be reduced from 101 to 71. It also asks whether Moldovan history classes should be abolished at secondary schools across the country, and whether a law should be revoked that calls for public funds to reimburse finances that were misused by major banks during the last 25 years.

Moldova’s Constitutional Court has ruled that this move by Dodon to hold a referendum that could broaden his powers is unconstitutional. Constitutional Court judge Tudor Pantiru announced the ruling on July 27, saying that the questions that are to be posed in the referendum “are beyond presidential authority.”

Government vs judiciary
Moldova's Constitution provides for freedom of the press and expression, but authorities do not always respect these rights in practice. Moldova's judicial system is weakened by corruption and government pressure. The level of judicial independence in Moldova is among the worst in the world, according to a World Economic Forum report.

Similarly, the European Commission has stated in its latest report that “Moldova's consolidation of its democracy and rule of law requires further reform efforts. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms requires greater attention, in part due to weaknesses in the justice system. Perceived political interference in the judiciary and law enforcement is a systemic impediment to social and economic development.”

The EU-Moldova Association Agreement establishes a new legal framework for the advancement of relations between Moldova and the EU, focusing on political association and economic integration with the EU. However, Dodon has said that the agreement has not brought the positive effects that were initially envisioned. He therefore hopes to cancel the 2014 deal if his Socialist Party wins a parliamentary majority in Moldova’s next election, scheduled for late 2018.

Sources: POLITICO, Radio Free Europe, BBC, The New York Times, Freedom House