Moldova Parliament.jpgElections & Institutions 

Moldova’s Political Tourists

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

By Stefan Grigoriţa

It took only 32 minutes. On the evening of Jan. 20, Pavel Filip, leader of Moldova’s new government, managed to present his program, answer questions, and call for a vote from MPs. As people in Chișinău began to protest outside the parliament building, Filip’s government won the vote. Several protesters forced their way through the back doors into the parliament building; others started a fire around the corner.

This vandalism was, of course, condemned by all parties, but it was, at least, understandable. After all, Moldova’s new government had also come to power through the back door with a contested majority.

Filip’s majority was formed in part thanks to 26 MPs “collected” from Moldova’s communist and liberal democratic parties. All of a sudden, these MPs abandoned their parties, “embracing social democracy” and “saving the European dream”. Liberals and democrats were thus united with former communists—quite a development for Moldova. The key word, of course, was “stability.”

Politicians do change their principles. “Crossing the floor,” as it’s known, is not uncommon in democracies around the world. But in Moldova, this change of heart smells more of corruption than conscience. Who is buying off Moldova’s MPs, and to what end?

How did MPs from such diverse parties come together? Most importantly, why did 26 MPs decide to go solo, becoming the biggest faction in the entire parliament as a result?

“It is obvious that after 2009, the only politician who won in this situation is Vladimir Plahotniuc,” says political analyst Ernest Vardanean. “In one way or another, these 26 ‘political tourists’ are acting in the name of this puppeteer.”

Sociologist Doru Petruti added that “the people voted for something else, but the legislative branch allowed their will to be thrown away.”

When I met Igor Boţan, a political analyst from the Association for Participatory Democracy, I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Boţan has seen much during his experience, but even last year shocked him. “They have absolutely no morality,” he sighed. “They have only their interests. Now everything depends on us.”

“They offered me money in exchange for leaving the Communist Party,” began Elena Bondarenko, a Communist MP, in an interview in January. “I was offered a sum of six figures, in dollars. The final amount would have been discussed after I made my decision. Had I chosen a political position for myself, or for my relatives, the amount obviously would have been lower. If I had wanted just money, the sum would have been bigger.”

Bondarenko’s candor did make some waves in Moldovan society, though people soon moved on. Soon afterward, she visited the National Anti-Corruption Centre—with few results. Meanwhile, the interim leader of the Liberal Democrats, former Prime Minister Valeriu Streleț, mentioned a “standard package,” which is offered to MPs who decide to leave their party.

“From what I heard, some colleagues were made interesting proposals. You can get a fixed amount of money and positions in government for you or your relatives. Moreover, you can have a fixed fee paid monthly, but that depends on your loyalty. This is called the ‘standard VIP package,’” Streleț stated in an interview for Timpul.

“In general, the ruling coalition won the most from this situation. Probably the Democrats and Liberals, but I don’t rule out the possibility other people’s interests could have guided the situation away from democratic principles,” said Ina Șupac, parliamentary leader of the seven Communist MPs who remained after two-thirds deserted in December.

Many people believe that a single figure is behind these proposals—Vladimir Plahotniuc, the vice-president of Moldova’s Democrat Party. This oligarch, who once bankrolled the communists before having an abrupt change of heart, is widely regarded as one of the country’s most powerful—and most secretive—people.

According to the latest polls, Plahotniuc is seen negatively by over 90 percent of the population. Many of his opponents accuse him of being behind this operation. True to form, Plahotniuc hasn’t responded or even acknowledged these accusations.

During the most recent parliamentary elections in November 2014, the Moldovan people gave three disgraced parties (the Liberal Democrats, Democrats, and Liberals) a third chance. There was just too much at stake: a visa-free regime and association agreement with the EU.

The alternatives on the left weren’t too appealing—the fading Party of Communists, whose leader Vladimir Voronin’s main role was to appear on TV or hold concerts with Russian pop stars. Two other pro-Russian politicians, Renato Usatii and Igor Dodon (leader of the Socialist Party), won little more than a photo opportunity with Vladimir Putin.

Thus, Moldova’s new parliament was made up of 25 socialists and 21 communists on the left, 19 democrats on the center-left, 21 liberal democrats on the center-right and 13 liberals on the right. Soon enough, everything started to change.

“Our voters were expecting something different from us,” said Iurie Leancă, former prime minister, in his speech in February last year after announcing his departure from the Liberal Democratic Party, along with another liberal-democrat MP, Eugen Carpov.

During the summer of 2015, another three MPs left their parties. In their statements, they presented a familiar message—a crisis of trust in their party, the need to change, and that they no longer shared the values of their party.

The Liberal Democrats took another huge hit on Oct. 15, when their leader and former prime minister Vlad Filat was arrested for corruption.

Soon afterward, the coalition government lead by Valeriu Streleț collapsed, and the negotiations began again with the Democrats. Their informal leader Marian Lupu announced that they would “have some talks with individual MPs, not the party.” It was an unconventional approach.

In the early hours of Dec. 21, 2015, Vlad Plahotniuc posted an interesting message. The “puppetmaster” of Moldovan politics announced that, after “leaving politics” when Vlad Filat was arrested in October, he was “coming back.”

That same morning, a group of 14 MPs left the Communist Party, and Democratic Party representatives led by Vladimir Plahotniuc started talks with these MPs immediately on the creation of a Social Democratic Parliamentary Platform, representing the center of the pro-European parliamentary majority.

A coalition was signed on Christmas Eve, and the former communist MPs and democrats formed the “For Moldova” platform. “In the coming days, all 34 MPs [of the platform] will meet the president and propose a candidate for prime minister,” announced a recent “ex-communist” Igor Vremea.

The next step in forming a new majority was to involve Moldova’s Liberal Party, and the rest was history. Six liberal democrats joined. They even had a prime ministerial candidate—Vladimir Plahotniuc. However, President Nicolae Timofti rejected him, and Plahotniuc’s protégé, Pavel Filip, was instead appointed prime minister one week later.

Overall, over 1.6 million people voted in the 2014 parliamentary election, meaning that one MP represents over 16,000 people. Moldova’s high and mighty must have asked themselves which path was cheapest: to buy over 400,000 voters, with less than 100 lei apiece ($5.09), or to buy 25 MPs, with a million dollars each?

In the past year, 26 MPs have either become independent or crossed the floor.

“Crossing the floor” in Moldova has a history: 14 such cases took place over a period of just five years between 2009 and 2014.

The first was Marian Lupu, who left the communists to take control of semi-dead Democratic Party. It paid off. In the election of April 2009, the Democratic Party had received only 3 percent. A few months later, in July, with a new leader and a new message, the Democrats received 12.6 percent and 13 MPs. Just a month later, their votes in parliament threw the communists into opposition after eight years of government.

The trend continued. That December, another four communist MPs left the party. Then in 2011, Igor Dodon, Zinaida Greceanîi, and Veronica Abramciuc also left the Communist Party; Dodon and Greceanîi took over the leadership of Moldova’s Socialist Party. After a few months, their votes played a decisive role in electing the new president of Moldova, Nicolae Timofti.

In 2013, the liberals lost more than half of their parliamentarians when “reformists” within the party decided to support a new government led by the liberal democrat Iurie Leancă.

In sum, over a quarter of Moldovans are now misrepresented by their current parliament. That alone is cause for concern.

Tudor Deliu, parliamentary leader of Moldova’s Liberal Democrats, told me that this political corruption is dangerous for Moldova’s fragile democracy.

“The law doesn’t prohibit these steps. In the end, it’s up to the politician’s conscience,” says Deliu. He stresses the principle of imperative mandate, advising MPs that “if you don’t agree with your party’s line of politics anymore, just leave and give up your mandate.”

Deliu sees the Democratic Party as the main promoter of these defections, and not just in Moldova’s parliament. Mayoralties and district councils are affected too.

Others, such as Dumitru Diacov, take a more positive view. “It was bad for the parties [in question], but it good for the country. Their act of bravery saved our homeland,” stated the honorary leader of the Democratic Party during a recent talk show.

Ernest Vardanean sees this phenomenon as typical for Moldova, but adds that it has only recently prompted much outrage, describing the defections as nothing less than a betrayal of voters and an abuse of political responsibility. He adds that the longer term danger of political tourism is that it diminishes trust in political parties and the parliamentary system as a whole.

But with the “tourist group” now at 26 MPs, more than any political faction, what particularly disappoints Vardanean is that many do not believe they’ve done anything wrong.

Moldova’s parliament must make reforms, and in the current tense situation, the normal solution would be early parliamentary elections. In such a case, both the liberal democrats and liberals may have trouble overcoming the 6 percent barrier for entering parliament.

Whatever its slogan, a governing coalition that wins power through bought parliamentarians cannot be “pro-democratic.” The short-term political prize is outweighed by a longer-term and more damaging cost—the degradation of an already fragile democracy.

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Stefan Grigoriţa is a journalist from Moldova and political correspondent for Agora.md.

[Photo courtsey of Wikimedia Commons]

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