In two months, on April 5, Moldova is to elect a new parliament, which in turn will name a new president. After two consecutive four-year terms, incumbent President Vladimir Voronin, a 67-year-old veteran Communist, is seeking to remain in power, whatever it takes.
Some 2.4 million registered voters have the opportunity to elect the new 101-mandate parliament. The entire country is considered a single electoral district, within which the deputies are elected under a proportional system. Only those parties that poll at least 6 percent of the vote will qualify for parliamentary representation.
The fundamental question in these elections is whether the Communist Party and its leader will succeed in retaining power by engineering the election of their representatives to all three top vacant positions.
First, the new parliament must elect a speaker by a simple majority vote. Then the new president must be endorsed by no fewer than three-fifths of the 61 deputies. The president, in turn, names his candidate for prime minister, who must also receive parliamentary approval.
Moldova's constitution does not in fact permit Voronin to run for a third presidential term, but he is convinced that he will manage to retain control of the country. He could have himself elected parliament speaker, or prime minister, or become the leader of the majority parliament faction.
"Whatever I undertake after the elections, I will remain at the heart of everything that happens in the country. Whether I remain a rank and file parliament deputy or serve in some other capacity is for the party to decide," he has said. He is fond of repeating that he sees himself in the role of a Moldovan Deng Xiao-Ping after he vacates the presidential palace.
The post of parliament speaker would seem to be the most advantageous for Voronin, as it is an extremely influential position in Moldova's parliamentary republic. The speaker can be removed only by a two-thirds majority vote, and he has sweeping powers to control both the legislative process and the executive branch.
In addition, the speaker's personal immunity from prosecution is guaranteed, which is important to Voronin insofar as the opposition has accused him of corruption and usurping power. Moldova's Contradictory Interests
Voronin came to power in 2001 on the basis of his pro-Russian slogans and his promises of a swift solution to the Transdniester conflict. But in late 2003 he refused to sign a Moscow-drafted plan (the so-called Kozak memorandum) for the federalization of Moldova, to which Russia responded by imposing an embargo on imports of Moldovan wine and by raising the price of natural gas.
Voronin then proclaimed that Moldova would be strategically oriented toward integration with the European Union, but at the same time he sought, and achieved, a reconciliation with Moscow. His favorite slogan to describe Moldova's foreign policy then became the "multi-vector" strategy: "Moldova will orient itself as its interests dictate."
Voronin declares that "Moldova's choice of European integration is irreversible," adding the proviso that "we do not conceive of European integration as a friendship directed against any other state, as a distorted attempt to fence ourselves off from Russia and the other CIS states by a new artificial 'Iron Curtain.'"
Voronin seeks to reconcile opposites both in domestic politics and foreign policy. Three times a year, on the anniversaries of the October Revolution in 1917 and the birth and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, he lays a wreath at the Lenin monument in Chisinau. But he is also considered the most enthusiastic promoter of the restoration of Orthodox churches, and regularly attends mass. He was the sole foreign leader to attend the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill in Moscow on February 1.
Voronin speaks with pride of Moldova's "success in liberalizing the economy," and of how "Moldova is coping with the crisis better than other countries." But Moldova remains the poorest country in Europe, with the lowest wages and pensions, and its economy is kept afloat by remittances from hundreds of thousands of its citizens working abroad.
Critics of the Communists' economic "success" quip that Moldova's apparent stability is that of a cemetery, and "no one dies in a cemetery."
In the run-up to the April ballot, Voronin has spoken with annoyance of "intensified efforts by Romania to influence the election campaign," and he is clearly banking on Moscow's support. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to visit Chisinau in early February, and there is talk of a new meeting in March between Voronin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the Transdniester issue. This suggests that Moscow is trying to help Voronin mobilize pro-Russian voters.Undecided Public
Several opinion polls conducted late last year yielded very similar predictions of the outcome of the elections. Up to half the total number of respondents said they have not yet decided who to vote for. The Communist Party can count on 23 to 30 percent of the vote, while three opposition parties are likely to garner the minimum 6 percent required to win parliamentary representation. Other opposition parties have no more than 3 percent support.
The opposition criticizes Voronin for having "usurped power" and for acting like a dictator. Its members calls for closer ties with Romania and the EU, and in contrast to the Communists, who point to the fact that Moldova's neutrality is written into the constitution, they do not rule out the possibility of NATO membership.
The opposition hopes that April 5 will become "the day of national liberation from communism." But Voronin has no intention of ceding power without a struggle, and that struggle looks to be a close-fought one in which just a few percentage points will determine the outcome.
If the Communists are unlikely to encounter any problems in mustering the 52 percent of the vote needed to elect a new speaker and endorse the new cabinet, neither the Communists nor the opposition have much chance of securing on their own the 61 votes required to elect the new president.
It is clear that a coalition will have to be formed in order to do so, and equally clear that forming that coalition will entail agreement on allocating all other top parliament and cabinet posts. This may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for the new legislature, in which the Communists and the opposition are likely to hold a more or less equal number of seats.
In that case, Moldova would face a constitutional crisis. If the parliament does not manage to elect a new president at the third attempt, it must be dissolved and pre-term elections scheduled. Dumitru Ciubasenco is editor in chief of the Russian-language newspaper "Moldavskie vedomosti."