Whether the ruling Communists notch a third consecutive victory in this weekend's Moldovan parliamentary elections will depend largely on how the country's 630,000 pensioners vote.
The elderly voted en masse for the Communists in 2001, and then reelected them in 2005.
But regular indexations have failed to protect the value of pensions against inflation, and the Party of Communists of Moldova (PCRM) has failed over the past eight years to deliver on a promise to lift retirees out of poverty. Hence their discontent.
Paradoxically, the Communists' main message to pensioners in the run-up to the April 5 ballot remained that of the 2005 election campaign. They pride themselves on having paid retirement benefits regularly, in cash, and contrast their record with the massive arrears and in-kind payments that defined the 1990s, when their current political rivals were in power.
They have even sought to frighten pensioners with the specter of an indefinite disruption of pension payments should the liberals win.
Occasionally the ruling Communists concede that pension hikes have been modest, but they point to the serious challenges that Moldova has had to confront in the past eight years, including trade embargoes, natural disasters, and servicing its foreign debt, which severely limited resources for the needs of retirees.
As elsewhere, the global financial crisis has served as a rationale for authorities to justify modest increases, or even cuts, in social benefits.
Despite the pensions' pitfall, the PCRM has outperformed the opposition in terms of crafting a successful strategy for attracting the elderly vote. First, the chairwoman of the Veterans' Association of Moldova (AVRM), Alla Mironic, was placed 26th on PCRM electoral list, giving her a solid chance of reaching parliament. With around 600,000 members, Mironic's organization claims to represent most of the country's retirees. The AVRM has pursued close cooperation with state authorities to address pensioners' grievances and has thus enjoyed preferential treatment from the country's president, Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin.
Second, it appears the Communists took into account the legislatively mandated timing of the pension indexation, April 1, when setting the date for these parliamentary elections. A 20 percent ($12) pension hike that took effect on April 1 undoubtedly constitutes an attempt at winning aging voters' loyalty days before the crucial poll.
Instead of exposing the cynicism of the ruling party, opposition parties have simply joined in the competition to promise ever-higher pensions in exchange for the precious elderly vote.
For while the Communists have promised to raise all retirement benefits to the subsistence minimum over the next four years, former Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev, who now leads the smallish opposition Centrist Union of Moldova (UCM), has pledged monthly pensions of 300 euros if his party comes to power.
When Tarlev served as premier under Communist Party rule from 2001-08, the average monthly pension hovered around 30 euros, so a tenfold increase looks suspiciously like a bit of populist campaign excess. In addition, Tarlev has vowed to scrap plans to raise the retirement age by two years (to 57 for women and 62 for men), which he strongly supported as prime minister as part of reforming Moldova's social security system.
Seemingly obsessed with populist promises, electoral contestants have chosen to ignore the issue of the declining purchasing power of pensions. Data show that pensions kept lagging behind wages; while in 2001 the average pension was 33 percent of the average monthly salary, by 2009 it had fallen to around 20 percent.
Nor have politicians bothered to bring up the problem of the widening gap between the pensions of state dignitaries and those of ordinary citizens. A Moldovan parliament deputy, for instance, draws a pension seven times higher than the average.
Growing discontent has pushed pensioners to launch sustained street protests for the first time since 2000. Starting last summer, the NGO Salvgardare, which represents elderly people, has been organizing street protests every week against the miserably low pensions. Despite the Communist authorities' refusal to begin a dialogue with the protesters, the pensioners have nonetheless managed to alert society to their predicament.
Opposition politicians could have sought to translate that discontent into support for their parties by means of a persuasive electoral message. Unfortunately, they have proven either reluctant or unable to craft such a message thus far.
It was only a few days ago that the Communists' strongest political opponent, the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM), began airing a television advertisement in which two elderly ladies complain that their pensions do not cover even their basic medical expenses. Although released toward the end of the election campaign, the ad might prove more successful in attracting the pensioners' vote than the pension increase introduced by the ruling PCRM.
Ilian Casu is an independent political analyst based in Chisinau, Moldova. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL