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What's Next For Moldova?

Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon was one of those who benefited from a renewed desire among Moldovan voters for change.
Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon was one of those who benefited from a renewed desire among Moldovan voters for change.

Often it is easier to draw lessons from an election defeat than from a narrow victory.

Moldova's pro-European ruling coalition has entered into talks to reassemble itself following the country's November 30 legislative elections, in which the three right-liberal parties won an estimated 54 mandates in the 101-seat parliament. But leaders must reckon with the fact that their parties polled significantly weaker than in 2009 -- while the openly pro-Russian Socialist Party emerged as the strongest single party with a surprising 20.93 percent of the vote.

In addition, turnout for the crucial election was just 56 percent, despite the clear choice offered between parties advocating the pursuit of European Union membership and those insisting on closer ties with Russia and the Moscow-led Customs Union. Many of the no-shows were disenchanted former supporters of the West-leaning coalition.

Political analyst Nicu Popescu of the European Union's Institute for Security Studies says voters continue to vote for change, just as they did in 2009 when disenchantment with the Communist Party and former President Vladimir Voronin led to the victory of the rightist parties. This time around, the new faces were Socialist leader Igor Dodon and businessman Renato Usatii, whose pro-Russian Patria party was banned for alleged campaign finance violations on the eve of the vote.

"The Moldovan electorate wanted change in 2009-10 and voted for the center-right, and they again wanted change in 2014," Popescu says. "But this time, change was embodied by Dodon and Usatii because they are the political players who presented new faces, a message with something new. This time, the desire for change came at the expense of the center-right forces."

Most likely, the three pro-Western parties -- the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party -- will be able to reform their coalition and continue Moldova's European-integration course. However, the current negotiations, which feature the return of former parliament speaker Mihai Ghimpu's Liberal Party to the government after it withdrew in 2013, will not necessarily be easy, says Moldovan analyst and journalist Vasile Botnaru.

Liberal Party Mihai Ghimpu
Liberal Party Mihai Ghimpu

"There is a big fight ahead of them and negotiations on the division of portfolios," Botnaru says. "They will be conciliatory but, on the other hand, tensions will be high. Liberal leader Ghimpu, who was excluded or withdrew from the ruling alliance, is now coming back 'on a white horse' and will likely make some very strict demands. Each of the pro-European parties knows that, without it, a ruling coalition is not possible -- so there will be some long and complicated negotiations ahead."

But analysts say the new government will need to be careful about alienating Moldova's Russian speakers.

It is "perfectly normal" that many Moldovans fear economic dislocation from closer ties with Europe, says Romanian political analyst Sorin Ionita. This is particularly true in the light of threats from Moscow that migrant workers in Russia could be sent home.

"I think the government and the pro-EU coalition will be able to speak to these people and to draw them over to their side," Ionita says. "I think this is the big challenge for Moldova -- to develop a sense of belonging to Europe, including among Russian-speaking Moldovan citizens."

Businessman Renato Usatii
Businessman Renato Usatii

This task, however, will be made more difficult by the strong showing of Dodon's Socialist Party and the solid leftist opposition bloc that is likely to form in the new parliament. Communist Party leader Voronin, whose party came in third with 17.85 percent of the vote, made clear on December 2 that he will not cooperate with the pro-European parties.

"There can be no compromise between the executioner and the victim," he said during a Chisinau press conference. "We will work with the opposition."

Dodon, for his part, has said he intends to form an opposition that will make "the European integrationists shake with fear." His first order of business, he said, will be to introduce a bill canceling Moldova's Association Agreement with the European Union.

Dodon was endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and received heavy support during the campaign from Russian state television.

One tactic of the bolstered opposition could likely be formal and informal challenges to the November 30 election results. Chisinau-based political analyst Igor Botan notes that Moldova remains a country nearly evenly divided between two mutually exclusive orientations -- pro-European and pro-Russian.

"Those advocating the Eurasian vector remained [after the elections] with the feeling that their will was simply ignored," Botan says.

Russia stands ready to exploit this sentiment, Botan notes.

"Russia has threatened not to recognize the legitimacy of the new government in Chisinau," he says. "Whether it will or not, we don't know. But I think the Russian Federation will work closely with the Moldovan diaspora through Usatii and push for, God forbid, early elections."

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin questioned the legitimacy of the elections, saying on his Twitter account that "700,000" Moldovans living in Russia were denied the right to vote, as were the supporters of the disqualified Patria party and, he added, 500,000 voters in the Russia-supported breakaway region of Transdniester, which did not participate in the elections.

Russian state television, which is viewed throughout Moldova, headlined its December 1 story on the vote "Supporters of the Customs Union Win In Moldova Elections" -- ignoring the fact that the pro-Western forces won the most seats. The piece also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the pro-Western coalition the latest elections are likely to produce.

A Vesti reporter in Chisinau said the vote was "one of Moldova's most scandalous," but that "Moldova has made its choice. Citizens have consciously preferred a course toward closer relations with Russia and now it is unlikely they will allow the politicians to play at making coalitions according to some other rules."

Viewers of such coverage could be excused for being surprised if the pro-Western coalitions are able to renew their alliance and form another government.

A significant challenge lying ahead will be the 2016 presidential election. Under the Moldovan Constitution, the president is elected by the parliament and must receive a supermajority of 61 lawmakers. Neither the pro-Western parties nor the pro-Russian ones have that many votes, meaning the next presidential election could be as difficult as the last one, which saw the country headed by an acting president for 900 days and required repeated votes between 2009 and 2012.

A failure to elect a president could force early parliamentary elections.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Moldovan and Russian services

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