CHISINAU -- Dozens of protesters rallied outside city hall in the latest demonstration following a Supreme Court decision that threw out the results of this month’s mayoral election in the Moldovan capital.
The June 26 rally was smaller than the previous day, when larger crowds had heeded calls from Andrei Nastase, the winner of the runoff election, to protest the court’s ruling.
Protesters chanted "Down with the dictatorship," "Down with the mafia," and "We will not retreat” outside Chisinau’s city hall. Police blocked one of the main avenues even after the end of the protest.
The high court’s decision on June 25 was quickly met with criticism from the United States and the European Union. In Washington, Moldova’s visiting prime minister faced warnings from the U.S. State Department about political interference in local elections.
In the June 3 runoff election, Nastase, a pro-Western anticorruption activist, won 52.5 percent of the vote, enough to defeat Socialist Party candidate Ion Ceban, who favors closer relations with Russia.
But a court on June 19 voided the results, saying both candidates had used social media to call on voters to turn out to vote on election day. The court said that constitute illegal campaigning, and an appeals court upheld the ruling on June 21.
On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld the appeal court decision, ruling that social media communications with voters illegally affected the outcome of the race. The ruling is final and the mayoral post will be filled by an acting mayor until the next election in 2019, according to Moldovan law.
Nastase insisted that neither he nor Ceban campaigned about their political platforms on election day, saying they had merely called on voters to go out and cast their ballots. Critics of the high court’s ruling said other European courts had found that calling on voters to turn out does not constitute illegal campaigning.
Speaking in Washington at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip suggested that the court’s ruling was flawed but said any effort by him to sway its decision would be seen as political interference.
He also said that his government was likely to suffer directly from the ruling, if the European Union withholds a planned installment of financing for the country in response, and that opposition parties were likely to use the ruling against the governing coalition in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Filip said his government planned on pursuing “necessary corrective measures in the legal framework, related to the judicial sector, to make sure that once people express their vote, and elections are fair and transparent, no one will have the possibility to intervene, for the court not to be able to intervene in any way.”
Both the United States and the European Union have criticized the Supreme Court's decision.
In a strongly worded statement posted on Facebook on June 25, the U.S. Embassy to Chisinau said that the ruling "has reinforced the public's perception of political interference in the judiciary of the Republic of Moldova.
"Any alleged irregularities should be addressed in a way that respects the rule of law and democratic principles of government, including the will of the people as expressed through elections," the statement said.
At a meeting in Washington on June 25, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Filip that elections "must reflect the will of the country's citizens without political interference."
Pompeo "pledged continued U.S. support for Moldova's chosen European future and urged implementation of key reforms to protect Moldova against outside interference and advance its European integration," according to a statement.
The EU envoy to Moldova, Peter Michalko, said in a Facebook post that he was "extremely disappointed" by the decision.
"The will of the people expressed in free and fair elections, democratic values, principles of rule of law to which the Republic of Moldova committed in its relations with the EU, have not been respected," he wrote.
Nastase, 42, was one of the organizers of large-scale anticorruption protests in 2015 that were fueled by anger over the disappearance of $1 billion from the Moldovan banking system.
His Dignity and Truth Platform and the Party of Action and Solidarity have agreed to work together to select candidates for the next parliamentary elections, later this year.
The reputation of the Democratic Party, which is the main force in the pro-Western governing coalition, has been marred by accusations of corruption.
They are led by controversial tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc, who has been accused by Nastase and other critics of controlling many Moldovan institutions, including the judiciary. Nastase has repeatedly accused Plahotniuc of putting pressure on the judiciary to invalidate his June 3 runoff victory.
Plahotniuc also criticized the court decision.
"The decision to invalidate the election is becoming an extremely dangerous precedent for all parties, including the PDM, since it cannot be ruled out that the situation could be repeated for us as well at the upcoming parliamentary elections," he told the online newspaper Timpul on June 26.
The Socialists, a splinter from former President Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party, propelled Igor Dodon, a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the presidency in a 2016 election. His campaign capitalized on a wave of nostalgia for what many in Europe's poorest country perceive as the more prosperous Soviet era.