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'Orange' Hue? Moldovan Mayoral Chaos Could Loom Large Over National Vote

Anticorruption campaigner Andrei Nastase had won more than half of the votes in Chisinau's mayoral election, but the poll was annulled by the courts.
Anticorruption campaigner Andrei Nastase had won more than half of the votes in Chisinau's mayoral election, but the poll was annulled by the courts.

Recent court decisions invalidating mayoral elections in the capital appear to have dealt another blow to Moldova's democratic development.

They may also hint at problems to come with a parliamentary vote just months away.

The June 3 runoff election in Chisinau gave Andrei Nastase, a former prosecutor and relative political newcomer who campaigned on a pro-Western program, more than half the vote to defeat Socialist Party candidate Ion Ceban, who favors closer relations with Russia. The Socialists are controlled by pro-Russian President Igor Dodon.

But a lower court threw out the results, citing both candidates' illegal use of social-media communications and its effect on the race. On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld that ruling, sparking street protests and condemnation from the West.

Moldovans Protest Mayoral Vote Annulment
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Under Moldovan law, the Supreme Court's ruling cannot be appealed.

The scandal plunges Moldova back into turmoil. It suffered through a $1 billion banking fraud in 2015 that nearly bankrupted the country, as well as the collapse of successive governments and frequent squabbling between the president and the government.

Trial Run?

While Prime Minister Pavel Filip has suggested that the court's ruling was flawed and that any effort by him to sway its decision would be seen as political interference, the affair has dealt a blow to Moldova's democracy and fueled concern that it might be a prelude to interference in parliamentary elections that must be called by November.

"I was on the ground during the Orange Revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine, and remember how the ruling parties there tried to steal the mayoral election in Mukachevo, a city in western Ukraine, in the spring of 2004," says John E. Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

"It was a trial run for their efforts to steal the presidential election that fall. L'Affaire Chisinau has a similar odor in light of this fall's parliamentary elections in Moldova," he adds.

Nastase, who helped found the Dignity and Truth Platform party two years ago amid demands for greater official transparency and accountability, has said that neither he nor Ceban campaigned about their political platforms on election day, saying they had merely used social media to urge voters to go out and cast their ballots.

Critics of the high court's ruling say other European courts have found that such calls do not constitute illegal campaigning.

The Chisinau election was called after the resignation of Dorin Chirtoaca, who spent a decade as mayor before his suspension in connection with corruption charges that are still pending.

Moldovan politician and media tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc (file photo)
Moldovan politician and media tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc (file photo)

With Nastase's victory invalidated, interim Mayor Ruslan Codreanu*, a member of a junior ruling coalition party, is expected to continue to serve in that post, with new elections in 2019.

Cristian Preda, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, has called for "a tough institutional response" from the European Union over the matter, which he says points to an alliance between Dodon and Vlad Plahotnuic, a controversial businessman who heads the ruling Democratic Party, to usurp democracy in Moldova.

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has been moving toward the EU though an Association Agreement that took effect in 2016.

'Toxic Couple'

But the partnership has struggled lately, with the bloc late last year canceling the disbursement of a $33 million slice of loans to support Moldova's justice system because "the Moldovan authorities showed insufficient commitment to reforming the justice sector."

"This toxic couple wants to make Moldova a second Belarus. Scandalous! I will take steps in the [European Parliament] for a tough institutional response from Brussels," Preda said on June 20.

Russia, which still maintains hundreds of troops in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region despite a UN call for withdrawal, has seized on Dodon's pro-Moscow leanings and otherwise exerted pressure to discourage Chisinau's budding relations with Western institutions.

Paul Ivan, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center (EPC) in Brussels, calls the court decision annulling the Chisinau mayoral vote an "unexpected" move that brings "black clouds" over the upcoming elections in a country that until now was one of the few former Soviet republics where all transfers of power had taken place democratically.

"I wouldn't venture to make predictions about what will happen in the elections but what happened now is certainly a bad omen," he tells RFE/RL.

"The unexpected decisions taken by the courts are very worrying for Moldova's democracy and political stability, its rule of law, and European integration. Besides annulling the vote of the citizens, it reinforces the already serious doubts about the independence of the judiciary in the country," he adds.

However, Ivan also says there's a chance the court decision may help strengthen opposition leaders in the run-up to a general election. "Internally, it might also backfire through an increase in support for the opposition, but that remains to be seen in the next months," he says.

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the current, interim mayor. He is Ruslan Codreanu. We regret the error.

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