January 15, 2016

Moldova: President Versus Plutocrat

Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti adresses journalists ina jonit press conference with Romanian counterpart at the Cotroceni palace, the Romanian Presidency headquarters, on May 3, 2012.
Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti adresses journalists ina jonit press conference with Romanian counterpart at the Cotroceni palace, the Romanian Presidency headquarters, on May 3, 2012.

Moldova’s presidency remains the last institutional obstacle to a full takeover of power by the country’s wealthiest businessman, Vladimir Plahotniuc, and his entourage. The latter controls key positions in the judiciary and law enforcement, took over control of the parliament recently, subduing or breaking up other parties there (see below), and now claims the prime minister’s post. Plahotniuc became the nominee of a controlled parliamentary majority for the new head of government.

Even as that controlled majority was taking shape, the Constitutional Court ruled that the head of state must accept that majority’s nominee (who was likely to be Plahotniuc) for prime minister. That move was designed and timed to force President Nicolae Timofti’s hand. The ruling overturned the Constitution’s actual text, which entitles the head of state at his discretion to nominate the candidate for prime minister after “consulting” the parliamentary parties.

Moldova’s presidential institution is weak by constitutional design, and President Timofti had seemed resigned to a figurehead’s role during his almost four years in office. Yet with only two months remaining in his presidential term, Timofti has risen to the occasion: on January 14, he refused to forward to the parliament Plahotniuc’s nomination as prime minister, effectively blocking that nomination. Alluding to widespread concerns over Plahotniuc’s shadowy operations, Timofti requested the parliamentary parties (not the purported majority) to nominate a prime minister–candidate who would meet the criteria of moral reputation and integrity (Unimedia, IPN, January 14).

Chisinau’s pro-Western circles, are wholeheartedly on Timofti’s side. They regard the presidency as a “last redoubt” in the way of an “oligarchic” subjugation of the state (Ziarul National, January 14). No other internal or European redoubt is in sight in Moldova. The only pro-Western parliamentary party, the Liberal-Democrats, seem to be breaking up under the pressure.

Timofti’s move has dealt an unprecedented setback to Plahotniuc’s seemingly irresistible rise to political hegemony. Although the setback is tactical and probably temporary, it encourages other circles to rally, albeit outside the institutional framework of the state. The state as such seems to be succumbing, institution after institution, to interest groups associated with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, the emergent “party of power.”

The Democratic Party announced today that it has withdrawn Plahotniuc’s nomination and substituted that of Pavel Filip, a member of Plahotniuc’s inner circle, for the prime minister’s post (Unimedia, January 15).

Filip is the incumbent minister of information technology and communications since 2011, nominated by Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party to that post. Never a public figure until now, Filip made a rare public appearance on January 13 at Plahotniuc’s side, when Plahotniuc’s nomination for prime minister was first revealed to the people. As Plahotniuc stood on the steps of Chisinau’s Opera House to greet bused-in supporters, he was flanked by three of his closest political associates, including Filip.

The political and governmental crisis overlaps with a constitutional crisis. Debates in Moldova and in interested European circles typically focus on legal technicalities and short-term tactical developments, distracting attention from the deeper problems. Yet the former need to be clarified before tackling the latter.

The prime minister’s post is vacant, and the government an interim one, since October 29, when the coalition government under Liberal-Democrat prime minister Valeriu Strelet was ousted by a joint parliamentary vote of the Democratic, Communist and Socialist parties. Under the Constitution (which stipulates fixed time-tables for handling institutional vacancies), a nominee for prime minister had to be nominated and presented to the legislature by January 14 at the latest; and the nominee must present the new government for parliamentary approval by January 29. Missing either deadline would trigger the dissolution of the parliament and new elections.

Scrambling to meet the January 14 deadline, Timofti nominated the chief of staff of the presidential office, Ion Paduraru, as prime minister–candidate, near midnight on January 14. The next morning, however, the controlled parliamentary majority came up with the Filip nomination. President Timofti, bound by the Constitutional Court’s ruling (see above), accepted the new nomination. The controlled parliamentary majority seems likely to ensure the approval of a Filip-led government, with a larger share of Democratic Party ministers, by the January 29 deadline.

Between December 21 and January 11, Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party (itself holding only 19 parliamentary seats) had assembled a controlled parliamentary majority of 56 out of 101 seats in the parliament, for the declared goal of nominating a prime minister from the Democratic Party (that majority counts 55 as of today—Infotag, January 15).

It would be a mistake to regard this majority as being driven by Plahotniuc’s interests only (or those of the Democratic Party) and, for this reason, as a fragile conglomerate (Radio Free Europe, January 14, 15). This majority, however, also answers to the interests of the groups that bandwagoned with it. It will give them a share of the spoils of governance from the hands of the hegemon party, at least until the next parliamentary elections. This majority is, basically, a status quo–oriented majority (an additional factor of durability). Nevertheless, pre-term elections seem likely, their timing to be determined, on one hand, by the Democratic Party in parliament and on the other hand by the pro-Western opposition parties now emerging outside parliament.

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