January 14, 2016

Plahotniuc Reshuffles Moldova’s Parliament, Claims Prime Minister’s Post

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Moldova’s wealthiest businessman and shadowy politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc, finally stepped into the limelight on January 13 and announced his candidacy for the post of prime minister (Unimedia, IPN, January 13). Almost overnight, he assembled a heterogeneous collection of satellite parties and splinter factions to ensure parliamentary confirmation of a Plahotniuc-led government.

The prime minister’s post, long held by the Liberal-Democrat Party, is vacant since October, when Plahotniuc’s party and its allies had prime minister Valeriu Strelet removed and his predecessor Vlad Filat jailed.

With key positions in the judiciary and law enforcement already controlled by his appointees, Plahotniuc has now come up with a legislative majority, as a base from which to take over the executive power. Accomplishing this third step would completely destroy the separation of powers in the state, bringing Moldova’s showcase “European orientation” to an abrupt end.

Moldova’s presidential institution is weak by constitutional design. President Nicolae Timofti was expected to forward Plahotniuc’s candidacy as prime minister for approval by the parliamentary majority, provided that this majority was “formally constituted” and committed to a specific candidate for the prime minister’s post. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party concocted this parliamentary majority in two quick moves, on December 21 and January 11: first move on the left, next move on the right. The party’s figurehead leader, Marian Lupu, acted as negotiator in both stages.

Until December 2015, the Democratic Party held only 19 seats in the 101-member parliament. Informally, however, it controlled or influenced many additional deputies, individually or in groups. This led to widespread assumptions in Chisinau that “kompromat” (judicial dossiers) and “borsetka” (cash briefcase)—that post-Soviet combination of threats and incentives—was at work. In order to claim the prime minister’s post, however, the Democratic Party had to muster its parliamentary allies into an outright majority of at least 51 deputies, and institutionalize that majority.

All the way to January 13, the Democratic Party’s propaganda encouraged speculation over three possible nominees for prime minister: Plahotniuc, Lupu, or Parliament Chairman Andrian Candu. The party emphasized the latter two possibilities, mindful of Plahotniuc’s deeply negative image domestically and internationally; but nevertheless, the party seemed to condition the public to the possibility of Plahotniuc being ultimately nominated.

Those bandwagoning with the Democratic Party were willing to accept any of those three possible nominees for prime minister, and not only for prospective material rewards. The fellow-travelers were anxious to avoid pre-term parliamentary elections. Under the Constitution (as currently interpreted), the head of state must dissolve the parliament and call new elections, if parliament fails to approve the government by the deadline of January 14. Communists, Liberals, and some of the Liberal-Democrats were certain of defeat in any pre-term elections, and therefore anxious to avoid the legislature’s dissolution. These groups, wholly or in part, banded together into a government-forming majority under the Democratic Party’s control.

It is indicative of the extent of the Democratic Party’s dominance that no negotiations were held over posts in a new government. No negotiations were held in a coalition format either. The Democratic Party—mainly Lupu fronting for Plahotniuc—talked with each group on a bilateral basis. Each group promised to support any Democratic Party nominee for prime minister. And they agreed to discuss government posts only after this new majority would have endorsed that prime minister and the head of state would have officially mandated him.

On December 21, Plahotniuc announced that 14 Communist parliamentary deputies (out of that party’s 21) would join the Democratic Party in a “Social-Democrat Platform for Moldova,” for common actions in the parliament. In a founding statement on December 24, the two groups described the Platform as the nucleus of an evolving parliamentary majority, specifically to nominate a prime minister and ensure parliamentary approval of the new government. With this, Plahotniuc’s party could officially control 34 parliamentary seats (20 Democrats and 14 Communist defectors) out of 101 parliamentary seats. This move was not surprising as such; only its creative shape came as a surprise. The two parties had been discussing a possible merger for some time, to provide life support for the Communist Party and harness its votes behind the Democratic Party. Seven Communist deputies, including the party’s leader and former head of state, Vladimir Voronin, did not go for this deal, but neither did they condemn it (Infotag, Unimedia, December 21–25, 2015).

On January 10, Mihai Ghimpu’s Liberal Party announced that it would support any Democratic Party nominee for prime minister. This move was not a surprise either. The Liberals had acted all along as the Democratic Party’s ally against the Liberal-Democrats in the nominal coalition government (which is formally still in office). However, the “right-wing” Liberal leaders feared a backlash from their own voters, if the party joined forces with the Communist Party in a Plahotniuc-sponsored alliance. As soon as this Communist group was re-branded as Social-Democrat, however, the Liberal leaders felt somewhat at ease to join that parliamentary bloc. This move added 13 votes, for a total of 47 to support the Democratic Party’s nominee as prime minister. Two additional, “unaffiliated” deputies increased that number to 49, two short of the 51 necessary in the 101-seat chamber (Unimedia, Agora, January 9–13).

The bandwagon effect finally broke up the Liberal-Democrat Party, Plahotniuc’s main target all along. On January 11, seven deputies from this party announced that they would endorse “any” Democratic Party nominee for prime minister. This move left the Liberal-Democrat group under Strelet with only 12 parliamentary seats, including that of the imprisoned Filat. The defectors aimed (like all the other elements in this new majority) to avoid pre-term elections and preserve their seats. But they also hoped to “negotiate” some rewards for their last-minute move, which lifted Plahotniuc’s bloc to 56, surpassing the simple majority of 51 (Ziarul National, Infotag, January 10–13).

Given his predilection for operating covertly, Plahotniuc had generally been expected to designate a proxy as prime minister for a transitional period; a better educated frontman, one who could at least converse with the West. Plahotniuc’s decision to step forward himself, however, indicated a surge of confidence in a smooth takeover of power. It also conveyed a bluff-type threat to ignore the West, if the latter would opposed, or interfered with, Plahotniuc’s takeover of power.

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