Local elections in Moldova have not typically attracted international attention, but the Russian war in Ukraine, Moldova having obtained a EU candidate status and the Russian efforts to destabilize Moldova has given the matter a geopolitical context with approximately 1,500 national and international observers present. The collective monitoring mission comprising the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (the Congress), and the European Parliament (EP) determined that the existing legal framework in Moldova provides a suitable foundation for conducting democratic elections. But are the results of the current local elections indicative of the progress in implementation of reforms?
Bittersweet election results
International media emphasizes that pro-Western powers win local elections. In a similar vein, PAS leadership concluded that this is the win of the pro-European message in the whole country. But reality does not paint such an optimistic picture. Although PAS garnered the most votes in 19 of the 32 raions during the council elections (eight more than in 2019), the party did not secure an outright majority in any of them. Additionally, PAS did not seal victory in the first round of mayoral races in any of the country's 11 largest cities with municipal status, not even in the capital. In the initial round of elections, Ion Ceban, the incumbent mayor of Chisinau and leader of the National Alternative Movement (MAN), an opposition party to the ruling pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), secured victory with 50.62% of the vote. His primary rival, Lilian Carp, backed by PAS, attained 28.23% of the vote. To put these results into perspective, let’s look back at the 2021 parliamentary elections when PAS secured 176,000 votes in Chisinau. However, in the recent local elections, Carp, received slightly over 74,000 votes. MAN also emerged victorious in the Chisinau city council elections, obtaining 33.1% of the vote. PAS trailed closely, securing 32.9%. Notably, the pro-Russian parties—the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (9.64%) and the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (4.46%)—claimed the third and fourth positions, respectively. As per some opinions, currently, the most notable achievements among the parties are credited to MAN, victorious in securing control of the capital city hall, and PSRM, emerging victorious in Soroca and with a candidate in the second round in Edineț.
Insights from monitoring reports
According to the most recent Promo-Lex election monitoring report, incidents during election day nearly doubled in comparison to the prior elections on October 20, 2019. The most frequent occurrences included: photographing ballots and other breaches of vote secrecy; unjustified group voting in booths; issues with electoral lists such as address discrepancies, deceased voters listed, and signatures replacing other individuals; disruptions in the filming process during polling station openings or ballot counting procedures; unauthorized individuals present within polling station premises or within 100 meters. A previous Promo-Lex report also raised concerns regarding the suspension of broadcasting licenses for six television media services by the Commission for Exceptional Situations (CES). This action, not mandated by the Parliament, represents the second instance of CES intervention in the organization and execution of elections without comprehensive explanations of the factual and legal basis justifying such restrictive measures.
The OSCE monitoring report also highlighted significant concerns and irregularities. Prime Minister Dorin Recean declared a ban on candidates affiliated with the pro-Russia Chance Party just two days before the election. Moldova's national intelligence agency released a report asserting that Russia seeks to influence the electoral process through this party. According to OSCE, the last-minute ban was imposed on all 8,605 candidates nominated by one party, contradicting commitments set by OSCE states and international democratic election standards.
Nonetheless, OSCE observers noted widespread and credible allegations of illegal fund usage for vote buying, allegedly tied to the leader of a dissolved party. Furthermore, foreign private sponsorship reportedly financed local infrastructure projects in specific districts. Specifically, on August 18, Mr. Şor unveiled the Moldovan Village program, aiming to allocate MDL 17 billion through his My Dream fund. Each locality was promised MDL 20 million upon submission of an application form by the respective mayors. Additionally, on October 2, Mr. Şor extended a monthly pension supplement of MDL 1,000 from his personal funds to pensioners in Gagauzia, Orhei, and Taraclia. During the same period, authorities in Biesti and Donici communes (Orhei Districts) entered sponsorship agreements with an Israeli citizen, Igal Shved, each surpassing EUR 500,000. Furthermore, in Joltai village, a contract dated September 27, 2023, surpasses EUR 100,000.
The report also raised concerns regarding the parliament's actions on salary increments for public servants and bonuses for educators and police. On October 5, the parliament revised the state budget, allocating MDL 846,900,000 (approximately EUR 44,631,630) for salary hikes for 170,000 public servants, including those in health, culture, and judicial sectors. Teachers and the police were slated to receive a one-time bonus of MDL 5,000 (approximately 263 EUR). This is blurring the boundary between party activities and state affairs. Additionally, the ODIHR observers detected incumbent candidates attributing publicly funded infrastructure projects to their own accomplishments and a few instances of reported pressure on candidates were noted by interlocutors speaking to the ODIHR observers.
Towards European integration?
Three days after local elections took place, the European Commission has approved the 2023 Enlargement Package, offering a comprehensive evaluation of Moldova's progress of implementation of reforms. This report primarily highlights the advancements in implementing crucial reforms and provides clear directives for upcoming reform priorities. In light of Ukraine and Moldova's accomplishments and their ongoing commitment to reforms, the Commission has recommended that the European Council initiates accession negotiations with both countries. The report underscores that Moldova has completed step 2, having adopted the electoral code in 2022, a collaborative effort involving the OSCE/ODIHR and the Venice Commission. It looks like the country has addressed identified deficiencies across various areas outlined by OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe/the Venice Commission in relation to the electoral process.
Drawing from the insights of the monitoring reports, it's evident that merely establishing a legal framework isn't enough to drive reforms and sustain Moldova's trajectory toward European integration. The strength of institutions supersedes individual politicians in driving reforms as their durability and resilience are pivotal. This necessitates a steady consolidation, ongoing institutional continuity, and protection from political interference. Moreover, the intricate process of European integration carries costs for the country, requiring capable human resources in the public sector, competitive national companies, and a robust economy that can offer attractive salaries to prevent brain drain. The outcomes of elections from local in 2023 to presidential in 2024 and parliamentary in 2025 could notably bolster Moldova’s prospects for accession, contingent upon sustained political will and public support. The irreversible nature of the European integration process underscores the importance of consistent governance; a shift to a pro-Russian party, for instance, could potentially undo the progress achieved. Yet, the recent local election results signal the necessity for the government to prioritize citizens' needs. It's crucial to invest in efforts that enhance public understanding of the true implications of the European project, demonstrating its relevance in addressing local challenges without succumbing to external pressures.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.