Elections in Bălti: between justice and politics, between lawfulness and surprises. IPN debate

The scheduled run-off vote in the municipality of Bălți was preceded by surprises. This way, not long before the elections, the candidate of Șor Party Marina Tauber, who gained most of the votes in the first round of voting, was excluded from the electoral race. In the morning of the election day, the Central Election Commission decided to suspend the elections for two weeks. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations that oversee the elections in the Republic of Moldova approve of the CEC‘s decision in the created situation, saying the legal framework contains shortcomings regarding the organization and holding of the runoff vote. On the other hand, some of the political analysts consider a multitude of violations were committed in the decision-making process by CEC and by courts. The subject was discussed in a public debate at IPN titled “Elections in Bălti: between justice and politics, between lawfulness and surprises”.

According to Igor Boțan, the standing expert of IPN’s project, these elections were held to fill the vacant posts of mayor. The Electoral Code provides that CEC in spring and in autumn calls new elections. The elections are regulated by the Electoral Code, the Civil Code, the Administrative Code and other related laws. The Central Election Commission organizes the whole electoral process and is the main institution that has a series of powers. Among these powers are the coordination and holding of elections together with other institutions, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Public Services Agency, all the institutions that deal with complaints and challenges referring to elections.

The expert said a separate chapter of the Electoral Code stipulates how disputes are solved, while Article 73.5 says the program of courts of law is organized so as to examine all the challenges without delay, which is in the electoral period. Particularly before elections, the courts of law can have a special program. The events that are interpreted in a different way by parties, by the public opinion refer to the fact that CEC examined the challenges about the financing of the election campaign of Marina Tauber after the first round of voting was held and after the seven-day period during which the electoral contenders can be replaced expired. If this was withdrawn, the candidate could have been replaced so as to hold the second round of voting. This was one of the problems that were widely debated in society. Problems were also seen in the cooperation of the responsible bodies with CEC. These reacted late and created the impression of political interference in the organization and holding of the snap elections,  stated Igor Boțan.

CEC secretary Alexandr Berlinschii said the Commission on November 29 and 30 was notified of irregularities by electoral contenders and by the Bălți Police Inspectorate and on December 1 held a public meeting to examine the challenges and determined that Șor Party exceeded the highest spending limit allowed for the Bălți district electoral council, based on sales slips, statements of representatives of business entities. CEC ultimately decided to ask the court to exclude Șor Party’s candidate for such violations and the court accepted the request. In the morning of December 5, CEC received the Bălți Appeals Court’s decision that is enforceable and the stamp “withdrawn” was to be applied against the given candidate on the ballot. But the legislation provides that the runoff vote is held between two candidates and a contradiction appeared therefore.

CEC decided to suspend the runoff vote until an irrevocable court judgment was passed. If the Supreme Court of Justice had ruled differently and Șor Party’s candidate remained in the race, that would have been a really unprecedented situation. Later the same day, the Supreme Court took the final decision to remove the candidate. On December 6, CEC decided that the runoff vote with the next candidate on the list will be held in two weeks. The next candidates, Boris Marcoci and Alexandr Nesterovschi, refused to run. The Bălți district electoral council approved the text of the ballot and the runoff vote will now involve Nicolai Grigorishin and Nicolai Chirinciuc, who is the next candidate on the list, stated Alexandr Berlinschii.

Nicolae Panfil, head of the Election Observation Mission of Promo-LEX Association, said the Electoral Cede has shortcomings concerning the holding of the runoff vote and should be supplemented so as to exclude in the future situations similar to the snap elections in Bălți. In the opinions it stated earlier, the Association abided by the law. For example, there is an article saying that if a candidate is withdrawn, the next candidate takes the place of this and the stamp “withdrawn” is applied against this. However, in Bălți it wasn’t “withdrawal”, but “annulment of registration”. But the ballots were already printed and the citizens should have been allowed to vote. The court would have later pronounced on the election outcome.

Promo-LEX has monitored the financing of parties since 2013 and realizes rather well how this is done. Nicolae Panfil welcomed the pro-active approach shown by CEC in the recent period, in the new composition. He said such things should be appreciated and encouraged in the future. As a monitoring mission, Promo-LEX does not see a problem in the CEC’s decision if it is based on evidence and the electoral contender was excluded for not obeying the spending limits and all the courts confirmed this.

Political analyst Cornel Ciurea said he accepts that Article 75 of the Electoral Code allows removing a candidate from the competition for violations related to campaign funding, but he cannot accept such assertions that all the courts supported the CEC’s decision and the exclusion from the race can no longer be combated. The lawyers for Marina Tauber held a news conference and revealed a number irregularities related to the non-presentation of documents and others that they intend to challenge in court.

The decision can be yet disputed as we have an unreformed justice sector and the state institutions are also suspected of being politically controlled and of taking decisions in favor of candidates of the government or against candidates of the opposition. As to the legal side, there are serious suspicions about the objectiveness of CEC, the courts and the institutions that supervised this process, such as Promo-LEX that he considers has a controversial opinion as it criticizes and also supports given that CEC includes a former member of this Association.

Team leader Mihai Mogîldea, Europeanization Program, the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), said he is sure that the CEC members who adopted the decision to exclude Marina Tauber from the electoral competition and other decisions related to the elections in Bălți are upright. There was no political interference in this case. Unlike other cases of 2018, when the results of the elections were annulled, now such provisions are stipulated in the Electoral Code and CEC can pronounce on the observance or non-observance of these provisions. The electoral contenders risk being excluded from the completion and Șor Party’s candidate knew this. From this perspective, the legislation offers predictability.

He noted there are yet no provisions concerning the suspension of the runoff vote and CEC found itself in a difficult situation. The Electoral Code should be reformed and previsions regarding these aspects should be introduced.  But he considers CEC acted correctly in the given situation and used a plausible method for determining the period for holding the runoff and for anticipating eventual problems if the Supreme Court of Justice hadn’t upheld the decision of the Bălți Appeals Court.

The debate “Elections in Bălti: between justice and politics, between lawfulness and surprises” is the 217th debate of the series “Developing Political Culture thorough Public Debates”. The project is implemented by IPN with support from the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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