The European alternative of Mayor Ion Ceban. Op-Ed by Victor Pelin


“The MAN project is mainly directed against the PAS government, and therefore it could be of great use to the current parliamentary opposition. However, the announced plea in favor of European integration shows that the leaders of MAN understand that Moldova’s future next to a Putinist and aggressive Russia is not a desired outlook for most Moldovans. Still, MAN’s purported European integration endeavor somewhat echoes the idea professed by the Moldovan Communist Party, where European integration only means European modernization, rather than full EU accession...”
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An alternative to the alternative

Generally, the Moldovan political landscape experiences a constant, albeit unruffled development. However, once in a while it’s being rocked by major, impactful events. Recently, on August 23, an event occurred that cannot be ignored: Mayor Ion Ceban of Chisinau announced the National Alternative Movement (MAN) Party. The announcement attracted widespread public attention also because Ion Ceban’s approval ratings as a mayor are constantly rising. It’s not uncommon for mayors of capital cities to start successful political projects. And Moldova isn’t an exception: Serafim Urechean and Dorin Chirtoacă confirmed that the Chisinau City Hall can be an excellent launchpad for national political projects. So, it won’t be surprising if Ion Ceban’s own project turns out a national success as well, especially since, as its predecessors, it identifies itself as an alternative to the current government.

It must be noted that Mayor Ceban announced his intention to launch the MAN as early as in December 2021, about five months after the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) came to power. The latter presented itself as an alternative to the oligarchy that had captured state institutions. Now, the mayor’s project is conceived as an alternative to the PAS alternative: “Everyone is waiting for an alternative that can unite us all, that can build a future, take care of the people and put their interests first. An alternative of a job well done, not one of forgotten promises, empty talk and cheap shows. I care about what happens around. Today I am launching the National Alternative Movement. The idea belongs to me, and my team stands by me”. And Mayor Ceban has a quite lot of criticism to level at the PAS government: “What do we the people get to reap today? Rising gas, fuel and food prices? Salary raises for judges, MPs and ministers? Wasted speeches for the people? Vaccination campaigns out in the field? An inflated bureaucratic system? A ruined economy and thriving illicit schemes? The list can go on, while the people’s frustration is bottomless”.

So now the PAS government is fiercely contested not only by the parliamentary opposition of the Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BCS), but also by Mayor Ceban. Obviously, his departure from the Socialist Party (PSRM) earlier suggests that the MAN would also be an alternative to the BCS, trying to attract a part of its disappointed electorate. Of course, Ion Ceban had good reason to distance himself from his former PSRM colleagues, who lost to the PAS the November 2020 presidential election and then the parliamentary election of July 2021. PSRM’s defeats are attributed to its former leader Igor Dodon, who has become some sort of an embodiment of corruption and who is currently prosecuted on a number of serious charges, including accepting illegal financing for his party from a criminal group, unjust enrichment, high treason and abuse of office. With such baggage, the PSRM’s prospects remain uncertain and bleak anyway.

The timing

While Mayor Ceban avant-premiered his MAN project back in December 2021, he seemed hesitant about developing it further. Weeks after the announcement, Ion Ceban was still not ready to give a clear answer about MAN’s future status– will the movement become an informal opposition platform against the PAS or will it evolve into a distinct political party? Around that time, the Shor Party announced its own National Salvation Front (FSN) project, which later received endorsement from PSRM leader Igor Dodon: “We call on other left-wing forces to cooperate in the face of a common threat. We are ready to be part of this united national front (UNF) and we urge everyone who cares about the future of our country to join us”. Mayor Ceban could have responded to this rallying cry, but he didn’t. Perhaps he understood the reputational risks of associating himself with the PSRM and Shor Party leaders, mired in corruption scandals. The MAN would slowly rise above the alternatives to the alternative.

However, Ceban’s project was put on hold for half a year due to the Ukraine war. It was only in May 2022, when it became clear that the intended blitzkrieg had failed, that Ceban had to make the following statement: “We will revisit this subject shortly. We have a lot of calls from a lot of people, including parties, but we will disclose the details when the situation improves a little at the regional level”. Also in May, other developments confirmed the usefulness of the pause taken: the Socialist leader Igor Dodon was held and then put under house arrest. Soon after, in July, Shor Party vice president Marina Tauber was placed in custody, on suspicion of falsifying the party’s financial records. As a result, the establishment of a FSN or a FUN based on the MAN platform has definitely lost its appeal. It’s in these circumstances that Mayor Ion Ceban decided it’s time to act. On August 23, he declared the MAN is becoming a political party with the following main goals:

  • Strengthen Moldova’s independence and neutral status;
  • achieve European integration; and
  • reach or even best the living standards of south-eastern European countries.

Ceban’s goals, in particular modernization, neutrality and European integration, are characteristic of the so-called centrist parties of Moldova, such as the Democratic Party (PDM). In this respect, it’s interesting that Mayor Ceban updated his MAN objectives just a few days after PDM honorary president Dumitru Diacov announced his intention to reanimate and consolidate political centrism in Moldova. So, one can assume that the MAN seeks to assert itself as an alternative not only to the PAS government and the BCS opposition, but also to a potentially reanimated centrist PDM. This hypothesis could be proved or disproved once the MAN releases its statute and manifesto, which are currently in development.

Conclusions

The confrontation between the governing party PAS and the parliamentary opposition represented by the BCS and the Short Party leads to attempts of reanimating the so-called Moldovan political centrism, characteristic of the so-called hinge parties. To make a caveat, political parties in Moldova do not fit into conventional typologies, such as the right-left categorization. In fact, the Moldovan political parties are all socially oriented, with the difference being made by how they exploit societal divisions along regional integration preferences: pro-Romanian/European or Eurasian/pro-Russian. It means that Moldovan centrism is essentially an attempt at finding a compromise between the poles of this axis. The supposed advantage of centrist parties is in that they could become coalition allies for both pro-European and Eurasian parties, i.e. they could play the role of a hinge, one that opens the doors into power for some potential allies and closes them to others.

The MAN project is mainly directed against the PAS government, and therefore it could be of great use to the current parliamentary opposition. However, the announced plea in favor of European integration shows that the leaders of MAN understand that Moldova’s future next to a Putinist and aggressive Russia is not a desired outlook for most Moldovans. Still, MAN’s purported European integration endeavor somewhat echoes the idea professed by the Moldovan Communist Party, where European integration only means European modernization, rather than full EU membership.

The statements made by the MAN leader prove that this may be the case. He avoided talking about the prospects of Moldova joining the EU, in particular in the context of our country gaining candidate status. Instead, Mayor Ceban preferred to formulate the European integration goal in terms of living standards to be reached in the next decade. The MAN’s “centrism” also transpires when Mayor Ceban talks about the help offered by his administration to Ukrainian refugees: while expressing his support, he has never condemned Russia’s aggression. In fact, Mayor Ceban is doing exactly what the Orthodox Church of Moldova is doing, adopting a comfortable position between the outspoken options. This ambivalent positioning could prove useful in attracting part of the pro-European electorate that grew disillusioned in the PAS.

As a matter of fact, the MAN project could become successful if its leaders are able to be equally convincing in their criticism of the PAS, overwhelmed by the consequences of multiple crises, and the pro-Putin BCS. And it’s worth noting that the PSRM looks willing to pick a fight with the MAN, with its spokesperson stating that “politics without principles can turn into a senseless farce” in reference to Ceban’s rebranded project. This is so true, except that few parties in Moldova could compete with the PSRM, along with the PCRM, in terms of political flip-flopping. No other Moldova party has changed its attitudes and regional integration vector so many times. In fact, the PSRM changed three political doctrines in only two years, from democratic socialism, to conservatism, to national patriotic socialism, and still has the nerve to talk about the lack of principles as a generator of political farces.

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