In June 2022, the European Commission emphasized nine crucial reform step for Moldova when granting it candidate status. Further European integration progress was conditioned on enhancing the capacity to implement reforms effectively, including intensifying efforts in executing the public administration reform. Moldova was urged to conduct an evaluation and revision of its public administration reform strategy to ensure it remains relevant and effective in meeting the evolving needs of the country. The report acknowledged the evolution of decentralization ongoing since 2012. In this context, it was emphasized that territorial reform should focus on granting local authorities sufficient financial resources to enable the provision of sustainable services to the public. In November 2023, a country evaluation report on Moldova was published acknowledging Moldova’s progress in this sense.
The recent outcomes of local elections in Moldova prompt a reexamination of the implications of the nation's progress toward regional democracy. Notably, major news outlets and research centers have highlighted the electoral defeats suffered by the pro-Western government, especially the loss of mayoral positions in key cities, creating a sense of ambiguity around the government's enthusiasm. The pro-Western ruling party, Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), controls slightly over one-third of the nearly 900 councils following the recent runoff votes. Out of the 895 mayors elected in both election rounds, 32.5 percent are affiliated with the ruling party. However, PAS lacks a majority in these councils, necessitating negotiations with other parties for control. Notably, PAS suffered significant losses in crucial cities, including the capital, where members of controversial political parties, such as National Alternative Movement (MAN), Moldovan Socialists Party (PSRM) or “Our Party” secured their positions, indicating a challenging scenario for the ruling party's influence. And PSRM is positioning itself as the second-largest party in terms of mayoral representation.
Such results raise many red flags regarding the implementation of European reforms and thus, the state of regional democracy in Moldova. It looks like in Moldova it is still not understood that that while public administration reform strives to improve governance structures and service delivery, local elections serve as a democratic mechanism for citizens to choose leaders who are aligned with reform goals, thereby influencing the trajectory of administrative changes at the local level. And here is how:
First, accountability and transparency
Local elections serve as a mechanism through which citizens can hold their elected officials accountable. Public administration reform aims to enhance accountability and transparency within government institutions, making them more responsive to citizens' needs. Transparent local elections reinforce these reform efforts by ensuring the accountability of elected officials.
What reforms can one expect when in the second biggest and key city in Moldova, Balti, voters elected a representative from “Our Party”, a political party established by Renato Usatii, a controversial businessman facing allegations of corruption? Or, from the 41 PSRM mayors, whose leader, Igor Dodon, has faced legal issues, having been detained on corruption charges by Moldovan authorities? Moreover, these parties advocate for fostering favorable relationships with all neighboring countries, with emphasis on relations with the Russian Federation. What European reforms on local level can one expect from Ion Ceban who secured re-election as Chisinau's mayor in the initial election round, leading the MAN party, founded in opposition to PAS? Ion Ceban is a former communist, a former member of the Moldovan Socialists Party (PSRM) and has strongly followed a pro-Russian rhetoric till the war in Ukraine. While this party advocates for a Western-style social-democratic ideology, Ceban himself holds pro-Russian sentiments, reflecting a nuanced ideological stance. Hence, the tensions between mayor Ceban and members of the ruling party, stemming from disagreements over energy policy or issues concerning freedom of association, particularly for the LGBT+ community should not come as a surprise.
According to Transparency International, in 2022 Moldova received a Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score of 39 out of 100, positioning itself at the 91st place among 180 assessed countries. In contrast, the top scorer in the region, Georgia, obtained a CPI score of 56. Georgia's success is attributed to its prior achievements in eradicating low-level bribery, making it a notable country to monitor in the context of anti-corruption measures. Moving forward, the CPI report emphasizes the necessity for intensified support from civil society organizations and grassroots movements to exert pressure on Moldova's political leadership. This refers to local elites, particularly the recently elected mayors. The government must uphold its obligations for EU membership and concentrate on enhancing the landscape of regional democracy, including its commitments of depoliticizing anti-corruption entities. The results of the 2023 Nations in Transit report by Freedom House are also telling: Moldova received its lowest score in local democratic governance, obtaining a rating of 2.50 out of 7.00. This score indicates how we underscore when it comes to the decentralization of power, the functions and capabilities of local government bodies, and the transparency and accountability of local authorities.
Second, effective policy implementation
Elected officials at the local level play a pivotal role in implementing policies and managing local affairs. Public administration reform seeks to enhance the quality of governance at all levels, and local elections serve as a conduit for selecting leaders who are committed to advancing these reforms in their respective communities.
The country’s determination to strengthen local self-government is among the commitments made in the Council of Europe Action Plan for the Republic of Moldova (2021-2024), which supports Moldova in its European integration trajectory. During the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Moldova's local public administration reform was a key focus. The discussions centered on decentralization, public administration reform, and the noticeable gaps in communication between central authorities and the Congress of Local Authorities in Moldova (CALM). Issues related to fiscal policies, remuneration, and broader reforms lacked comprehensive engagement and agreement with the members of CALM. Neglect of local democracy emerged as a significant concern, affecting the efficiency of local public administration. Financial decentralization remains a major challenge, limiting the resources available for crucial local projects. CALM members emphasize the urgency of empowering local finances and stress the nonpartisan nature of local matters, highlighting their importance beyond political divides.
The fact that dubious political forces have one major key cities as well as places in the councils, in combination with sudden emergence of unknown candidates winning local elections, poses a risk to regional democracy. The reality, as explained by the director of CALM, Viorel Furdui, is that the scarcity of resources often escalates vital local issues into political disputes, posing risks to democratic principles. Furthermore, as the decentralization and local public administration country status report indicates, the PAS government, didn’t manifest feasible intentions for decentralisation reform and it was not event considered in the governmental program. A new Strategy has been recently adopted, in March 2023; hence the government’s actions in this sense will show whether or not there is political will to address this reform. In this sense, recognizing and rectifying the lack of financial autonomy, ensuring adequate resources, and prioritizing local infrastructure development are essential steps to engage citizens in local decision-making processes and sustain a healthy democratic system. This would mean, in practice, better roads, aqueducts, sewage or street lighting, essential for the wellbeing of citizens.
And what about the citizens?
Given the current election results one may argue that they are mirroring the preferences of those citizens who are supporters of other ideological visions than that of PAS, such as PSRM, Our Party, and most recently, MAN. Some of these voters previously engaged in the 2022 protests organized by a pro-Russian faction, voicing discontent against Moldova's government for over a month. Their demands included the removal of pro-European President Maia Sandu and holding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accountable for the war in Ukraine. Allegedly, these citizens were compensated approximately €20 per day and €80 per night for their participation. Moldovan journalists shared numerous videos in which some protesters, appearing inebriated, openly discussed the payments they received. Additionally, certain individuals among these citizens supported leaders of the Shor Party, which faced investigations by state anticorruption agencies for suspected illegal financing, with 24 party members being apprehended on allegations of facilitating unlawful funding activities.
Could it be that these voters opted for such candidates because they are proposing enhanced governance structures, more effective services, and advancements in local administration? Or perhaps the current and past administrations have not allocated adequate resources to public administration reform as well as to education reform, failing to encourage citizen engagement in decision-making processes, educate them about its functionality, and emphasize the importance of selecting representatives who collaboratively devise solutions for local communities. Consequently, it's unsurprising that Moldova receives the lowest score (4.5) in the Regional Decentralisation Observatory Index's evaluation of citizen participation and local government responsiveness. This assessment encompasses four key indicators: a) citizen participation, b) local government responsiveness, c) local government transparency, and d) local government accountability. In contrast, Georgia attains a higher score (6.4), aligning with neighboring countries in Southeast Europe.
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.