Gone to People. How to Win Elections in Moldova

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RTA regular expert Dorin Mocanu told how the Democratic Party uses protest in society for its own benefit.

The election campaign in Moldova seems more boring than expected. Past 2018 was rich in strong statements and promising maneuvers. All stocked popcorn, waiting for the decisive battle between the main rivals in the election race in January-February 2019. Instead, the ruling Democratic Party pointedly did not participate in public battles and “went to the people”. On January 26, immediately after the start of the election campaign, the Democrats boarded the big blue bus and went on a tour of Moldova. Key political figures – Deputy Prime Ministers, Ministers and prominent party members – put aside state affairs and led by Parliament speaker Andrian Candu rushed to convince the population that only the PDM will be able to build a bright future. And they were guided, I must say, by a cold calculus.

“The country is going in the wrong direction”

Public opinion polls last year showed disappointing results for the Plahotniuc’s coalition. According to the Center for insight in survey research, the poll of September-October 2018, titled “Moldovans are concerned about corruption and election integrity”, 70% of respondents felt that things in Moldova go in the wrong direction. However, it was almost always so: over the past 15 years, the citizens of Moldova are often dissatisfied with life in the country, and it is very difficult to reproach them. At the same time, major geopolitical ‘turns’ influenced on public sentiment, but only shortly: according to experts, Moldovans are quickly disappointed in the government, as the general level of prosperity of citizens is almost unchanged. As you can see on the chart, over the past 14 years, the number of satisfied and dissatisfied with how the country is developing, equaled only two times: when the pro-European parties came to power in 2009 and after Moldova received the visa-free regime in 2014. The return to direct presidential elections in 2016 also slightly reduced discontent, but a year later the situation ‘rolled back’ to the starting point. The facts show that the high-profile political events in the domestic and foreign arena cannot distract the Moldovan population from the pressing problems for a long time and improve the ratings of the ruling authorities. The constant attention of Moldovans is focused on close and understandable to them matters: salaries and pensions, corruption, unemployment, rising prices and inflation, poverty, roads, etc. Among real problems of people there is no breakaway Transnistria, the Russian threat and other geopolitical intrigues which the Moldovan politicians like so much. What really interests the population is the democratic development of Moldova: almost 40% of citizens are dissatisfied with this (in comparison to only 17% in 2004). At the same time, the percentage of doubters fell to 3% over the years, which means that almost all residents of Moldova are aware of the real situation in the country. Supporters of reforms in society in recent years has increased by 14%. At the same time, the vast majority of Moldovans (86%) believe that administration of the state is carried out to the oligarchic benefit.

Field work instead of noisy campaign

The disappointment of the population with the socio-economic and political situation in the country has led to the decrease in credibility of the authorities. Thus, the legitimacy of the Parliament is at the level of statistical error: only 6% of the population fully supports its activities. At the same time, according to citizens, this institution is the most corrupt in Moldova. So say 30% of the population. It is obvious that the practice of bribery and defections of deputies contributed to the complete loss of confidence in the Parliament. This means that to repeat banally the past experience – to ‘buy all’ and avoid popular anger – will be difficult in 2019.  At the same time, the rating of the directly elected Igor Dodon, on the contrary, increased in contrast to the Parliament elected through list elections last time. The situation is nearly critical. However, all the same surveys prompted the way out of the situation. As it turned out, local authorities are trusted by 60% of respondents – this is much more than the central one. In addition, for half of the respondents candidate’s personality is important when taking a decision for whom to vote, and only 6% decide on the basis of his party affiliation. According to the same polls, the main problem to be solved by the government of Pavel Filip was the growth of salaries and pensions – according to a third of respondents. Following the sentiment, the PDM had previously created for itself a comfortable environment in the election race. They found considerable sums in the budget for social and additional payments, infrastructure projects and other measures of ‘fast’ improvement of life of people in election months. The PDM has spoken with the population on the ground in plain language – “salaries have increased here, and roads are built here” – and it works. It is interesting that the Democrats, in fact, have adopted the approaches of the Party of Socialists to election campaigning. The PSRM and its leader Igor Dodon have long positioned themselves as a party of the people and for the people. Therefore, socialists consistently put pressure on close and sensitive topics for ordinary people: family, work, traditional values, welfare, preservation of national identity. The main achievement of the PSRM in the current election campaign is customs relief for Moldovan exports to Russia and amnesty for migrant workers, that is, things are quite tangible and concrete. Without having the budgetary opportunities comparable with the capital of the PDM, Igor Dodon took the purely socialist path of ‘incentives’ that will have an impact on the voter too. At the same time, at the level of election rhetoric, the message of the socialists is also addressed ‘to the people’ and plays with the themes of public services, education, language and health. It is also interesting that geopolitics in the rhetoric of the PSRM and Dodon takes second or even third place as the voting day is approaching.

Nobody’s stopping the Democratic Party

Single-mandate constituencies have become a safe ‘personal’ guarantee for electoral competitors to enter the new Parliament. Many prominent Moldovan politicians find themselves among the candidates in both national and single-mandate constituencies. Zinaida Greceanîi, Vladimir Turcan, Vlad Batrîncea are in both lists from the Party of Socialists, Andrei Nastase and Maia Sandu from ACUM, Vlad Plahotniuc, Pavel Filip, Dmitri Diakov from the Democratic Party. The list goes on: the main characters are just being cautious and make sure they don’t lose immunity. On the other hand, it is also evidence of the shortage of personnel in the leading parties: nobody wants to switch on social elevators and update a party backbone especially before elections when it is better to go into battle with battle-hardened veterans beside, than with the political young men never to have been in combat. Even more interesting is that the top officials of the leading parties and blocs in the election race did not dare to challenge each other directly in any of the constituencies. On the eve of the election campaign, opposition leaders declared their readiness to fight the ruling Democrats. However, none of them wanted to compete with the leaders of the Democratic Party in single-mandate constituencies, such as Vlad Plahotniuc in Nisporeni. They preferred to fight in ‘quiet harbors’ without real competition. As a result, while the ACUM, socialists and supporters of Ilan Shor are fighting so hard, bringing charges and lawsuits, the PDM is actually hovering over the election battle, being engaged in direct work with voters. The effectiveness of such tactics may now be questionable, but it is difficult to argue that it’s sympathetic with the population. This means that the ‘blue bus of Democrats’ after the elections can go further than many imagine.