Awkward Election Results in Gagauzia

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Sergiu Ceban
The ruling party’s electoral plan failed, only the “pro-Russian pool” candidates have made it to the second round. Now, the authorities will have to either tolerate the inconvenient Bashkan – or to politically interfere with the results of the voting, as it was in Balti
Last Sunday elections for the head of the region were held in Gagauzia. According to the local CEC, the turnout was 57.8%, and 57,019 voters voted throughout the autonomy. After the ballots were counted, Evghenia Gutul of the Shor Party and Grigorii Uzun of the Socialist party enter the runoff. The gap between them was minimal, almost at the level of error: 14 836 voters voted for Gutul and 14 849 for Uzun. Victor Petrov, a member of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia, came third with 9,132 votes. According to the CEC, there were no incidents that could have affected the election process. The voting process was monitored by 75 international observers representing the EU Delegation, the US National Democratic Institute, and the embassies of Azerbaijan, Great Britain, Lithuania, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine, France, and Sweden. As previously announced, Russian representatives were not allowed to observe. Notably, the U.S. and EU ambassadors came to the CEC in person to make it clear that the West is closely following the elections in the autonomy and believes that their results can change the domestic political environment in Moldova. In fact, it is too early to say that Gutul and Uzun will meet in the second round. Everything will depend on the Constitutional Court’s ruling, which on 10 May is to consider the banning of the Shor Party. Thus, Evghenia Gutul’s electoral fate, who runs for this party, is rather vague. Even if she is rebranded into an independent candidate, her disqualification from the election cannot be ruled out. Or the first round would be annulled by court. Perhaps for the first time in its history, the autonomy witnesses the candidates with no strong leadership skills and a clear Gagauzia development political program making it to the finish line. In fact, they are purely dependent political figures in the shadow of the main party leaders, Ilan Shor and Igor Dodon. The personal ratings of the candidates are based on that of the PSRM and the Shor Party. Therefore, the second round, besides the formal rivalry between Evghenia Gutul and Grigorii Uzun, is also an inter-party contest for better political positions and perception in Moscow. The central authorities did not openly support any of the candidates, but still, experts claim, had ‘preferred’ figures (not affiliated with Moscow), which were rejected by the voters. Initially, the ruling party’s tactics implied reducing interest in the next elections in order to cause electoral pessimism among the population of the autonomy. Had the elections not taken place due to low turnout, it could have been viewed as a signal from voters that there was excessive outside influence on the election campaign in the region. This would have justified the intervention of the authorities to narrow down the candidate list, that is to clear the way for those in demand and remove overtly biased figures from the race. However, things took the path of the least favourable scenario for PAS. And literally on the second day after the election, the authorities were forced to use political pressure. Apparently, at the behest of higher authorities, Shor deputy Marina Tauber was detained at the central airport as she was attempting to fly to Israel and placed in a detention center for three days. Most likely, the main purpose of this maneuver was to make it impossible for Tauber, as the main party coordinator, to accompany Evghenia Gutul’s election campaign and thereby reduce her chances of winning the election. It is quite possible that Dodon’s man in the Bashkan chair is, so to speak, the ‘lesser evil’ for the decision-making centers in Chisinau, since Evghenia Gutul winning threatens a quick breakdown in the dialogue between the capital and the region. Yet, whatever the result of the second round, both candidates are far from understanding how to run the autonomy and how to build ties with the political center. This is a very tangible problem for Chisinau, which in the current situation finds it important to be on more or less good terms with the region, not to let Gagauzia be used for anti-government purposes and especially not to allow revival of any separatist sentiments there. Thus, if we look behind the horizon of the second round of elections, the main question is how does the new bashkan intend to interact with Chisinau and how is Chisinau going to work with the new leader of the autonomy? So far, the capital has voiced mainly preventive threats to revise, if necessary, the status of Gagauzia and its powers in order to remove possible risks and for example, to exclude the bashkan from the government. Certainly, such a pro-Russian result of the elections in Gagauzia is a logical result of the totally failed electoral plan of the ruling party in the autonomy, which cannot offer an effective pro-European alternative. Strong pro-Russian attitudes not only in the Gagauz autonomy, but also in the entire Moldova is a logical result of the work of the president, government and ruling party. Moreover, during the last months Gagauzia was the testing ground for various electoral strategies. In fact, we have witnessed that it is not rational pro-European ideas and bright political leaders that win, but that voters are driven by new forms of populism, a desire for some miracle and hopes that all the problems will be solved, for example, somewhere in Moscow. Therefore, PAS has definitely lost this ‘Gagauzian rehearsal’ before the local, and then the presidential and parliamentary elections. The political strategists in the presidency should reconsider many things and urgently change their tactics. Otherwise, the ruling regime faces a series of electoral disasters. Anyway, electing a new bashkan from the ‘pro-Russian candidate pool’ will be a painful slap in the face for the central authorities, especially in the run-up to the June summit of the European Community. Gagauzia is likely to pose a big problem over the next few years (unless inconvenient candidates are removed from the race, as was the case in Balti), which will be a constant source of malicious political waves. Whoever of the Moscow-oriented candidates leads the autonomy, his/her strategic task will be to provoke conflicts with Chisinau. And these regular scandals will be used to intoxicate the election campaign of the ruling party and the president. Besides, the main intention of the Kremlin mentors may be not only to cause constant destabilizing tremors, but also to show, first by the example of Gagauzia and Transdniestria and then other regions of Moldova (after local elections), that our society and state are not poised for a unified pro-European choice and that the country is still deeply divided, politically and socially, over its foreign policy.