Moldova: Opposition Candidate Wins Key Election Victory for Mayor of Chisinau

On 3 June Andrei Nastase, supported by a coalition of centre-right opposition parties, won a clear victory over Ion Ceban from the pro-Russian Socialist Party in the second round run-off of the election for Mayor of Chisinau. This has provided a significant boost to the pro-Western parties after several years of political setbacks. An earlier first round election in the town of Balti on 20 May was won by Nicolai Grigorsin, a supporter of the fugitive businessman Renato Usatii.

 

These early elections were called after the resignations of Dorin Chirtoaca, the Mayor of Chisinau, on 16 February and Renato Usatii, the Mayor of Balti, on 13 February. Both men had fallen foul of Vlad Plahotniouc, the oligarch, politician, and leading figure behind Moldova’s current Democratic Party led government. Dorin Chirtoaca had been Mayor of Chisinau since 2007. He was also the Vice-President of the Liberal Party and nephew of the party’s leader. Miahai Ghimpu. The Liberals are a relatively small political party, but one of their key assets over the last decade had been control of Moldova’s capital city. The Liberals were part of the governing coalition up until March 2017 when they left following disagreements over proposed electoral reform. On 25 May Chirtoaca was arrested, along with other municipal officials, and charged with having used the city’s parking system as a mechanism to extort money. He was later released from prison and placed under house arrest whilst awaiting trial. On 6 November Silvia Radu was installed as interim Mayor of Chisinau. Silvia Radu had previously been Director of the company Gas Natural Fenosa . She stood as an independent candidate in the 2016 presidential elections gaining, an electorally negligible, 0.37% of the vote. Chirtoaca’s subsequent resignation opened the way for the holding of new elections on 20 May. Renato Usatii, leader of the populist and pro-Russian Our Party, had been elected as Mayor of Balti in the 2015 local elections. In July 2014 German Gorbuntsov, a Russian banker holding Moldovan citizenship, had accused Usatii of being behind an attempt to assassinate him in London in March 2012. These accusations had not initially caused Usatti too many problems. On 26 October 2016, however, national and international warrants were issued for Usatii’s arrest. In response Usatii fled to Moscow. Usatii sought to continue to run Balti by remote control from his exile in Russia. He took part in the meetings of the Balti municipal council by skype. Increasing pressure was, however, exerted by the government to bring this situation was an end. A referendum was called for March 2018 to consult the inhabitants of Balti as to whether Usatii should remain as their mayor. Usatii’s resignation pre-empted this referendum. After Usatii stepped down Nicolai Grigorsin, also from Our Party, took over as Balti’s interim mayor

 

Silvia Radu, Chisinau’s interim mayor, announced that she would be standing in the May elections. Although she was ostensibly an independent candidate it was widely understood that she was backed by Vlad Plahotniuc. As the incumbent Silvia Radu could mobilise considerable resources and received extensive and positive coverage from the media outlets controlled by Vlad Plahotniouc. These institutional advantages made Radu an early favourite to go through to the second round run-off. Ion Ceban was nominated as the candidate of the Socialist Party in the Chisinau election contest. The backing of the powerful pro-Russian Socialist Party with its strong appeal to older and working class voters meant that Ceban was also widely tipped to enter the second round run-off. Some opinion polls even suggested that he might win the election in the first round with over 50% of the vote. At the start of the election Andrei Nastase, leader of the pro-European Dignity and Truth movement, was widely considered to be the underdog in the electoral battle for Chisinau. Nastase is a forty two year old year old lawyer who rose to prominence in 2015-2016 as the leader of anti-corruption street protests. Andrei Nastase appealed in particular to younger voters. Nastase’s campaign was supported by two other centre-right parties, Action and Solidarity and the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova, LDPM. Action and Solidarity is headed by Maia Sandu, who is widely seen as the leader of Moldova’s opposition. Maia Sandu is a former Education Minister and stood as a candidate in the November 2016 presidential elections. Although Maia Sandu lost these elections to the Socialist candidate, Igor Dodon she was considered to have fought a strong campaign in difficult circumstances. The LDPM was once the largest centre-right party in Moldova, but it has been much diminished since its former leader, Vlad Filat, was jailed in connection with major banking fraud in June 2016. The LDPM nevertheless maintains a presence in parliament, and was a significant member of the coalition of parties supporting Andrei Nastase. The three parties worked well together in the run-up to the first round of voting on 20 May. Nastase was, however, subject to a barrage of attacks in the media. He was accused, amongst other things, of being ready, if he won the election, to flood Chisinau with immigrants. Some of observers suggested that these attacks would have a negative impact on Nastase’s campaign, possibly seeing him relegated to third place, and knocked out of the election. Pro –European voters would then have, in the second round, the invidious choice of either voting for the oligarch candidate, Silvia Radu, and the pro-Russian candidate, Ion Ceban. The two other candidates in the Chisinau election were Valeriu Munteanu from the Liberal Party and Constantin Codreanu from the National Unity Party, which supports union between Moldova and Romania. Neither of these candidates had any realistic chance of winning, but they would be capable of gaining a significant number of first round votes.

 

On 20 May, the first round polling day, Ion Ceban as expected, led the field with 40.97% of the vote. Andrei Nastase, to the surprise of some observers, came second with 32.12% of the vote. Silvia Radu trailed in third with 17.65% of the vote. Constantin Codreanu secured 4.55% of the vote and Valeriu Munteanu 3.61%. These results showed that Silvia Radu’s candidacy had lacked credibility in the eyes of the voters in spite, or because, of her access to resources and backing from Vlad Plahotniuc. Ion Ceban and Andrei Nastase had, by contrast, been able to mobilise their respective constituencies. The pro-European parties were encouraged by this first round result. Andrei Nastase had succeeded in knocking Silvia Radu out of the race. Victor Rosca, a senior figure within the LDPM posted on social media saying ‘Yesterday the hydra had many heads.’ The fact that the first round gap between Ion Ceban and Andrei Nastase and less than 9% was also seen as a positive outcome. With the first round votes for Valeriu Munteanu and Constantin Codreanu likely to largely go to Andrei Nastase in the second taking place on 3 June the result in Chisinau would hinge on the distribution of Silvia Radu’s votes, and the capacity of Ceban and Nastase to motive potential supporters who had not voted in the first round.

 

In Balti the elections on 20 May saw Nicolai Grigorisin from Our Party winning the election in the first round with 61.74% of the vote. His closest rivals were Alexandr Usatii from the Socialist Party with 19.17% of the vote and Arina Spataru from Dignity and Truth with 6.12% of the vote. Vlad Plahotniouc’s Democratic Party won 4 out of the 5 elections which took place in villages on the same day. This, along with the results in Chisinau, would suggest that Plahotniouc’s control of resources is effective in managing elections in smaller municipalities, but fails in urban centres where populations are larger and power is more dispersed.

The second round o elections in Chisinau saw Andrei Nastase winning with 52.57% to 47.43% for Ion Ceban with 47.43%. The turn-out for the elections was 39.12%. Nastase had been able to get his supporters out to the polls, and also to gain the majority of votes from candidates knocked out of the elections. This victory constitutes a major step forward for the centre-right opposition after setbacks over recent years including failures in government, the loss of the 2016 presidential elections, and the attempts by Vlad Plahotniouc to usurp the position of the centre-right parties within Moldova as representatives of pro-Western opinion on the international stage. The LDPM hailed the election result as the start of a ‘new political cycle.’ The three main centre-right parties had co=operated well during the Chisinau election, and Andrei Nastase presented this as a model for future work, as part of a pro-European coalition, in the general election which is due to take place to take place before the end of 2018. The opposition win in Chisinau has been a considerable achievement, but the pro-European parties will face greater challenges as they seek to make similar gains, in less favourable environments, outside of the capital in the forthcoming general election. Silvia Radu congratulated Andrei Nastase after his election victory although Vlad Plahotniouc’s Democratic Party had notably refrained from endorsing either candidate prior to the election. Igor Dodon. Moldova’s pro-Russian Socialist President blamed his candidate’s defeat on ‘geo-political’ factors and stated that voters had ‘preferred abstract political problems’ to real issues but would come to regret their ‘momentary emotional preferences.’ He also sought to look forward saying that for the Socialists ‘the nain battles and victories are yet to come.’

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