L’Invité D&B: Opportunities of extraparliamentary opposition, fears of government and positioning towards EU

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

dionis_cenusa_thumb° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

Any electoral result favorable to the government can spawn protests inspired by the Armenian and/or Romanian precedent that can destabilize the balance of forces maintained currently by the Democratic Party

The government dominated by the Democratic Party (PDM) is leading Moldova towards a direction that is uncertain for the democratic institutions and their beneficiaries – the citizens. The competition for power between different oligarchic groups that existed in 2010-2014 was a destabilizing factor and also a generator of political crises that could result in elections and in the renewal of the political opportunities for moving on. This feeling of minimum competition was yet definitively substituted with political stability of non-democratic origin that was initiated in 2016 and that will not stop at least until February 2019. The political stability was established by the PDM by reducing to zero the real political control on the part of the opposition, perpetuation of the political dependence of state institutions, inhibition of the struggle against grand corruption and abandonment of the mechanisms for reforming the judicial power. Behind the shield of political stability, the authentic political competition started to be cloned and was brought to a primitive state. Even if this was earlier imperfect, it anyway ensured particular democratic predictability in the political game.

Under the pressure of non-democratic circumstances, the marginalization of the critical opposition, especially of that from outside Parliament (PAS, PPPDA), intensified. At the same time, on the one hand the Democrats could enjoy the mild, cooperative and useful opposition of the Party of Socialists. On the other hand, with the government’s permission, the political arena started to be inclined towards anti-democratic populist parties (“Shor Party”), which threaten the independent media outlets with physical persecution and instigate public hatred toward the leaders of the extraparliamentary opposition (CRJM, July 2018). The holding of protests is hampered by the possibility of emigrating, absence of a unifying identity that would be sufficiently powerful to overcome societal polarization and the seriously distorted media reality (IPN, July 11, 2018).

The deterioration of the EU’s dialogue with the government of Moldova (IPN, September 24, 2018) following the invalidation of the Chisinau mayoral elections, practically brings Brussels closer to the political positions of the anti-governmental opposition. Despite the negative weight, the re-setting of the official dialogue between the EU and Chisinau can produce some particular positive effects. Thus, the opposition can more firmly take the pro-Europeanist messages without being concerned about being associated with foreign players that are not sufficiently tough on the oligarchic regime. At the same time, this thing enables to test the current state of the pro-EU feelings inside the public as the risk that the massive propaganda launched by the ruling party against the negative reaction of the European institutions to the invalidation of elections could affect the EU’s image (IPN, Juley 9, 2018), which only started to show fragile signs of revitalization (IRI, June 2018), persists.

Extraparliamentary opposition and principle of communicating vessels

The actions taken so far by the opposition at foreign level had a rather modest output. The EU Council’s decision to put off the allocation of macro-financial assistance was adopted as a result of the nullification of the Chisinau elections, even if the opposition asked to suspend the assistance long before, in particular after the modification of the electoral system in 2017. Neither the fastening of political preconditions to the EU macro-financial assistance can be attributed to the opposition as the political conditionality was invoked in 2013 already, in the case of Georgia and later in the case of Ukraine, becoming a usual practice of the EU (IPN, September 24, 2018). For these reasons, the interaction with the EU and intense communication with pan-European parties and European institutions were the biggest merits of the opposition.

The opposition’s limited capacities to inspire massive protests that would force the government to make concessions and to make mistakes troubles Brussels. The EU no way wants to substitute the national political parties whose legitimacy should be the decisive factor of the political competition, while the blocking of the financial assistance was due to the fact that the people’s suffrage rights were annulled by the judiciary that stopped to be perceived as an independent actor long ago. However, it is not clear if the EU would have resorted to the postponement of its assistance in the hypothetical situation when the Socialists, not the extraparliamentary opposition, won the elections in Chisinau, which were later annulled by courts.

Even if the representatives of the opposition are making efforts, these seem insufficient to attract the confused or disinterested voters. The main objective impediments include the limited financial resources and the restricted access to the national media outlets through which the Democrats artificially obstructs the opposition’s ascent in public preferences. Among other problems about which they speak less are the gravitation of parties around the image of the leaders of opposition parties (Maia Sandu, Andrei Năstase), crisis of creative ideas and lack of constructive criticism.

First of all, the excessive dependence on party leaders ossifies the opposition and diminishes its capacity of prompt and vibrant reaction in cases of crises. Partially for these reasons, the relevance of the team around the leaders is perceived as something secondary.

The second significant aspect consists in the lack of constant constructive criticism generated by independent media sources and civil society concerning the opposition’s (in)actions. The absence of such useful criticism impedes the full connection of the opposition to social segments that are not controlled by the government. The legitimacy of the opposition forces is based not only on the fact that they struggle against the oligarchic power, but also on the fact that they respond to and interact with the public outside the approaches to mobilize the people at political protests. The opposition should apply the principle of “communicating vessels” and interact with the whole public and on the whole spectrum of existing problems. If the opposition intends to change the government by the pressure of the vote and/or of the street, this cannot communicate only with a part of society. At the same time, this loses contact with society if it has a more efficient dialogue with the European institutions than with the own citizens.

Last but not least, the opposition makes use of outdated ideas and messages that wears out the alarm reflexes inside society. Any sign of creativity and dynamism can have more powerful effects than the traditional news conferences, while creativity depends on the human resources that, even if they are insufficient in the country, are valid inside the diaspora.

What are the government’s fears?

Even if the maneuvering space of the ruling party is narrowing at foreign level, in the limits of the national polices this still feels the master of the situation. The Democratic Party is decided to obtain maximum benefits based on the mixed electoral system introduced in 2017, both in single-member constituencies and under party lists. The larger is the number of seats of MP gained by the PDM, the safer will be its participation in governance.

While polls give the Democratic Party a low popular approval rating compared with other parties, the Democrats exploit the administrative resources and channel the investments from the foreign assistance towards evidently electoral purposes. On the one hand, these intend to accelerate the pace of building critical infrastructure (roads, water supply and sewerage systems) with which they would persuade the potential voters. On the other hand, the Democratic Party wants to increase the loyalty of the administrative resources at the local level by practically doubling the salaries of employees of the local public administration. These tendencies show that the political future of the Democrats will be decided at the local level, where the Socialists, who are for now loyal to the government, represent the only political competition. The Democrats’ actions cover both the parliamentary elections and the local ones that are to take place also in 2019.

How to ensure the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections so as to avoid post-electoral protests whose mobilization potential would destabilize the fragile balance that the Democrats try to maintain is the major problem of these. On the one hand, the PDM does not want to abandon the possibility of obtaining as many seats of MP as possible. On the other hand, any good electoral performance can serve as a reason for generating major protests, especially if the representatives of the diaspora plan to return to the country to vote.

There are at least two recent precedents of protests that the authorities cannot ignore. First of all, it is about the long-term post-electoral protests in Armenia that resulted in the transfer of the executive into the hands of the minority opposition in Parliament (Atlantic Council, August 15, 2018). The anticorruption protests in Romania, where the participation by the diaspora was massive, is the second precedent that could bother the government. Based on these examples, the government of Moldova realizes that neither the opposition nor other players (civil society, diaspora) can be underestimated.

Instead of conclusion…

Even if the ruling party seems invincible, this does not feel fully safe owing to its very limited legitimacy. Its preparations for the parliamentary elections reveal a considerable preoccupation with the interaction with local voters who will decide the fate of the future 51 MPs in single-member constituencies.

Even if the last polls show that the extraparliamentary opposition’s level of legitimacy is cumulatively over five times larger than that of the government, the opposition should review its agenda of action so as to communicate with the whole society. The introduction of creative forms of dialogue with the people is one of the urgent measures that would ensure the opposition’s visibility and greater political relevance.

The ruling party has fears related to the legitimacy of the final outcome of the upcoming elections as a result of which it wants to populate the legislature with loyal persons. Any electoral result favorable to the government can spawn protests inspired by the Armenian and/or Romanian precedent that can destabilize the balance of forces maintained currently by the Democratic Party.

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