L’Invité D&B: Pro-EU reluctance versus Euroscepticism in the rhetoric of Moldova’s elections

The pro-European rhetoric is present in the electoral campaign of 2019, but to a lesser extent than in previous parliamentary elections – it is now restricted to foreign policy – by Dionis Cenusa.

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

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° 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.

The low interest in underlining the role of the European agenda, both from electoral contestants and from Brussels, strengthens volens nolens messages from the supporters of the Eurasian Union and Russia…

The main political actors in the Moldovan parliamentary elections of 24 February 2019 show a selective, visibly timid and/or incoherent approach to electoral debates around the country’s external orientation. The reluctance to geopolitical discourse is observed in political parties associated either positively or negatively with the EU, even if recent polls show that the population has a predisposition toward European integration. The low involvement of the European topic in the electoral campaign differs from the electoral behavior of the pro-European parties in the 2014 legislative elections. In contrast, the pro-Russian forces use geopolitics more intensely to stimulate voters.

Major political parties invoking a particular affiliation with the European integration process can be divided into two categories. The first group includes the governing party (the Democratic Party). The latter has decided to refer, but in a minimalist style, to the partnership with the EU that is concomitantly strongly overshadowed by socio-economic issues. In fact, by underlining the importance of infrastructure or wages of public employees, Democrats have tried to get closer to the voters in a more palpable way than by operating with somewhat abstract content of European integration. The Election Bloc “ACUM”, which also prioritized the internal agenda and whose epicenter is the fight against corruption, represents the second group. The absence of an exclusive or monopolistic pro-EU discourse by the Democrats left room for extra-parliamentary opposition to include ambitious promises in its electoral bid, such as meeting the eligibility criteria for EU membership by 2023. On the other side, the Socialists’ claims balanced between the generalization of EU’s responsibility for current risks and regressions in Moldova and the imaginative benefits of integration into the Eurasian Union.

On average, about 10% of voters with pro-EU visions (about 47%) do not find themselves in the parties that lean to EU, which can accumulate about 36% together – PDM and Electoral Bloc NOW. At the same time, according to the most recent polls, the share of Socialist supporters (PSRM) coincides with supporters of the idea of ​​joining the Eurasian Economic Union (See Table below).

Table. The geopolitical and electoral options in Moldova,%

PSRM PDM Bloc NOW (PAS and the  Platform Dignity and Truth) Pro-EU Pro-Eurasian Union
IRI, February 2019 39 14 22 46 39
IMAS, February 2019 26 19,4 16,8 47 39

Sourse: Latest polls – IRI, IMAS

At the same time, the hesitations to involve the European vector in electoral discourse are determined by EU’s caution in relation to Moldovan politics. The cooling of relations caused by the cancellation of municipal elections (IPN, 25 June 2018) and the suspension of financial assistance (IPN, 24 September 2018), both registered in 2018, discouraged image transactions between the European institutions and the Moldovan authorities.

Three arguments that explain PDM’s distancing from European integration

The deliberate distancing from the European topic by Democrats is confirmed by their electoral program, which excludes the mention of European integration and uses predominantly generalist formulations, such as Europe. Moreover, the EU reference is in the last place in the electoral program  (point 9 out of total 9), where the electoral promises are slightly touching the EU, presented as a Western actor. On the one hand, the claimed intention is to “strengthen the relations” with the EU, as a Western partner. And, on the other hand, PDM promises to maintain “a categorical pro-Western option”, which is equated with the “accelerated implementation of the Association Agreement” with the EU. Such a reserved character toward the European integration can have at least three explanations.

Firstly, in terms of electoral tactics, Democrats have been forced to minimize pro-European rhetoric in order to keep away the allegations of their contribution to the deterioration of dialogue with the EU. Both voters and electoral contestants’ attention has been shifted to internal issues, where Democrats dominate the formation of public perceptions due to the combination of intense administrative resources and populist policies.

The second explanation relates to the priority of efficient vote accumulation. Practically, both pro-Moldova and pro-EU positions have a similar attraction power of public of about 33-34% (IMAS, December 2018). In order to minimize association with the EU, which is useless as it is abundant in criticism, PDM has internalized political discourse and emptying it from the geopolitical component. Thus, the party decided to move towards a wider electorate and entered a direct competition with the Socialists, who relied on the same tactics when they took over the idea of ​​a multi-vector foreign policy based on Moldovan national interest (IPN, 23 April 2018).

Third, the Democrats link the migration to a geopolitically neutral terrain to post-election calculations. Keeping the power is only likely if the PDM gives up from any categorical positions on sensitive subjects, such as it is still the deepening relations with the EU. Therefore, the Democrats artificially create a flexible environment for forging post-electoral coalitions, including with representatives of forces that share pro-Russian views. In none of the cases, PDM intends to abandon the Association Agreement with the EU, but on the contrary insists principally on maintaining it in active phase, promising only speed and no discipline and quality in its implementation.

Extra-parliamentary opposition – the most pro-EU political force

The Joint Electoral Platform of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and Platform “Dignity and Truth” (DA Platform) – the “NOW” Bloc, has adopted an ambitious vision for the European integration, especially in comparison with the calculated reluctance of Democrats. Thus, the opposition forces promised to prepare the country for EU membership by 2023 (ACUM, 2019).

The major benefit of this electoral goal is the shaping of a unique pro-European profile that is easily identifiable for the voter. Monopolizing the pro-EU speech stimulates electoral opportunities in favor of the opposition.

The rhetoric of European integration, adopted by the Bloc NOW, however, contains an element of incoherence. Thus, the opposition proposes a deadline of 2023 to bring Moldova to EU requirements, but without adjusting the entire electoral program to this goal, and missing to turn it into a coherent and convincing kind of “roadmap” for that purpose. On the contrary, the European integration is projected rather as an isolated policy in terms of foreign policy and partly in connection with Moldova-Romania relations (Chapter 14 out of a total of 21).

The Socialists do not give up Euroscepticism

The most aggressive geopolitical tone was taken over by the Socialists (PSRM), who are building a series of false, Eurosceptic arguments around the Association Agreement with the EU. The clear intention of PSRM is to make a negative image transfer to all political parties advocating a minimal close relationship with the EU – both the PDM and the Bloc NOW.

First, the Socialists compare the implementation of the Association Agreement with a hidden form of realizing the unionist project – the reunification of Romania with Moldova. The second source of criticism lies in the contestation of the legitimacy of this agreement for the fact that its negotiation involved a confidentiality regime. Thirdly, there is an attempt to alter the significance of the agreement by attributing non-Orthodox traits to it, which are contradictory to the traditional values. Last but not least, the Socialists undermine the liberalization of the visa-free regime with the EU for not including a permissive clause for hiring Moldovans on the European labor market. All these negative aspects addressed to the EU are used to contrast with the advantages, artificially concluded by the Socialists from the integration with the Eurasian Union, and which refer to the permanent neutrality, preferential access to the Russian market, guarantees for migrants and the protection of the Orthodox Christian space (Socialistii.md, 2019).

Instead of conclusions …

The pro-European rhetoric is present in the electoral campaign of 2019, but to a lesser extent than in previous parliamentary elections. Electoral contestants manipulate the degree of geopolitical electoral discourse based on (post) election calculus.

Thus, although the Bloc NOW assumes the most robust pro-EU message, it seems to be somehow fragmented and restricted to the foreign policy dimension. PDM is interested in the EU but only in maintaining the Association Agreement with the EU. And the Socialists opted for a profoundly Eurosceptic approach, but rather to build a more favorable image for the Eurasian Union and the dialogue with Russia.

The low interest in emphasizing the role of the European agenda, both from the electoral competitors and from Brussels, strengthens volens nolens messages coming from the supporters of the Eurasian Union and Russia. Consequently, the percentage superiority of pro-European sympathies get devalued if not fully utilized, and therefore, the Eurosceptic views get more visible, even if they have fewer supporters.

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