Moldova: Outsized political drama

KIEV, Ukraine — Tiny ex-Soviet Moldova continued to churn out political theater far beyond its size this week, as members of the Communist Party dramatically exited parliament’s chambers on Monday before a vote to elect the country’s president.

The walkout meant that Marian Lupu, the candidate from the Alliance for European Integration, parliament’s largest faction, was once again blocked from becoming Moldova’s leader, since the communists staged a similar boycott before a presidential ballot in November. The 101-seat parliament chooses the country’s president by a three-fifths majority, or 61 votes.

Monday’s events were notable for two reasons, observers said. First, the Communist Party (CP) seems to have remained a potent political force, despite its defeat in July parliamentary elections to the Alliance, a collection of four western-leaning parties that collectively captured 53 seats. (The communists nevertheless remained the largest single party with 48 seats.)

Despite reports that eight communist deputies would defect to provide the needed votes for Lupu’s selection, the party managed to maintain ranks. This was seen primarily as the accomplishment of Vladimir Voronin, the party’s iron-willed leader, who served as Moldova’s president for eight years before resigning in September. (Lupu is also a former communist, but left the party to join the opposition this year.)

Second, Moldova’s political standoff between the Alliance and the CP, which has lasted since spring and has at times resulted in political stalemate, continues unabated. Disputed parliamentary elections in April led to violent public protests, which led to a re-vote in July. Now comes the inability to elect a president, and possibly further deadlock.

What comes next is anyone’s guess. Voronin is banking on the prospect that, as per the constitution, parliament will be dissolved, new elections will be called next year and the CP will storm back to power. This would take place no sooner than summer 2010, and maybe as late as October or November.

“Don’t worry,” Voronin said on Monday. “We will return to the parliament after early elections, and we will win.”

Alliance politicians believe that the solution lies not in a new parliament, but in altering the system itself of electing the president. They are championing changing the constitution to lower the number of parliamentary votes, or allowing for direct popular election.

Making a constitutional change, however, would create its own political complications. According to Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, a think tank in the capital Chisinau, deputies must either amend the constitution by the same three-fifths majority, or the population must approve the changes in a referendum.

In other words, Moldova is looking at perhaps another six months of political uncertainty — maybe more.

The situation could bode badly for this impoverished nation of 4 million, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, which subsists from agriculture (with most revenues coming from its wine industry) and remittances sent back from Moldovans working abroad.

The country has been buffeted hard by the international economic slowdown, and the economy is running practically on fumes — mostly in the form of loans from multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund. If Moldova enters into another pre-election cycle, politicians will be loath to make tough, belt-tightening measures that the international bodies usually require for further assistance. Additional pressure will come from the CP, which will pounce on any opportunity to accuse the government of anti-populist measures.

Some analysts believe that caretaker President Mihai Ghimpu’s government has managed to withstand the worst temptations so far to spend beyond the country’s means, and will continue to do so.

“The government will have a very prudential stance,” said Igor Munteanu, chairman of the Chisinau-based Viitorul (Future) Institute for Development and Social Initiative. “They have a commitment to international organizations.”

“Nevertheless, some decisions will be painful,” he added, “for example, a reduction in public-sector spending.”

Another possibility is that the communists are hoisted by their own petard. Analysts quote opinion polls that show the population firmly supporting direct presidential elections, and against another cycle of parliamentary elections. Voronin’s strategy, in other words, could badly backfire.

“I do not believe that the communists have gained too much leverage [on Monday],” said Munteanu. “They wanted to register a blow, but they have not succeeded.”