The lack of political will to carry out rule of law reforms is frequently the reason why reforms are not fully implemented. The case of Moldova proves that in societies where strong vested interests still persist, political savviness is equally as important as political will.
Old and new political power brokers in Moldova struck a fragile pact in June to oust Vladimir Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc had built a network of corruption and patronage with the help of the Democratic Party, which he treated as a personal vehicle and which allowed him and a small economic elite circle to enrich themselves off of government institutions and state-owned enterprises, to the detriment of Moldovan citizens and the health of their political process.
Maia Sandu, co-leader of the pro-reform ACUM electoral bloc, then formed a technocratic government with a remit to implement Moldova’s lagging reform agenda. Though made up of ministers with the integrity and political will to implement difficult transformational reforms, its biggest weakness was its coalition partner – the pro-Russian Socialists’ Party and its informal leader, Igor Dodon, the president of Moldova.
Now the Socialists – threatened by how key reforms to the justice system would impact their interests – have joined forces with Plahotniuc’s former allies, the Democratic Party, to oust ACUM, exploiting the party’s lack of political savviness.
It was always clear the coalition would be short-lived. President Dodon and the co-ruling Socialists joined to buy themselves time, with the hope that they could restrict the most far-reaching reforms and tie the hands of ACUM ministers. In less than five months, however, the Sandu government initiated key reforms in the judicial system, aimed at dismantling Plahotniuc’s networks of patronage but also impacting the Socialists, who to a large degree also profited from the previous status quo.
The red line came over a last-minute change in the selection process of the prosecutor general proposed by Sandu on 6 November, which the Socialists claimed was unconstitutional and gave them the justification to put forward a motion of no confidence in the Sandu government. This was conveniently supported by the Democratic Party, who appeared threatened by an independent prosecutor’s office and saw an opportunity to return to power.
Thus, the political will to reform proved insufficient in the absence of a clear strategy on how to address the concerns of the old regime that they would be prosecuted and their vested interests threatened. Here, ACUM’s lack of political experience let them down. With their hands tied from the beginning in a fragile coalition with the Socialists, ACUM were unable to prevent sabotage from within state institutions and their own coalition, and could not find consensus to proceed with more radical methods to tackle corruption.
Less than two days after the Sandu government was out, a new government was sworn in on 14 November. Prime Minister Ion Chicu was an adviser to President Dodon before taking office and former minister of finance under the Plahotniuc-backed government of Pavel Filip, as part of a cabinet of ministers consisting largely of other presidential advisers and former high-level bureaucrats and ministers from the Plahotniuc era.
The new government
A top priority for the Chicu government is to convince the international community that it is independent from President Dodon, and that its ‘technocrats’ will keep the course of reforms of the Sandu government. This is critical to preserving the financial assistance of Western partners, which the Moldovan government heavily relies on, particularly with a presidential election campaign next year, when they will likely want to create fiscal space for various giveaways to voters.
But within its first week in office, Chicu appears incapable of walking this line. Reverting to the initially proposed pre-selection process of prosecutor general signals that the post could be filled by a loyal appointee of President Dodon. Moreover, Chicu’s first visit abroad was to Russia, allegedly a major financial contributor of the Socialists’ Party. With the Socialists now holding the presidency, government, Chisinau mayoralty, and the parliament speaker’s seat, the danger of an increased Russian influence on key political decisions is very real.
A government steered by President Dodon risks bringing Moldova back to where it was before June, with a political elite mimicking reforms while misusing power for private gains. The biggest danger is that instead of continuing the reform process to bring Moldova back on its European integration path, the new government may focus on strengthening the old patronage system, this time with President Dodon at the top of the pyramid.
This new minority government, supported by the Democrats, is a more natural one for President Dodon and therefore has more chances to survive, at least until presidential elections in autumn of 2020. Both the Socialists and the Democrats will likely seek to use this time to rebuild their own methods of capturing state resources. But with the Socialists relying on the Democrats’ votes in parliament, this is a recipe for further political instability.
Similar to Moldova, several other states across the post-Soviet space such as Ukraine and Armenia have had new political forces come to power with the political will and mandate to carry out difficult reforms to strengthen rule of law and fight systemic corruption in their countries. What they all have in common is the lack of political experience of how to create change, while old elites, used to thinking on their feet to defend their vested interests, retain their connections and economic and political influence.
Moldova is a good example of why political will needs to be backed up by clear strategy on how to deal with threatened vested interests in order for new political forces to be able to maintain themselves in power and reforms to be sustainable. When the chance comes again for fresh leaders to come to power, it is importantthey are politically prepared to use it swiftly and wisely.