On May 20, 2018, voters in Chisinau headed to the polls for the first round of what was a very low-key and boring election.
Since 2007, Chisinau has been run like a personal fiefdom by Dorin Chirtoaca, a close personal friend of former Romanian President Traian Basescu.
Chirtoaca was re-elected in 2015 and should still be in office today except that he was arrested in early 2017 on anti-corruption charges relating to the construction of a parking facility.
In July 2017, Chirtoaca was suspended from office, and he resigned in February 2018, paving the way for the May 20 special election, the first in more than a decade without someone from Chirtoaca’s Liberal Party on the ballot.
Prior to the election, Maia Sandu and her PAS party announced that they would be backing Nastase. The Liberal Party, which is run by Chirtoaca’s father-in-law, also announced that they would be backing Nastase, and neither party fielded a candidate of their own.
It should be noted that this was a special election, meaning that no matter who won, they’d only be in office until June 2019 because that’s when regular local elections will be held nationwide.
Although more than 10 candidates ran, the main competitors were Andrei Nastase of the “DA Platform,” Ion Ceban of the Socialist Party, and Silvia Radu, the interim mayor who ran as an independent although press reports have linked her to Plahotniuc, the “secret ruler” of Moldova.
Early indications were that Ceban would win the most votes (but not a majority) with Radu coming in second, clearing the way for a run-off between Ceban and Radu.
Turnout, as expected, was extremely low – just 35%. Ion Ceban won 41% of votes cast while Nastase got 32% (with Radu in distant third with just 17%).
This set the stage for a runoff election on June 3 between Nastase and Ceban.
On June 3, 2018, the results of the second round election were announced.
Nastase had scored a surprise victory, eking out 52.6% of the vote compared to Ceban’s 47.4%. Even more surprisingly, Nastase won thanks to support from older voters who are traditionally seen as more favorable to the Socialist Party.
What wasn’t a surprise was that the turnout was just 39%. I always use my mother-in-law as a bellwether. I know that if she can’t be bothered to walk the 100 meters from her house to the nearest polling station then the turnout is going to be low and that most people aren’t invested in the election.
And so at first, there were no surprises. Nastase had squeaked out a win and that was that.
Sandu, whose entire 2016 Presidential campaign was funded by the Romanian government, was ecstatic. The Liberal Party, which has repeatedly supported “reunification” with Romania was also happy. And Nastase himself announced big plans about using his mayoral victory to build momentum for the upcoming parliamentary elections in November.
And Ceban graciously conceded defeat, wishing Nastase success.
And that was that… at least for a couple of days.
The Judges Strike Back
Everything began to unravel when the Chisinau Municipal Court ruled on June 19 that the mayoral election results were invalid.
The problem was that Andrei Nastase had (rather foolishly) made the decision to post Facebook Live videos urging people to head to the polls, and he did this after the polls had opened on June 3. This is a direct violation of election law here in Moldova which bans all campaigning after the polls have opened.
Both Nastase’s team and Ceban’s team protested the court ruling, saying that the penalty for this blatant violation of election law should’ve been a fine and nothing more.
Lawyers for both parties appealed the court’s decision, so it was sent to the Chisinau Court of Appeals. On June 21, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling.
Promo-LEX, a legal advocacy group financed by the United States, swung into action, attempting to parse why the courts’ rulings were wrong.
The theory was that Plahotniuc was somehow controlling both of these courts in order for “his” candidate, Silvia Radu, to continue on as interim mayor for another year.
Nastase repeatedly made statements to this effect, saying that the rulings were political motivated.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement (now scrubbed from their website) expressing “concerns” over the court ruling, using weasel wording like “judicial independence is a key principle of democracy but… the court’s rulings reinforce the perception of interference.”
Nice one ;)
On June 24, 2018, Nastase, Sandu, and the rest of his coalition held a protest in Chisinau against the court rulings.
Several thousand people attended, including a lot of folks who hadn’t even bothered to vote on June 3, all ostensibly to protest the court’s “theft” of their votes. But the vibe of the protest was almost entirely against Plahotniuc.
Nonetheless, the crowd was pumped up and ready for action. Nastase, who is a rather gifted speaker (in Romanian), told the protestors that they should stay on the streets throughout the night and into the next day when the Supreme Court was scheduled to rule on the case.
Inexplicably, Nastase (and Sandu et al) then disappeared and went home. Within a few hours, the protestors also went home. Only a dozen or so people maintained their vigil throughout the night.
On the morning of June 25, 2018, Nastase’s team filed a last-ditch motion to try and get one of the three Supreme Court Justices, Ion Druta, recused from the case. Nastase’s lawyer argued that Druta was “compromised” due to issues he’s had years ago involving some irregularities, but three other Supreme Court justices ruled against Nastase’s motion.
Nastase then spoke to the press outside the courthouse during deliberations, repeatedly saying that the Court would “be there all night” and how unfair everything was.
Yet within a couple of hours, the Supreme Court ruled that the election was invalidated due to Nastase’s election day campaigning on Facebook.
Washington Weighs In
At this point, Andrian Candu, Plahotniuc’s son-in-law, was meeting with the Atlantic Council and Andriy Parubiy, a Ukrainian lawmaker and founder of not one but two different fascist organizations, in the United States at a ceremony to give an award to Madeline Albright. Candu stated that he was concerned about the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Meanwhile, Pavel “Mr. Midnight” Filip, the Prime Minister of Moldova, was also in the United States on a separate trip to meet with a lot of lame duck Congressmen, including Ed Royce, to shore up support for Filip’s government, which is backed by Plahotniuc.
While expressing “concern” about the court’s ruling, Filip’s main issue was Plahotniuc’s failure to spend more time in public so that people could get to know the “real” Plahotniuc.
Filip also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who was also “concerned” about the Chisinau mayoral race.
On June 28, 2018, Heather Nauert, the spokesperson for the State Department, issued a statement:
The Moldovan Supreme Court’s non-transparent decision to uphold the invalidation of Chisinau’s June 3 mayoral elections represents a threat to Moldovan democracy.
The winning candidate in Chisinau’s mayoral race received a majority of the votes. International observers found relatively minor irregularities that would not justify invalidation of the election results, and there were no calls from election participants to invalidate the results. The Court’s unusual and unwarranted decision thwarts the electoral will of the Moldovan people and damages respect for the rule of law and democratic principles in Moldova.
The European Union as well issued a statement:
The non-transparent invalidation of the mayoral elections in Chisinau, confirmed by the Moldovan Supreme Court of Justice in the evening of 25 June, deprives the people of Chisinau of their democratically-elected mayor, Mr Andrei Nastase, who gained a clear majority in the 3 June elections.
This decision undermines the trust of the Moldovan people in the state institutions. It is to be noted that none of the participants of the electoral process asked for the annulation of the elections.
An independent judiciary, free from any political pressure, ruling in a transparent manner, as well as credible, inclusive and transparent elections at all levels, are pillars of any democracy.
Neither the EU nor the State Department have ever issued a comment about a Chisinau mayoral election before.
The rhetoric from Nastase’s forces began to get very heated indeed. Maia Sandu repeatedly used the word “dictatorship” to describe the court’s rulings.
Nastase also immediately began using the phrase “non-transparency” repeatedly and called for another protest for July 1, 2018.
The American Embassy began warning that the July 1 protests were likely to become violent. USAID, a government agency, began running ads on Romanian-language TV channels stating “democracy matters,” a veiled swipe at the Court’s ruling.
Various second-tier online publications began publishing stories like, “Could this be Moldova’s ‘Maidan’ Moment?” referring to the 2013 protests in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of the government. I personally saw at least 50 different Twitter accounts publish some variation of this in the days prior to the protests.
Meanwhile, the Moldovan Electoral Commission warned against inflammatory and untrue information circulating on TV and the internet, stating that the Commission is a free and independent body.
The Supreme Court published their 38-page ruling (you can find it online here) in which they clearly laid out their reasoning for invalidating the election in the most transparent way possible.
In short, Nastase won the election by 12,000 votes, but his Facebook Live video reached at least that many people (what FB calls “impressions”), therefore it was impossible to know if those voters had gone to the polls as a result of Nastase’s video. The voting results were just too close to be sure whether or not Nastase’s video had tipped the balance.
Despite the clear legal reasoning explained in the ruling, the American government, Nastase, Sandu, and the EU continued to say that the Supreme Court’s ruling was “non-transparent” and darkly hinted that it had been politically influenced.
The Romanian government, meanwhile, was too busy with its own problems to weigh in at all.
If you were watching the media (online and TV) prior to the July 1 protests, you would’ve expected something really major to happen. Violence, clashes, or even revolution.
In reality, only about 3,000 people showed up. They had a nice music concert and a few speeches, and the whole thing was over within a couple of hours. Some “pro-Romania” outlets put the protestors as high as 40,000, but I was an eyewitness, and I can tell you that this is nonsense.
I did, however, see Nastase speaking in front of several caricatures of the individual court judges depicting them as criminals. If that’s not anti-democratic, I don’t know what is.
The atmosphere in Chisinau was very relaxed. I saw lots of people going about their everyday business even just a few streets away from where the protests were being held. People were enjoying a coffee at sidewalk cafes or strolling around with their babies.
In other words, it was a typical Sunday afternoon.
Even the cops were relaxed. I saw some standing around, drinking their own coffees, and there was no sign of the riot cops in armor (Ministry of the Interior troops). Instead, it was just ordinary local cops who have no special gear or weapons.
In fact, the topic I heard discussed the most was the upcoming match between Russia and Spain in the World Cup.
But there was one oddity. Cops had formed a human chain around an entire city block in order to guard Plahotniuc’s party headquarters. I saw no protestors in this area nor any attempt to “break in,” but there were several hundred police all standing around just in case.
At this point, the Supreme Court’s ruling is final, and it’s highly unlikely that any (large) protests will continue. The people of Chisinau will just have to wait until 2019 to choose a new mayor.
And life will go on as usual.
Death of a Dream
What’s actually going on behind the scenes is a bit more complex.
First, the amount of attention given to this special one-year mayoral election is way out of proportion. The European Union is “concerned” because it is highly likely that the Socialist Party will sweep the November parliamentary elections in Moldova and end the Association Agreement for Moldova to (one day) join the European Union.
The American government is coming from a slightly different position. After ignoring Moldova for over a year, Trump’s new Secretary of State, Pompeo, is taking matters into his own hands.
He’s fired James Pettit, the long-serving Ambassador to Moldova, who speaks very passable Romanian and has good contacts in Chisinau but is seen as an “Obama” man.
Someday soon (no one is quite sure when), Pettit will be replaced by Derek Hogan.
Hogan allegedly speaks Russian and is considered to be a “Russia Hand”, which is State Department jargon for someone who is under the delusion that they understand Russian history, culture, language, and politics.
Hogan is, obviously, going to have his work cut out for him, especially in Moldova where there is little familiarity with speaking to people of color.
I have no idea how good his Russian is (everyone from Victoria Nuland to Condoleezza Rice supposedly also spoke Russian, but did so very badly), but he’s going to have to work really hard to develop ties in Moldova.
It also doesn’t help that he doesn’t speak Romanian, which is the preferred language of most of the politicians and groups that sympathize or are allied with the American government.
Therefore, it looks like America and the EU are going to be “iced out” of Moldovan politics following the November parliamentary elections.
It’s understandable then why they were putting so much attention on this special election for the Chisinau mayor, which would ordinarily be forgotten by anyone outside of Moldova.
Nastase and his “pro-EU” allies were supposed to have used their symbolic victory of the Chisinau Town Hall to build momentum towards the November elections. Now, that isn’t going to happen.
That has left the EU and USA without any cards left to play besides shrieking about how democracy matters as long as the courts don’t rule against your preferred candidate.
In a delicious bit of irony, from the EU and USA’s point of view, the politicians in Romania are now corrupt while the justice system is free and fair but the politicians in Moldova are legitimate and it’s the justice system that’s corrupt.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!