On May 20, the Moldovan opposition passed its first real test of unity when it effectively boycotted the session of the new Parliament -- elected in the controversial polls of April 5 -- that was convened to choose the country's next president. Rapid-fire, there will be another, possibly decisive vote for president, and Vladimir Voronin, the Communist Party head, Parliament speaker, and acting president, called it for May 28.
Moldova, it's true, is a small, obscure country whose troubles are rarely discussed in the power corridors of Washington and Brussels. But the outcome of its current power struggle could prove a bellwether, one that could well determine whether this fragile, forlorn country will more closely embrace Moscow, push forward with its long-promised European integration, or continue to drift in a geopolitical no man's land.
Following the Moldovan opposition's solid showing in the 2007 regional elections -- which, among other things, brought then-28-year-old Dorin Chirtoaca to power as the energetic mayor of the capital of Chisinau -- many Western diplomats and analysts, citing Benjamin Franklin's aphorism to "hang together" lest they hang separately, advised the several opposition parties to merge for the 2009 national elections. Even Marc Tcaciuc, the Communist Party's grandmaster, admitted discretely that the best thing in the long term for Moldova's political culture would be the development of two major, strong, and dueling parties. Tcaciuc even hinted that such a turn of events might induce the Communists to rename their party to something more palatable to a new generation in Moldova and an older one in Brussels and Washington. But that was then.
As it turns out, during the April elections three main opposition parties -- the Our Moldova Alliance, the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party -- failed to integrate their leadership, organizations, and advertising budgets. Rather, they formed a loose coalition of the like-minded and inevitably wound up competing as much against each other as against the incumbent Communist Party. Offering similar-sounding names and platforms, the opposition could not match the Communists' ground game, nor counter its capability (as the opposition asserts) to massage the voter lists and, Lazarus-like, bring the dead to the polls. And when the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a decent report card on the fairness of the April 5 elections, the opposition lost its key lever for sustaining protests.
Belatedly, the three parties have thus far kept it together and used their 41 seats in the 101-seat Parliament to block, along straight party lines, the election of a new president. If the May 28 vote for president fails, then Parliament is dissolved and new national elections must be called. The Communists already have 60 seats, and under the rules need just one more, "golden," vote to form a government and leave the opposition in the dust.
Voronin and Tcaciuc, the Communist leaders, made a smart move in proposing former Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii for the presidency and suggesting former Parliament Speaker Marian Lupu as prime minister. Both Greceanii and Lupu are skilled and dedicated Moldovan patriots, the former a highly competent economist and technocrat, the latter a charismatic polyglot who knows how to handle leaders from East and West.
Many thought that this turn of events presented a conundrum for the opposition. After all, the presidential poll is secret; party discipline is notoriously weak; and the Communists have lots of levers with which to pick off one vote over three tries. Round one, in which Greceanii got 60 votes, shows that the opposition is keeping its vow not to legitimize what it sees as the massive fraud that took place on April 5 and the human rights abuses that followed.
But even if opposition leaders succeed in holding the line, it remains far from certain that their candidates would do better in snap parliamentary elections than they did in April. First, there is no indication that those organizing a new contest would be inclined to correct flaws in the voter lists. Bad lists comprised the essence of the opposition's cry of foul the first time around, and neither Moldova's Central Election Commission nor its Constitutional Court provided any succor. And, with the 41 opposition MPs thus far opting out of just about everything having to do with governing, the Communists are running all the committees in Parliament, including those on elections.
Second, repeat parliamentary elections would take place in summer, when the opposition's most ardent supporters -- young people -- are out of school and harder to reach. Third, the Communists still have the only national campaign network and will once again deploy the administrative resources and obedient media that aided their earlier victory.
Fourth, rightly or wrongly, much of the rural electorate and some of the urban blame the opposition for the violence and excesses following the April 5 vote. Finally, even with an excellent showing, the opposition is very unlikely to increase its seats from 41 to 61, the number needed to choose the president and form the government. A coalition with the Communists would still be inevitable, and now they would have a blocking vote.
If, by prolonging the electoral process, the opposition is looking to somehow advance a legal or constitutional argument, it may be in for a rude awakening, even with the room for maneuver provided by Moldova's muddled and sometimes contradictory laws. Here's why:
Acting President Voronin was recently elected -- by a straight vote of his 60 Communist seats -- as speaker of the Parliament. He is barred by the Constitution from another term as president and can only remain in power until a new president is sworn in. The presidential-election process in Parliament must conclude by June 7. Within 45 days of that, the president-elect must take the oath of office. Thus, Voronin could remain in power until late July if the maximum time is eaten up. But, he must also decide by May 22 whether to continue as acting president or take his new legislative mandate as a member of Parliament. He must be an MP in order to continue in the role of speaker, without which he cannot realize his stated desire to remain the "Deng Xiaoping" of Moldovan politics.
If this weren't enough, the Moldovan Constitution says that when there is no president or if the president is removed for whatever reason, then succession falls to the speaker of the Parliament and then to the prime minister. That means that if the opposition does succeed in blocking the vote in Parliament for a new president, Voronin will transfer power from himself (as acting president) to himself (as speaker). On top of this, the Constitution allows only two elections per calendar year, which means that if snap elections fail to resolve the impasse, Voronin remains as acting president/speaker until at least 2010.
Slow to heed advice about banding together, the Moldovan opposition would be wise to remember another unavoidable truth: "Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true."
Louis O'Neill was White House fellow to then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2004 to 2005 and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.