Elections in Moldova's Gagauzia: Particularities and prognoses

gagauzThe election campaign in Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia is over and its people voted on March 22nd 2015 for their next bashkan (governor). It is time to make some conclusions about the specifics of how the campaign was conducted and to predict the results of the vote.


The elections in Gagauzia were strongly influenced by the current geopolitical situation in the region, by the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine, by the particularities in the relationship between Chisinau and Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia), as well as by the results of parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova, which took place on November 30th 2014.


The current confrontation between Russia and the West caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and tensions in Moldovan-Russian relations after signing an Association Agreement by Moldova both affected the Russian-speaking autonomous region. In a referendum which took place on February 2nd 2014, 98.6 per cent of people expressed their support for closer relations with the Customs Union. All these factors became decisive for the formation of the key points of the candidates' electoral programs. As a result, most of them emphasised their affinity for the Russian Federation, trying to win over a significant portion of the electorate. Even Nikolay Dudoglo, who is a member of the Moldovan parliament from the pro-European Democratic Party, focused on his ties with Vladimir Khomeriki, the Russian President’s trusted representative. This drew attention to the need to develop relations with the Russian Federation, and a consulting center was opened in Comrat to help residents of Gagauzia with getting permission to work in Russia.


In turn, the Russian leadership could not miss the chance to exert geopolitical influence on the autonomy of the Republic of Moldova. At the beginning of the election campaign, Gagauzians expected statements from the Kremlin about supporting one of the candidates. On February 3rd 2015, Igor Dodon, the leader of the Russia-backed Party of Socialists—which due to pro-Russian statements gained 57.1 per cent votes in Gagauzia in last parliamentary elections— announced Russia’s support for Irina Vlakh. Since that time Ms. Vlakh has met the Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin, the Chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matvienko, and took part in a ceremony for signing an agreement t to establish trade,economic and cultural cooperation between Comrat and Moscow. As a result, her ratings have gone up. During the election campaign she focused on plans to deepen co-operation with Russia and strengthen economic ties that could lead to an increase of Russian investment in Gagauzia, a decrease in unemployment, and the allowance of Gagauzian exports to the Russian market. However, in case she wins the election, it will be difficult to make good on these promises in accordance with Moldovan and Gagauzian law.


Additionally, negative perceptions of European integration in Gagauzia, as well as the failure of reforms which should be made by Chisinau, coupled with a worsening of living standards, has Gagauzia mapexcluded the European question from the election in this Russian-speaking autonomous region. The point is that a candidate’s support for European integration processes and his or her ties with central ruling parties will lower his or her ratings. So each candidate was registered as an independent and avoided comments on the positive aspects of European integration.


It is evident that several key political groups were formed in Gagauzia which rallied around its candidates. For example, fifteen mayors of Gagauzia supported Nikolay Dudoglo, fifteen deputies of the local parliament (the People's Assembly of Gagauzia) headed by its chairman Dmitriy Konstantinov were in favour of ex-bashkan Dmitriy Kroytor, and the incumbent governor of Gagauzia Mikhail Formuzal helped Irina Vlakh to win. In case of a possible second round of elections, supporters of Dudoglo and Kroytor could combine their efforts in order to defeat their main rival, Irina Vlakh.


At the end of the election the leaders were: the member of parliament Irina Vlakh, ex-mayor of Comrat and current member of Moldova’s parliament Nikolay Dudoglo, the deputy head of the executive committee of Gagauzia Valeriy Yanioglo, and ex-bashkan Dmitriy Kroytor. Since the beginning of March 2015 a lot of different opinion polls have been published in local media.


According to a survey conducted by the "Intellect Group", Irina Vlakh was poised to win 57.3 per cent of the vote, Nikolay Dudoglo was expected to win 23.3 per cent, Valeriy Yanioglo was expected to win 8.5 per cent, and Kroytor was expected to take 5.2 per cent. Another survey, prepared by the Sociological Center "Dialog" gave the following predictions: 53.2 per cent of the vote for Vlakh, 12.6 per cent of the vote for Dudoglo, and 10.4 per cent of the vote for Yanioglo. . Finally, a poll prepared by "CBS-AXA" gave Vlakh 43.3 per cent against Dudoglo’s 15.6 per cent.The only survey that did not predict Vlakh’s victory was run by the youth movement "Union for the future": which predicted Dudoglo at 33.1 per cent, Vlakh at 29.6 per cent, Yanioglo at 8.5 per cent, and Kroytor at 7.1 per cent.


Using these results, it was difficult to predict whether Irina Vlakh would win in the first round of voting, as Moldovan and Gagauzian political elites continued to use proven electoral technologies to adjust the results of the voting. These technologies include publication of false sociological research to influence voter opinion, the use of administrative resources to fit the real voting results to the desired numbers, vote buying, voter fraud, organisation, etc. In light of the news in the media of Gagauzia about the presence of "dead souls" on the electoral lists, registration on one address for twelve people, mention on a list of the same person more than once, it is a little hard to believe in the transparency of the ballot and the counting of votes. It would be difficult to evaluate the level of falsification because there were no exit polls. On March 18th 2015, The Institute of Marketing and Polls IMAS-INC refused to conduct a voter exit survey.


It could be assumed that the elections would be held in two rounds of voting. Irina Vlah and Nikolay Dudoglo were the most serious candidates to compete. However, it was expected that Irina Vlah would also possibly win in the first round.


Despite loud promises during the election campaign, the next bashkan of Gagauzia should seek a balance in relations with Chisinau and try to meet the demands of the electorate.


Igor Karpechenko is an expert at the Centre for Black-Sea Studies in Odessa, Ukraine.