In Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a small group of urban activists, with the support of local councilors from the municipal Council, attempted to exercise their constitutional right to organize a local ‘recall referendum’ for the resignation of the city’s Liberal Party mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca. This initiative failed after a decision taken on the 8th of September by the Balti Court (Moldova’s second largest city). The Court of Appeal for the appellate jurisdiction of Chisinau declined to hear the Initiative’s appeal, on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction. However, the organizers of this referendum have not given up yet.
Dorin Chirtoaca was elected in 2007. His widespread support amongst Chisinau citizens was based on the fact that he was young, ambitious and had run on an anti-communist platform, in opposition to the ruling Party Of Communists, a conservative, nomenklatura group. He was the first ‘anti-communist’ to be elected to such a high position by the people.
His campaign focused more on fighting communists, however, than on urban development. This is a pattern that appears repeatedly in Moldovan politics: questions of identity and geopolitical debates take center stage during the election campaigns, in place of pressing local concerns.
In 2011 Chirtoaca was re-elected, by only a slim margin, over Igor Dodon, the Communist Party candidate. The opposition accused Chirtoaca of falsifying the results of these 2011 local elections. However, both Chirtoaca’s popularity and the citizen’s trust in his competence declined during his second term, as a result of his lack of progress in fighting urban problems such as the failure to regulate pavement kiosks, billboards and building on greenbelt land across the city, to maintain roads, to prevent the demolition of historical monuments, and a general lack of transparency and accountability. Chirtoaca’s attempts to address these problems, for the most part, failed.
Activists campaigning for the resolution of such urban issues became increasingly visible in 2012 and 2013. Initially they had hoped to help mayor Chirtoaca to address their concerns. When he rejected their concerns they turned to the early election of an alternative candidate. The first attempts to organize a local recall referendum for Chirtoaca’s resignation were in 2013. They were initiated by the main opposition party, the Socialist Party of Moldova, led by Igor Dodon. This referendum collected tens of thousands of signatures; however it was rejected by the court.
Chirtoaca’s re-election in 2015, for a third term, has been attributed to the lack of a strong opposition. However, monthly public opinion polling recorded Chirtoaca’s ever decreasing popularity during this third term. Chisinau’s urban activists first proposed the organization of a local recall referendum, for Chirtoaca’s resignation, on July 4th 2016. Several urban organizations joined the initiative. Local councilors from the European People’s Party and the Socialists announced that they supported the idea of a local recall referendum. On the 6th of July, Victor Chironda, alongside the activists, Sergiu Tofilat and Vitalie Voznoy, organized a press-conference where he announced a civil society initiative for a recall referendum on Chirtoaca’s mayoralty. The formation of this initiative was a response to a series of high profile scandals, starting with the explosion of a methane canister at a café, ‘La Soacra’, in January 2016. The head of an investigation into allegations of corruption, linking the mayor to discrepancies in the management of road renovations and parking spaces in the city, Victor Chironda, was elected president of the recall referendum initiative.
Opposition parties and civic activists were united by this common goal. On the 11th of July the blog, referendumchisinau.wordpress.com, was launched. On the same day, in accordance with the law, the mayor was notified of the recall referendum. Under Moldovan law, a court must consider authorizing a bid to attempt to secure a recall referendum on a petition threshold of only 20 people.
It was decided that the referendum would take place on the 30th of October, the same day as the presidential elections. This decision drew attention to the cost of such a referendum.
Given Moldova’s deep economic crisis, the recall referendum decision was not taken lightly.
After the meeting, on the 27th of July, the group calling for a referendum presented the required documents to the Chisinau Center Court which registered the referendum on the 1st of August. This decision was taken on appeal in the Court of Appeal for Chisinau by the Liberal Party. Mayor Chirtoaca’s lawyer claimed: “There is no justification for a recall referendum and the budget doesn’t make provision for this”. However, if the referendum were to take place alongside the presidential elections, it would incur minimal additional costs. Furthermore, Chirtoaca has alleged that leaders of this initiative were paid by the Kremlin to organize the recall referendum. He published a poll which claimed that only 22% of Chisinau citizens would vote for the Mayor’s resignation. Subsequently, the results of this poll have been contested due to defects in the way in which it was conducted.
On the 18th of August the constitutionality of this local recall referendum was recognized by the Court of Appeal Chisinau and the case was returned to the Chisinau Center Court for reconsideration. On the 25th of August, the Liberal Party took the Appeal Court’s decision on further appeal before the Supreme Court. Chirtoaca’s lawyer claims that the Court of Appeal does not have the jurisdiction to decide on issues involving the mayor or the municipality of Chisinau.
In early September the Supreme Court decided that this case would be examined by the Appeal Court in Balti, based on the allegation of bias on the part of the Chisinau Appeal court bench. This move has been interpreted as a bid to delay the organization of the referendum. The Balti Appeal Court, on the 8th of September, overruled the decision taken by the Chisinau Center Court to recognize the initiative calling for the recall referendum. As a result activists could not start collecting the signatures they needed to organize the referendum. Victor Chironda claims that the Balti Appeal Court decision denies citizens their constitutional rights. He announced that the case would be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. His appeals for support from a number of embassies in Moldova, however, were ignored.
There are two routes to securing a recall referendum under Moldovan law; firstly, a citizen’s route requiring the collection of signatures to a threshold of 10% of the number of participants at the most recent local elections, and, secondly, a councilor’s route, requiring a two thirds majority of the local councilors. However, the recall referendum vote in the Council garnered the support of only 31 out of 51 local councilors. The Democrat, Liviu Oboroc, and the Liberal-Democrat, Dumanschi, did not attend the meeting and did not vote. Opposition parties have declared that Liberal councilors were warned against supporting the recall referendum vote.
It would appear that the organization of a local recall referendum for Chirtoaca’s resignation has failed. Activists, however, have proposed an alternative;
a boycott of council meetings by local councilors for half a year would initiate the automatic dissolution of the Council. In the ensuing elections to the Local Council they would hope to get enough votes to organize the referendum. The effect of this failure is to increase the confidence of local mayors who now know they need not fear the organization of a recall referendum by citizens, as this constitutional right has been overturned. The case of Chisinau has exposed the fact that selective justice is at work in Moldova.