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MOLDOVAN LOCAL ELECTIONS

It’s 8am on Election Day, Sunday May 25th, and the polling station in Sagaidac is buzzing with activity. Most of the electors are heavily-built women in late middle age, dressed in an apparent uniform of floral print dress, headscarf and pinafore. It’s clear that many of them don’t have much of an idea what to do with their ballot papers. They huddle in small groups, cram into polling booths two or three at a time, and ask anyone who’s young and official looking for advice. Sometimes this happens to be a polling board worker, and sometimes it’s a party representative. You can imagine what advice they get from the latter.

I’m in Sagaidac as an observer with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This is the second of 15 polling stations that John, my partner for the day, and I will visit between the sealing of the ballot boxes at 7am and the start of the count 14 hours later. One of our duties is to talk to the local observers, from parties and from the Moldovan election-observing organisation, LADOM. (Though LADOM claim to have sent over 2,000 observers, in our 15 villages we encountered only one). We ask our first party representative, an irate-looking woman, whether she has noticed any electoral irregularities.

“Certainly,” she replies. “None of the voters are being asked for identification. And see that man next to the ballot box?” She points to the desk where voters have to take their completed ballot papers for validation. Between the official with the stamp and the ballot box sits a stern-looking gentleman. Unless the voters have folded their ballot papers several times, it’s usually possible for him to see whom they’ve voted for. “He’s a communist party worker.”

We move on to the next party observer. Any irregularities to tell us about? “See for yourself,” she says, frustrated, pointing to a young man explaining to a group of confused-looking elderly voters what they should do with their ballot papers. “He works for the communist party.”

Finally, we talk to the stern-looking gentleman by the ballot box. “Are you an observer for the communist party?” we ask. He confirms that he is. “Can we ask if you’ve noticed any electoral irregularities?”

“None at all,” he assures us briskly, with an earnestly authoritative shake of the head. “Everything is just as it should be.”

*

Sagaidac was the exception. In none of the other polling stations we visited did the party observers have any complaints to report, or did we see anything quite as dodgy as a communist party representative perched next to the ballot box. This was the picture across the country. OSCE teams visited a quarter of Moldova’s polling stations and came away with a good impression of most of them, despite having a couple of hundred relatively minor violations to report.

Several of those “minor violations” came from the questionnaires John and I filled in about our 15 villages. For instance: Did we see more than one voter in a polling booth at once? Yes, usually husbands and wives voting together. In most cases this was probably innocuous – they wanted to confer to check they understood the ballot paper correctly. But we couldn’t be sure. Perhaps, say, a PSD-PSL supporting husband was preventing his wife from expressing her heartfelt preference for the Christian Democratic Party. You never can tell.

Were voters being asked for identification? Sometimes, but not always. In some of the polling stations we visited we barely saw a single Soviet passport or Moldovan identity card being produced. People turned up, signed their name, and received a ballot paper. Most of the time this was obviously innocent. A doddery old man shuffles into the polling station in his smart Sunday clothes and carpet slippers, straining his eyes through magnifying-glass spectacles to see which of the desks he should go to. The woman with the appropriate section of the voting list calls him towards her, and it’s clear that he’s lived in the village for 80 years and everyone knows exactly who he is. We can hardly complain that he doesn’t get sent home again because he’s forgotten to bring his papers.

But were there cases of voters who didn’t produce their ID signing for someone else? Very possibly: there was no way we could rule it out. And there seemed to be no reason why the proper procedures shouldn’t have been followed. The best-organised polling station we visited was in Selemet, where every single voter we saw turned up clutching his or her identification card or passport. They’d clearly been told in advance that this would be necessary – and if Selemet’s officials can prepare the ground to educate voters like this, so can officials anywhere.

In fairness, we were impressed by the seriousness with which the election officials in every village we visited took their work. Even in Sagaidac, the hassled president of the polling board tried his best to give guidance to the melee of confused voters and keep them away from party workers. Though you could sometimes find fault with the outcome, you couldn’t doubt the good intent.

The biggest problem on polling day had nothing to do with the election officials, but was caused by the procedure. In most countries, your ballot paper is stamped for validation when you sign for it. You then take it directly from the polling booth to the ballot box, with nobody able to catch a glimpse of it after you’ve made your mark. Here, ballots were presented for validation after the voter had voted – and even when there wasn’t a communist party representative sitting next to him, the official with the stamp could often see which of the candidates’ circles bore the ink mark. Ballots are either secret from everyone, or not secret at all.

*

This was the first time I’d been an election observer. OSCE’s team was composed of foreigners living in Moldova who’d been volunteered by our respective embassies, such as myself, and experienced election-observing experts flown in especially from around the world. What did this exercise achieve? Did we do any good?

My feeling is that there’s only so much you can tell about the freedom and fairness of a vote from this kind of whistle top tour on polling day. We could spot any glaring problems, but candidates would have to be pretty stupid to intimidate voters inside the polling station during the half-hour on election day when there are two foreigners there wearing OSCE armbands. We can pass on complaints we get from voters or domestic observers, but we can’t investigate them. We aren’t Interpol.

And anyway, most serious election fixing is done months in advance when the list of voters is compiled – just asks Jeb Bush. We could inspect the lists in our polling stations, but we couldn’t tell whether any of the names on them were fictitious or duplicated or dead. Nor could we discern whether any genuine voters had failed to get their names added. I’m not suggesting these were problems in Moldova, but they’re things that it’d be hard for election-day observers to catch.

One problem in villages is the number of residents who aren’t there. Touring through our fifteen villages, north of Cimislia, we saw plenty of children and plenty of middle-aged and elderly people, but hardly anyone in their twenties or thirties. It was so noticeable that when we did see someone of young working age, I caught myself wondering why he or she weren’t working illegally in the European Union. So what do you do with these absent voters? Keep them on the list and you increase the chance that someone will fraudulently vote on their behalf, but remove them and you have to add them to the “supplementary list” if they do happen to be home on polling day. In one of our villages, the “supplementary list” contained almost two hundred voters. Were they all genuine? Again, it was impossible for us to judge.

The rules regarding students need to be clarified too. Should they vote in the villages where their families live or in the cities where they study? This was the subject of a court case which ran right up till polling day, and caused a good deal of confusion. Anything that makes it harder for people to vote has to be a bad thing. But this is an organisational issue that should be easy enough to get right next time.

Getting it right next time is fundamentally what this exercise was all about. Why did the OSCE go to all the trouble of sending observers to check on Moldovan local elections? We could see that our presence was often a surprise, such as when we dragged the president of the polling board in Codreni out of his garden on Saturday afternoon to chat to him about how he was safeguarding the democratic rights of the 301 voters in his sleepy, out-of-the-way village. He was cheerfully co-operative but clearly thought we were barmy. Why bother?

The answer, non-obviously, is Transnistria. In truth, the OSCE probably doesn’t care all that much about whether the good people of Codreni can elect their local council in a transparent manner. But it does care about the Transnistrian problem. It seems probable that any lasting resolution to the breakaway republic will involve the Moldovan people in a vote, and any such vote will be more likely to lead to a lasting settlement if the international community is able to express confidence in the fairness of the voting procedures. This is essentially why I was driving slowly past a herd of cows on the road to Porumbrei at 6.30 on a Sunday morning, and inspecting the disputed ballot papers in the Casa de Cultura in Albina as the clock approached midnight. It was a long day, but all in a good cause.

*

National turnout in the local elections was 57%, but in the villages we visited towards the end of the day it was usually well above three-quarters. Polling station staff told us that more villagers tend to vote in local than national elections. This is the exact opposite of the situation in Britain, where local elections are seen as a popularity poll for the national party leaders and where hardly anybody can name their local councillor. In Moldovan villages, it seems, people care greatly about who their mayor is but are less concerned by who runs the country.

This was understandable. Driving around, we saw a way of life that seemed largely self-sufficient at the village level, and that can’t have changed much in centuries. There were more fields being tended by spade than by tractor, and horse-drawn carts outnumbered the battered old Ladas. Electricity and telephone wires provide a link to the outside world, but water comes from wells and sewage goes down pits. Dour and stolid facial expressions bore testimony to the toughness of the life, but the size of many old folks’ bellies suggested that there were limits to the deprivations – and while we saw a few ramshackle houses, there were many more which were brightly and freshly painted. The impression was that most people probably wanted only to be left alone to tend their fields and raise their animals. There were no election posters; party politics didn’t seem all that relevant.

Many people have told me that life was better for villagers under communism, and I could easily imagine how a communal system might thrive when food security is a more pressing concern than freedom of speech. So it’s hardly surprising, though it may seem paradoxical, that many villagers used their democratic rights to express nostalgia for the days in which they didn’t have any.

I can believe that the Soviet system took good care of the villages, but I did see some less-than-impressive signs of communist rule. What’s with the M3 from Chisinau to Porumbrei? A beautiful, wide dual carriageway so bereft of traffic that some small boys were using it as a football pitch. One carriageway abruptly stops where it should become a bridge – woe betide any drivers who aren’t aware of this – and the other one carries on for a while then peters out into a dirt track.

Then there was the Casa de Cultura in Satul Nou, which had a banner across the stage on which it was written: “Development of the socio-cultural complex is a key objective of restructuring”. I think this means – “have fun”. This seems to me to sum up one of the problems of the communist mentality – it may be relatively competent at putting food on the table, but it struggles to understand what else life can be about. You go to the theatre to have fun, not to “develop the socio-cultural complex”. And having fun is an end in itself, not a “key objective of restructuring”.

*

The communists polled 48% nationally in these elections, more than twice their nearest rivals. This may be down to nostalgia or superior organisation or having people sitting next to the ballot box snooping at who you’ve voted for, but it didn’t appear to be the result of spending more money on election materials. In Chisinau in the run-up to election day I got sick of seeing Vlad Cubreacov’s thickly-moustached face glaring at me from posters, and frequently encountered gangs of leaf letters wearing t-shirts with Viorel Topa’s smiling image on the front. But it didn’t seem to do them much good, as they polled barely 10% between them.

It was refreshing, in a way, to see that money spent on advertising seemed to have a hard time influencing votes. Compare that to the primary elections in America in 2000, which produced George W Bush as the Republican presidential candidate. Bush was trounced by John McCain in the first important electoral test, the New Hampshire primary, and owed his eventual victory to subsequently swamping the airwaves with negative advertising paid for by his corporate backers. The correlation between money spent and electoral success was close to perfect.

Of course, you don’t need advertising when you can influence the media in more direct and unsubtle ways. In the pre-election briefing for observers, the OSCE media monitors reported significant bias in both the state-owned and privately owned press. But as I listened to their presentation, I reflected that the situation is no better in my home country, the UK. In fact I’d almost prefer to have half my mass media controlled by the communist party than by Rupert Murdoch.

I had similar thoughts when listening to the presentation on corruption. When a Moldovan politician takes a bribe from a businessman to slip a government contract his way, it’s called corruption. When an American president’s policies benefit the corporations, which funded his election campaign, it’s wearily seen as business – and politics – as usual. But is allowing one candidate’s campaign to be bankrolled by the oil industry really any better for democracy than allowing one candidate’s observer to sit next to the ballot box? I can’t see the reason why.

While there are clearly some things about the electoral process in Moldova that could be improved, based on my observations and conversations with others who observed for the OSCE, I don’t think too much is wrong. I’d be more confident of my vote counting here than I would be in Zimbabwe, say, or Florida.

By Andrew Wright

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