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“Useful vote” for “least evil”?

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Igor Botan / May 11, 2007
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Local elections — testing ground for electoral strategies

The June 3-scheduled general local elections have entered the third phase — the decisive one. Voters are due to choose the best offers and candidates in the third phase after approximately 1,000 constituencies have been created and electoral candidates have been registered.

The specific features of local elections consist in allowing the testing of various electoral strategies (this article makes abstraction of electoral offers, focussing only on modalities of action of electoral contestants) besides the democratic election of public administration bodies of the respective level.

The precedent local elections (in 1995, 1999, and 2003) revealed that the share of independent candidates who became mayors or councillors was approximately 5–15 percent, with others being elected in local administrative bodies as parties’ candidates. There are several factors which rate the parties better than the independent candidates in eyes of voters, including at local level, though parties enjoy the least confidence among institutions.

Table 1.

How much do you trust ...(very much/to certain extend)? www.ipp.md
The proportional electoral system (voting of party lists), used to elect the Parliament and local councils, has a decisive contribution to increasing the role of parties to detriment of independent candidates. It is known that electors want to vote concrete persons who are or who are not members of parties (uninominal vote), rather than party lists. This is the option of the absolute majority of citizens (according to findings of surveys conducted by the Institute of Public Policy (IPP), 52 percent of respondents plead for the uninominal vote, 19 percent for the vote on party lists). However, voters preponderantly vote the lists when the legislation imposes them to choose between party lists and independent candidates.

Chances of independent candidates would grow at any elections in case of the uninominal vote, a fact demonstrated at the 1996 presidential elections and at the 1999 and 2003 local elections in Chisinau. Known political and administrative personalities such as Petru Lucinschi and Serafim Urechean have joined the electoral race as independent candidates and they won those elections.

These examples suggest very clearly what strategies and under what conditions political parties would have to test them. Indeed, these are practical implications found in the option of voters for their “useful vote” or for the “least evil”.

The “useful vote” has been clearly manifested during eight multiparty electoral campaigns starting with the 1994 elections and ending with the 2005 elections. Thus, between 8 and 17 parties, electoral blocs and dozens of independent candidates participated in elections for the Parliament and local public administration on basis of party lists. Every time 3–4 parties were capable to succeed the electoral threshold (4–6 percent). Surveys and standpoints revealed that the option of segment of voters for the “useful vote” is born from the reason to support the parties credited “with the greatest chances” on the respective doctrinarian segment. This aims not to waste the votes for “favourite” parties credited with “little chance” to succeed the threshold. This explains the desire of political parties to participate separately in campaigns for locals elections, inclusively with the purpose to test their political weight and capacity of attracting or refracting the “useful votes”.

When it is nominally voted the “useful vote” encourages strong independents (Lucinschi, Urechean) who win the elections inclusively due to the option for the “least evil” instead of the “big evil”, particularly at the runoff vote. Strong candidates of parties may also attract “useful votes” in the first round of elections when they become “consolidated candidacies” of several parties (like at the November-December 2005 municipal elections, when the withdrawal of Our Moldova Alliance (OMA) candidate Mircea Rusu had the absolutely confirmed effect — the sympathies for this candidate turned to Dorin Chirtoaca). The “useful vote” in this case consolidated a new trend, kind — “youths for the change,” etc. Thus, strategies on testing the political weight of parties are less relevant at mayor’s elections, with strategies on choosing the “least evil” being in the forefront.

Party of Communists vs. opposition

The three oppositions

As a rule, opposition parties do not stop contesting during electoral campaigns the conduct of the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) and of public authorities. But they act in a dispersed manner. The last remark is especially typical for the ongoing campaign, which has very clear features: the PCRM, besides its status of dominant ruling party, competes with three sorts of opposition or, in other terms, with the “three-in-one” opposition:

The “three oppositions” are remarkable because each of them contests both the governing of PCRM and each other at level of inter-types of opposition and at intra-type level. Thus, relations between the “constructive” opposition parties and between some “intransigent” opposition parties are irreconcilable for sure, if not antagonistic. These reasons give us the most plausible reference point for estimating the chances of opposition parties and ruling party at the present elections.

Opportunities of PCRM

The present “three-in-one” opposition gives very advantageous chances to the PCRM to keep its status of dominant party, though surveys reveal that the rating of the PCRM is on decline and this fact should threaten this quality. However, additionally to the advantages of PCRM as a ruling party, it also enjoys a big privilege of not facing a consolidated opposition with appropriate alternative offers.

Table 2.

Would on next Sunday parliamentary elections take place, what party would you vote? (percentage of all respondents who told their options) www.ipp.md
The last remark is effective particularly for the race for the symbol constituency — the capital of the country Chisinau — with all related implications. But the things are exactly reverse, as the opposition has raised a record number of contestants to face the PCRM candidate in the symbol constituency. This fact has facilitated very much the problem of the PCRM to find a strong candidate. As a result, the PCRM which faced huge problems in identifying a powerful candidate finally contented with choosing a little-known one (who was never part of any survey even in the limits of error margins). Even more, the candidate is so little known that the three highest-ranking state dignitaries had to introduce him to the public! Table 1 reveals very clearly why the three highest-ranking dignitaries (President, Speaker and Prim-minister) had to get involved. The Presidency, the Government and the Parliament enjoy relatively much confidence of citizens. We will see if the Church and the public mass media will act the same way like in the precedent campaigns (see contestations from precedent campaigns and monitoring reports by OSCE), in order to understand why a little-known candidate may have great chances to succeed, though he avoids the direct communication with mass media and public debates with his opponents.

But what implications this state o things may have? Former elections have demonstrated that the turnout in Chisinau is very low when the opposition is dispersed. According to estimates, any candidate of PCRM, no matter how unknown he is, may win the elections in the first round, if the turnout is below 35–40 percent. Of course, this is not an incontestable truth, but a finding based on “morphology” of the Chisinau electorate and electoral activism of these segments. The segments of the electorate sharing the PCRM values or of the one receptive at social promises like pension rises, which come exactly when the electoral campaign begins (the Government raised the pensions with 20% starting with April 1), etc., are most electorally active, making up approximately half of the 35–40 percent. If the turnout at elections in Chisinau exceeds 40–45 percent, the percent of voters usually grows due to participation of electoral segments which do not vote the PCRM and its candidates. Of course, the chances of the PCRM candidate to win drop much under the voters participation increase. It is worth to mention that the number of PCRM supporters in towns and cities is by approximately 15 percent lower than in rural areas, according to surveys.

Also, it is worth to note that the PCRM does not need the “useful vote” in semblance only. The PCRM has seen this done when it converted significant part of “candidate with chances” of opposition parties into its candidates or at least into independents. Secondly, a significant part of the massive segment of undecided voters could find out while examining the size of ballot paper that it is easier to choose the “leader” who has done his best to be the first in the ballot paper than to “have headaches” estimating what representative of the “three-in-one” opposition is best.

Image of opposition

As a mater of fact, all opposition parties consider that it is not worth to create electoral blocs for participation in local elections. All of them hinted that participating in the electoral campaign alone is also a test of the electoral weight before the 2009 parliamentary elections. The creation of the electoral bloc Patria-Rodina by the Party of Socialists (PS) and the Social-Political Movement Ravnopravye (SPMR) is the only exception. This approach makes abstraction of particularities of the concrete situation, being capable to produce long-term negative effects on opposition. Even more, the negative image of the “three-in-one” opposition may become three-dimensional:

1) Contesting but ineffective. Opposition parties have raised hundreds of uncoordinated contestations against conduct of PCRM and electoral bodies. Also, opposition parties have shared their cases to international and local election monitoring institutions, embassies in Chisinau. Many claims of opposition parties are verifiable, this being their synthesis:

The facts invoked above and signalled in contestations and public or individual appeals of opposition parties toward observers are ineffective so far. Observers are not in charge with contesting the breaches of electoral legislation. So, the opposition may establish that the lack of communication between its components on issues of common interest makes it weaker and more helpless. The way the opposition treats the necessity of the Code of Conduct makes it inapt to appeal to this document in order to produce sounding events with participation of mass media, to call on feelings of manipulated electors.

2) Vainglorious but loser. The self-pride of some opposition parties is revealed by shuddered attitudes toward other opposition parties. In this context, optimistic statements that they will win these elections alone in the majority of constituencies, this being the premise of gaining the power at the 2009 parliamentary elections, seem to be groundless. Such attitudes would be understandable if they fit the ratings established by surveys (see Table 2.) or if they came on background of merging processes, not splitting of these parties. It seems more realistic for opposition parties to establish a minimum communication at this stage in order to ensure at least some fair conditions of competing with the ruling party. As regards the capacity of the opposition to consolidate its efforts in terms to profit from an eventual «useful vote» or a vote for the «least evil», the scepticism is inflexible. The «intransigent» opposition is firmly convinced that the electorate will sanction the «constructive» opposition in its favour for the «April 4 vote» in favour of Voronin’s re-election as President”, while the “constructive” opposition has nothing to do but to expect the contrary — the electorate will sanction the inflexibility of “intransigents” and so on. Under these conditions, one must guess what opposition parties will tell the electors whom they assured of their victory when others will win?

3) Well-disposed but counterproductive. The manner of action and argumentation of main opposition parties raises bewilderments. Appeals for unification, etc., are ceaseless, but parties are actually in a preserved division. Usually some parties merge, new blocs appear before parliamentary elections, but they break off later and look for those who are to blame for losses and so on during five electoral cycles! It seems that it is not yet the time of conclusions. Leaders of the “intransigent” opposition publicly accuse the “constructive” opposition of betrayal and co-participation in governing. They publicly claim that they refuse accept “constructive opposition” to “return back”, being lost for opposition. It means that the “intransigent” opposition does not consider an eventual coalition with “constructivists” to consolidate majorities in district and municipal councils, if needed be. Indeed, the “intransigent” opposition pushes in advance the “constructive” opposition toward eventual coalitions with PCRM at local councils’ level. It is hard to understand what this would give them. This kind of conduct would be understandable if the rating of the “intransigent” opposition was on the rise in contrast with ratings of the ruling party and “constructive” opposition, but it is not so (see Table 2.).

It is worth to note that the “three-in-one” opposition will be incapable at Chisinau mayoral elections to tell the “least evil” to voters. It will be impossible for voters to understand from representatives of “intransigent” opposition whom to elect in an eventual runoff vote — a candidate of PCRM or a candidate of the “constructive” opposition? Changing the places of representatives of the two oppositions, it will be unclear who would be the favourite as the “least evil”. This means to induce the absenteeism in favour of the PCRM.

The existence of at least several consolidated candidacies of the opposition, if not one, in order to raise the interest for the “useful vote” or for the vote for the “least evil”, if needed be, is a condition to encourage the participation in elections. The recent presidential elections in France demonstrated how the mechanisms of the “useful vote” and vote for the “least evil” function in the runoff vote and French sociologists have even calculated the percents.

Conclusions

  1. The “three-in-one” opposition provided the PCRM with unsuspected chances to finally win the elections for the Chisinau mayor post. This would happen in the conditions when the PCRM candidate is the least known among all those who ever competed on behalf of this party and when the rating of the PCRM is on the decline;
  2. Testing the electoral weight of parties is plausible for election of local councils, in particular, of district councils, when in fact symbols of parties are voted. Strategies aimed at testing the weight of parties by participating in mayoral elections, particularly for the post of Chisinau mayor, are profoundly wrong. Calling for the induction of the “useful vote” at mayoral elections must normally prevail after the precedent experience and recent examples. Such a conduct would be of public interest, encouraging the turnout of voters;
  3. Bad relations between “constructive” and “intransigent” oppositions pose the risk of worsening them in this campaign till an irreconcilable antagonising, favouring the post-electoral situation of the dominant ruling party. Coalitions will be created in electoral councils after elections and the conduct of the “intransigent” opposition may annihilate any possibility of building eventual major local coalitions with the “constructive” opposition in detriment of PCRM. The PCRM cannot wish more in its favourable enough situation;
  4. It is necessary to undertake measures in order to ensure equal conditions for all contestants, when the three highest-ranking public dignitaries (the heads of state, Parliament and Government) got involved de facto in the electoral campaign on behalf of the PCRM candidate. It is unfair that the PCRM candidate only enjoys the transfer of authority from holders of the key public posts to detriment of other candidates;
  5. By taking such actins the high-ranking dignitaries run the risk of not to be understood. Thus, the chief of state supported the PCRM candidate in 2003, too, assuring the residents of Chisinau that the person he promoted was exactly what they needed. After PCRM candidate lost the elections it became clear that the chief of state did not use the wonderful skills of the candidate he praised in interest of other public service. There are no guarantees that the skills of the present PCRM candidate for the post of Chisinau mayor are better than of the candidate “guaranteed” by the chief of state in 2003. The dignitaries should normally create equal conditions for the PCRM candidate and other contestants, so that the first to “brace” himself in a true electoral race and electors to distinguish alone the best candidate;
  6. The general public interest is to raise voters’ participation. It would be very funny to see the three highest-ranking dignitaries plead for restoration of an equilibrium and pushing the opposition to identify the best among them so that the PCRM candidate to face at least 2–3 strong contestants, calling for the victory of the strongest and most convincing candidate and contributing this way to a better turnout of the electorate;
  7. Political parties participating in elections have maximum two weeks to revise their electoral strategies, though they are not expected to do this. However, the opposition candidates may try to identify the strongest contestants among them, with others leaving the ground to the first. The strongest liberals, social-democrats, socialists and Christian-democrats could attract the “useful votes” of electors who share their visions. The electoral weight of parties may be tested in the race for the municipal council;
  8. The eventual “consolidated opposition” at least on doctrinaire segments could suggest voters in advance what is the “least evil” in an eventual runoff vote in the Chisinau municipality. Such measures only may ensure an interest of electors for competition. The utility of such strategies was confirmed at the 1996 presidential and 2003 municipal elections when more people participated in the runoff vote;
  9. Electoral candidates ignore appealing to the Code on Conduct and this proves the lack of cohesion in fields of common interest, too. Opposition parties do not guess what profit of image and encouraging signals they could send to electors by jointly acting on problems of common interest. The moral advantage that the opposition would gain and which would be materialised via mass media would reveal how freely and comfortably it feels in covering events of public interest;
  10. The eventual stake of opposition parties on negative reports by national and international election monitoring missions poses risks rather than brings benefits to Moldova and these parties. A negative mark given by international monitoring missions for elections would bring arguments to the European Commission for keeping Moldova far away from a serious discussion on integrationist issues. Calling on support of international institutions and embassies is opportune for an immediate intervention to remedy deficiencies like at the Gagauzia elections;
  11. The present elections may still be free and fair if they finally satisfy all those concerned because little breaches of legislation are registered and following facts are established: voters were not manipulated; electoral candidates tried to give solutions to existing problems not to fight and settle accounts; public authorities honoured the tasks to ensure a honest transfer of sovereignty from people to their representatives, in compliance with Constitution; observation missions (OSCE, CoE, Coalition 2007, etc.) ascertained the exemplary electoral process recommended for other states, too, etc. All these facts would deserve a further decision of the European Commission to praise the democratic component of EU — RM Action Plan and to launch a new offer on relations with Moldova in accordance with the achieved progress.
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