First woman wins elections in Moldova, but the battle is far from over

On November 15 the young reformer Maia Sandu convincingly won the presidential elections in Moldova. By defeating the Moscow-oriented Igor Dodon she became the country's first female president. She became a stateswoman with integrity, supported by a maturing political party, says Stanislav Secrieru for Carnegie Moscow. But it was the overwhelming support of a diaspora of a quarter of a million Moldovans that secured her victory. Putin congratulated her, but Dodon tellingly immediately left for Moscow. It is the start of an uphill fight.

moldova maia sandu

by Stanislav Secrieru

Moldovan politics are traditionally a messy affair, with twists and turns that may surprise even the most astute observers. Back in 2019, few predicted the political downfall of Moldovan tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc or the formation of a governing coalition between politically incompatible forces. In this regard, the presidential elections of November 15 are no exception. Just like four years ago, the 2020 race saw Igor Dodon, a practitioner of patronal politics, face off against Maia Sandu, a fervent reformer. While all opinion polls put the incumbent Dodon in the lead, Sandu prevailed in the first round by a 3.5 percent margin. Instead of the expected close result in the runoff, Sandu triumphed by 15.5 percent. This impressive win for Sandu and crushing defeat for Dodon deserve to be unpacked.

Electoral Slam Dunk

There are several factors that, taken together, may explain this spectacular outcome. 

The first is experience. Back in 2016, Sandu was still in the middle of her transition from a successful technocrat to a politician of national caliber. Dodon was also a technocrat, but made the transition to politics much earlier. In terms of political games and communication, he had the edge. Sandu spoke like a project manager; Dodon acted like a savvy populist. Sandu stayed away from toxic politicians; Dodon has been less selective in choosing political allies to further his political ambitions.

However, after a period of political reconnaissance, Sandu learned how to talk and to practice political elbowing without losing credibility. It was Sandu who pushed for a tactical coalition with Dodon in 2019 to dislodge Plahotniuc, whose grip on Moldovan politics had become dangerously tight. At the same time, as prime minister she did not cling to power at any cost. Sandu kept pushing for an anti-corruption agenda, which was a no-go for Dodon who, after five months, decided to pull the plug on the alliance. Overall, though not without bruises, Sandu emerged stronger and better prepared for a brutal election campaign.

Frozen conflict of Transnistria, relations with Russia

1917: Moldova joins Rumania

1924: USSR recaptures eastern part of Moldova (Transnistria = Behind the river Dniestr)

1941: USSR occupies Moldova

1990: Russia-oriented region of Transnistria tried to secede from Moldova

1991: after the collaps of the Soviet Union Moldova declares independance; after hostilities with Transnistria the Russian 14th Army (already stationed in the region) intervenes and upholds the autonomous status of the region. In 2006 more than 90 percent of the population of Transnistria in a referendum voted for independance, but the international community didn't recognise the outcome. It became one of the 'frozen conflicts' of post-Soviet-territory . The population in Transnistria (500.000) mainly speaks Russian. The capital is Tiraspol. 

Moldova (capital Chisinau) has 3,5 million inhabitants; two-thirds are of Rumanian origin and speak Rumanian. Part of the Moldovans favor a merger with Rumania. But although the political elite urges the Russian troops to leave, it mostly has been oriented towards Russia. Vladimir Putin recognized the victory of Sandu immediately, but Dodon's first step after his defeat was a visit to Moscow. 

moldova map

The second factor is party support. In 2016, Sandu’s political project, Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), was still in its infancy and short of funds, with few territorial structures and facing constant harassment of its supporters by law enforcement bodies. Dodon was backed by the formidable political machine of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), which had cannibalized the local structures of the former hegemonic Communist Party of Moldova.

By 2020, PAS had become a veritable political force, too, with mayors, local councillors (as a result of the 2019 local elections), and functional branches across the country. In terms of infrastructure and resources, it remained vastly inferior to PSRM, but still, Sandu had much stronger and better organized support on the ground than four years ago.

The third factor is perception. The images of both candidates had undergone a dramatic shift in the four years since the last election. Sandu managed to add to her unblemished integrity (a very rare quality in the post-Soviet region) the gravitas of a stateswoman who has experience in managing the country and representing it internationally. She was also able to rekindle hope among Moldovans: not an easy task in a country where the population is chronically disappointed in its political class.

Dodon’s image, meanwhile, rapidly sank. His unnecessarily numerous visits to Moscow created the impression in the public opinion of a Russian puppet. The overdose of overt Russian support (and also covert support exposed by media) backfired. Dodon’s informal alliance with Plahotniuc came back to bite him, too. A video of Dodon receiving a plastic bag allegedly containing money from the tycoon became a viral meme and the source of multiple jokes. Kuliok (a plastic bag) became the president’s derogatory nickname, and it is probably the word of the year in Moldova. This was devastating for Dodon’s image and popular standing. On top of all this, the outgoing president had no major achievements to show: only a mismanaged coronavirus epidemic and the looming economic storm. 

The fourth factor is competition in the populists’ camp. While in 2016 Dodon was populist-in-chief of the pro-Russian flank, things changed dramatically when Renato Usatii, the leader of Our Party (which was excluded from parliamentary elections in 2014), returned from Moscow. With formidable communication skills, more refined populism wreathed in anti-corruption discourse, and the simultaneous use of the Russian and Romanian languages, Usatii successfully chipped away at support for Dodon.

In the first round, Usatii got an impressive 16.9 percent; in the diaspora vote he came first in Russia (Dodon’s traditional turf) and second in Europe. This partially explains Dodon’s underperformance in the first round. In between the two rounds, Usatii used his growing presence on social media to keep pounding Dodon. Ultimately, he called on his supporters to vote against Dodon, and some of them did, contributing to Sandu’s big win. 

Sandu learned how to talk and to practice political elbowing without losing credibility

Last but certainly not least — in fact, probably the most important factor — is the diaspora. Moldovans living abroad vote overwhelmingly for pro-European parties and candidates. They also turn out in large numbers to exercise their right to vote. In 2016, 67,000 members of the diaspora voted in the first round of the election, followed by almost 139,000 in the second. The upward trend is therefore nothing new.

The first round in the 2020 election two weeks ago only confirmed this ascendant tendency, with 149,000 votes cast outside Moldova. This diaspora activism unnerved Dodon, who described Moldovans living and working abroad as a parallel electorate whose agenda and preferences are in stark dissonance with those living in Moldova. This description, voiced between the two rounds, caused an uproar among the diaspora. Migrants sent home a sum equal to 16 percent of Moldova’s GDP in 2019, making the diaspora the biggest 'foreign investor;  in Moldova. Voters living abroad responded to the president’s remarks at the ballot boxes, and this proved fatal to Dodon’s chances of reelection.

moldova sandu and dodonSandu won a landslide victory over president Dodon

In the second round, 262,000 people voted abroad, and 92 percent of them chose Sandu, ensuring an electoral slam dunk. This record participation by the diaspora offset the effect of organized voting of (31,000) Moldovan nationals from the breakaway region of Transnistria, who voted overwhelmingly for Dodon. The diaspora accounted for 16 percent of all voters in this election and became a force to be reckoned with.

President Sandu has limited powers

After tycoon Plahotniuc fled the country, Dodon embarked on a power grab to preserve the old system of patronal governance. One pillar holding up that system just collapsed, and it’s fair to assume that a President Sandu will keep hammering to take out the remaining ones. 

Dodon's unnecessarily numerous visits to Moscow created the impression of a Russian puppet

Moldova is a semi-parliamentary republic in which the president has limited yet not entirely symbolic powers. For example, according to the law, the president coordinates the work of the intelligence services and presides over the Supreme Security Council. Sandu can be expected to frame corruption as a national security threat and to try to use the institutional power she has to galvanize the work of relevant structures in this field.

The head of state also appoints judges, and the newly elected president is likely to veto the appointment of those who are suspected of corruption or do not meet high integrity standards (not the case under Dodon). The president also nominates the prime minister, and according to a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling, she may reject candidates (proposed by parliamentary factions) on the same grounds. These are just a few examples of how Maia Sandu could wield her power to pierce the shield of the patronal system. 

The popular vote confers a high level of legitimacy to the president. It is very likely that Sandu will exercise the right to address parliament to voice her opinion on topics of major interest for society. Given the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, she is likely to advocate for a more vigorous and better organized response. Her background in economics will encourage her to speak out more on issues of economic and social development, too. To put pressure on the governing coalition, which is reluctant to carry out reforms, she may use the right to introduce legislative initiatives. 

Public polarization

The presidential campaign exacerbated the public polarization, and Sandu will perhaps try to heal the divisions. During the electoral campaign, she began addressing Russian-speaking minorities in the Russian language to try to dispel any fears they might have regarding her candidacy. In the wake of her electoral win, she thanked Moldovans in Russian as well as Romanian. As president, she might continue to use both languages to bridge the existing divides and unite society around problems that affect all Moldovan nationals, regardless of their ethnicity or spoken language.

The president enjoys important powers in the field of foreign policy. The priority for Sandu will be to reopen the top-level dialogue with two key neighbors (Ukraine and Romania) and reach out to the EU. In four years, President Dodon made no state visits to Kyiv or Bucharest, while relations with Brussels were put on the back burner. Moldova’s neighbors largely ignored Dodon for his short-sighted declarations regarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and hostile verbal attacks against Romania. The scope of interaction with the EU was limited by Dodon’s resistance to reforms.

The scope of Moldova's interaction with the EU was limited by Dodon’s resistance to reforms  

The new head of state is likely to change all that. For Moldova, it is an impermissible luxury to have frozen dialogue at the top level with Romania, the country’s single most important trading partner (over 25 percent of exports go there, compared with 9 percent to Russia) and a vital player in terms of energy security. Ukraine too is important for Moldovan trade, ecological security, and for Transnistria. The EU is and will remain in the years to come Moldova’s main export market and a partner for multidimensional development; even more so as the economic effects of the pandemic increasingly become felt in Moldova. 

If the epidemic allows, Brussels, Bucharest, and Kyiv will likely be the first capitals on the new president’s travel itinerary. Sandu may create a better atmosphere, improve communication, and negotiate and conclude new accords, but if all these efforts are not followed up at a governmental and parliamentary level, presidential diplomacy will render few palpable dividends. And this leads to the incoming president’s key imperative: to foster a functional majority in parliament that produces a reformist government. But the current political configuration in parliament is not conducive to a major reforms push.

Need for Early Elections

Rarely has there been such a broad consensus in Moldova regarding the weak legitimacy of the current parliament and the need for early elections. But the consensus among political parties exists only in words, and not in deeds. Most of the political forces represented in parliament resent the idea of early elections, as many might not accede again or will secure fewer seats. 

Among those with a chance of getting into the next parliament, only two parties genuinely favor early elections: PAS [of Sandu] and Our Party [of Usatii]. Both conducted successful campaigns and their leaders are on the rise in opinion polls. Naturally, both are looking to convert their advantages into more mandates and thus greater political influence. Our Party is more eager to trigger elections because it currently has no representation in parliament.

The only means for Our Party to achieve this objective is by building enormous public pressure and seeking allies in parliament. To this end, Usatii can be expected to use his charisma and communications skills to damage political parties that are obstructing the dissolution of the parliament, primarily PSRM. He also may try to reach out to PAS in the hope of nudging it toward a more aggressive strategy. While interested in early elections, PAS probably will show a more cautious approach as it keeps in mind the need to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic and economic crisis. 

Dodon's party is getting ready for political and legal trench warfare against the incoming president 

In response, Dodon's PSRM is likely to dig in its heels. Realizing between the two rounds that defeat was not out of the question, Dodon apparently established a new informal but shaky majority in parliament by joining up with Sor Party (the party of a runaway oligarch involved in banking fraud in Moldova) and a number of 'political tourists' controlled remotely by Plahotniuc. Having lost the presidency, PSRM has no time to lick its wounds; it is regrouping to defend control over parliament and government in order to prevent early elections with the worst possible timing for the party. PSRM is getting ready for prolonged political and legal trench warfare against the incoming president. 

moldova tycoon vladimir plahotniucMoldovan tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc from abroad still influences politics

The new majority may amend legislation to strip Sandu of some competences (e.g., reversing the 2019 amendments that empowered the president to coordinate the work of the intelligence services), and will sabotage presidential initiatives and flood the Constitutional Court with requests to verify the constitutionality of the president’s actions.

PSRM may also push for legislation that will curb the diaspora’s right to vote in the future. All of this might look like a smart strategy in normal times; amid a pandemic and growing prospects of a severe economic crisis, it may blow up in PSRM’s face. Not to mention that a frontal attack on the diaspora will prove self-defeating. 

Any government in Moldova will need an external cash injection to weather the coming winter. Russia may provide a loan, but it will have to calculate whether it is worth backing a sinking political ship or whether the time has come to throw its weight behind an alternative political project or actor. The IMF or the EU may provide financial support, but only in exchange for reforms. However, the majority that has emerged in parliament is more about muddling through politics and less about reforms. Even if PSRM shows some openness toward reforms, the other two shareholders in the coalition (Sor and Plahotniuc) could withdraw their support at any time. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that Plahotniuc’s second and less numerous group of 'political tourists' in parliament will keep publicly attacking PSRM’s government. From Plahotniuc’s vantage point, a weak PSRM is a more dependent and malleable PSRM. An additional complicating factor for the Socialists may be the outgoing president. If Dodon returns to the party’s leadership, PSRM risks importing his kuliok image, with far-reaching negative repercussions. Dodon is no longer a locomotive driving the party’s electoral performance up; he is a politically toxic asset. If the Socialists don’t find the will to reset the leadership team, the party may face decline or fragmentation. 

Early elections in Moldova are probably unavoidable. The public pressure will keep growing with every passing day. The question, therefore, is not if, but when. PSRM will drag its feet in the hope of triggering elections at the best possible moment for the party, but that moment may never come. The Socialists may lose control over the political dynamics and agenda. Today there are too many uncertainties to try to foresee when early elections will take place and what the contours of the new power configuration might be. One thing is sure: Moldovan politics is bound to remain as chaotic and unpredictable as ever.

This article is part of the Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue project supported by the EU Delegation to Russia. Stanislav Secrieru is one of the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy core group members.

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