1 – Moldova Torn between Past and Future
BSSB.BE moldovanpolitics.com/ 14.11.2016
On October 30, 2016, for the first time in 20 years, Moldovans went to the polls to elect their president directly. Before the March 2016 Constitutional Court ruling, which reintroduced direct elections, it was the national legislature that elected the head of state, provided that a 61 vote majority could be reached in a Parliament of 101 members. Unsurprisingly, the three fifths majority was hard to achieve in an increasingly divided and partisan political climate. This situation was, in turn, a result of a proportional electoral system typical to a nascent post-Soviet electoral democracy plagued by paternalism, corruption, and parochial political culture.
In light of hasty constitutional change, viewed by many as an attempt by the government to defuse the opposition protest movement sparked by the infamous billion dollar scandal, the campaign season was very short. Of the 24 candidates who ventured into the race, only twelve were able to collect enough signatures of support in order to be registered by the Central Election Commission.
- Of those twelve, only nine made it to election day. Two candidates withdrew, and the third one was excluded by a court ruling on charges of breaking campaign finance laws. Still, according to polls, only four candidates had an actual chance of winning: Igor Dodon, Maia Sandu, Andrei Nastase, and establishment candidate Marian Lupu.
- In a highly anticipated, yet nonetheless astonishing move, one of the leading candidates, Andrei Nastase—a civic protest leader turned politician, currently heading the center-right Dignity and Truth Party—withdrew in favor of Harvard-educated World Bank economist and former Education Minister Maia Sandu, leader of the center-right Action and Solidarity Party.
- Sandu (aged 44), arguably the most influential female politician in the country’s history, is running on a platform of integrity and social inclusion underpinned by a pro-Western foreign policy. She draws her support primarily from forward-looking, more educated younger urban voters.
However, an even more surprising withdrawal occurred just four days before the election as Chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, Marian Lupu, left the race endorsing Maia Sandu. Yet, unlike Nastase’s support, Sandu rejected Lupu’s endorsement and that of his fellow party member Vlad Plahotniuc, often regarded as Moldova’s oligarch-in-chief. According to polls, Plahotniuc is the most hated national politician, ubiquitously accused of having captured the Moldovan state. Thus, his endorsement was toxic for whoever was on the receiving end.
The move clearly benefited Sandu’s opponent, Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who lost no time in labeling Sandu as not only Washington’s candidate, but also Plahotniuc’s puppet.
However, evidence suggests that Plahotniuc’s support for Sandu was only declarative since the media empire he owns and the Democratic Party he controls remains neutral at best, if not actually covertly supporting Dodon. Despite being a leftist, front runner Igor Dodon, is hardly progressive when it comes to social issues.
He promotes religious conservatism, having received Russian Patriarch Kirill’s personal blessing as well as the support of Moldova’s Orthodox Church. Dodon (aged 41) has campaigned on a platform of family values, social equity, and a pro-Russian foreign policy. He relies mostly on the nostalgia of the older generation and the anxieties of the Russian speaking ethnic minorities.
First Round Results and Prospects for Run-offs
Following a campaign season of just one month, according to first round results, Igor Dodon received 48% of the vote, and Maia Sandu received 39%. They will be facing each other in the run offs on November 13. Despite a turnout of only 49%, the results were closer than expected largely because two prominent candidates, Nastase and Lupu, left the race. In fact, had there been another withdrawal, particularly of the candidate who came in third, Dimitrii Ciubasenco, Dodon would have likely won the presidency in the first round. Ciubasenco, who received 6% of the vote, is backed by a pro-Russian populist party led by controversial businessman Renato Usatii.
- Usatii, who recently fled to Moscow to escape an arrest warrant, already announced his endorsement of Dodon. Thus, Dodon remains a favorite for the runoffs. However, Moldova’s last direct presidential election, which occurred in 1996, coincidentally also had nine candidates and produced a major turnaround as the first round underdog ended up beating the front runner 54% to 46%. Similarly, the current president of neighboring Romania won the 2014 runoffs after initially losing by a 10% margin.
- Sympathetic local pundits are all too eager to compare Romania’s Klaus Iohannis to Maia Sandu. Both were political outsiders running on a platform of integrity. Both received significant grassroots support augmented by successful social media outreach. Yet, the differences are also apparent. Iohannis ran against an unpopular incumbent prime minister.
- While, oddly enough, Sandu and Dodon are both in opposition to Plahotniuc’s regime. Both contenders are caught in a public relations tug-of-war as to who does Plahotniuc’s bidding and who is a true opposition candidate. Sandu, backed by Nastase, a sworn enemy of Plahotniuc, appears to have a more persuasive case, but she can hardly compete with Dodon in terms of media access and funding, not to mention Plahotniuc’s thumb on the scale.
- Sandu has one major advantage that she has so far refused to capitalize on—a credible pro-European Union message and strong support in Brussels including an endorsement from the European People’s Party, the most powerful political organization in Europe.
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