1 – Moldova’s presidential race isn’t over yet
BSSB.BE opendemocracy.net/ 08.11.2016
On 30 October, Moldovans went to the polls after a heated electoral campaign. For the first time in 20 years, the country has held direct elections for president (parliament has nominated the head of state since 1996). But the race isn’t over yet.
This election pitched Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist from the Action and Solidarity Party, against the Party of Socialists’ Igor Dodon, a former deputy prime minister and minister of economics, along with seven other candidates. Pre-electoral polls put Dodon ahead, with some 27% of the vote to Sandu’s 13%.
As always, most analysts have explained the elections through — or boiled them down to — geopolitics. Moldova and the EU signed an association agreement in 2014, but there are many who feel the country’s future lies in its economic ties to Russia. Igor Dodon is one of them, while Maia Sandu is strongly committed to a pro-European course.
As the last ballots were counted in the early hours of Monday morning, Maia Sandu won 38.2% of the vote, and Dodon’s lead dropped to 48.5%, meaning that Moldovans will now vote in a run-off on 13 November.
This was the best realistic outcome for Sandu given Dodon’s lead, and one that the socialist candidate hoped to avoid. While as many as 98% of the ballots had been counted, Dodon still held out hope that some of the last regions to declare (the city of Bălți and region of Gagauzia) would swing his vote above the required 51%.
He even invited journalists at his party’s headquarters to join him for cognac.
Pessimism of the intellect
“Take it from me,” sighed one taxi driver in Chișinău, “there comes a point when you don’t know who to trust anymore”.
Survey data from October show that only 7.7% of respondents surveyed trust political parties in general, and just 3.8% trust their president. Moldovans are cynical, but after a cursory look at recent history, who can blame them?
Successive governments, pro-European and pro-Russian, have been embroiled in corruption scandals. Moldova’s presidential election comes after mass protests earlier this year and a banking scandal in 2014 which saw one billion dollars disappear from three banks. The sum was equivalent to 12% of the impoverished country’s entire GDP. More political instability followed — five prime ministers came and went in a single year.
Direct presidential elections were a concession made to the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets, enraged after the banking heist.
“Down with the oligarchs!” protesters take to the streets of central Chișinău. Photo CC: Bertram Z / wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.
Nevertheless, just 49% of registered voters cast their ballots. The low turnout was enough for the election to be binding (over 33%), though according to its communications director Rodica Sîrbu, Moldova’s electoral commission predicted no less than 60%.
The OSCE gave a generally positive assessment of the elections, though noted some abuse of administrative resources, along with a lack of party finance transparency and of media pluralism.
“Take it from me, there comes a point when you don’t know who to trust anymore”
- Pavel Postica, director of Promo-Lex (a Moldovan NGO which carries out election observation), told me that during the vote that the most worrying situation had arisen in the town of Orhei, where locals residents stood outside polling stations 9 and 14, calling on voters to boycott the elections.
- One observer told Newsmaker.md that these protesters appeared to be taking note of who attended the polling stations, leading elderly people to fear that some of their discounts and social benefits could be threatened if they voted.
- Candidate Inna Popenko had publicly called for a boycott after being struck off the list following corruption allegations. Popenko was a candidate for Ilan Șor’s party, the mayor of Orhei implicated in the banking scandal.
Unlike in other cases, says Postica, it’s likely that these violations in Orhei had an notable effect on the city’s lower than average turnout.
Some 1,981 polling stations opened for Moldovan citizens, including 100 overseas. I headed to four of them in central Chișinău to hear voters’ hopes – and voters’ fears.
Making Chișinău count
For a day, a small theatre on Chișinău’s Mihai Eminescu street became Polling Station 119. Passers-by come to pick up ballots and theatre tickets from the same door. Lurid adverts for the month’s plays cover the windows. “Miserables of the Moldavian Revolution” by Constantin Cheianu is showing here soon. For a little while, it tells me more than the voters themselves.
It’s early afternoon — the candidates have voted and left, and the cameras have gone with them. The atmosphere is relaxed, languid – but the process appears very efficient. One Russian-speaking pensioner is more talkative. She voted “for those who will defend the children, the homeless, the pensioners… those who will treat us with dignity”. All candidates promise these things, but she won’t tell me her choice, and gives a conspiratorial grin.
Pârcălab street proves more promising. A bust of Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen III), the 15th century King of Moldavia, watches over the ballot boxes. He’s flanked by a flag of the state railway company, whose grand 19th century administrative building hosts Polling Station 121. This is one of five stations in the capital where Moldovan citizens living in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which benefits from Russian economic and military assistance, can come and cast their vote.
Frontrunner Igor Dodon from the Party of Socialists addresses journalists after casting his vote on 30 October. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
- Supporters of Maia Sandu spoke with a brittle and cautious optimism. Nicolette saw her as the only candidate who is committed in earnest to battling corruption and oligarchy.
- The journalist added that she was impressed by Sandu’s record as Minister of Education, during which she enacted sweeping reforms.
- Whether Sandu would be able to defeat the vested interests of the powerful, chiefly the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, remains an open question — but Nicolette liked her ambition.
Applause ricochets across the hall, as a functionary ties a wristband in the colours of the national flag to a young student’s wrist. Valery’s daughter is 19, and this is her first election.
Her father a railway worker in his sixties, voted for Dodon. He sincerely hopes his wife and daughter have too. Like many in his generation, Valery misses the guarantees of the Soviet welfare state; he says his daughter can only dream of the education he enjoyed.
Moldova is a major country of origin for labour migrants — their remittances comprise nearly a quarter of its GNP
The largest group of voters by age were 56-70-year olds were (28.97%), while 18-25 year olds made up just 10.11% of the vote. Nevertheless, support for the socialist candidate wasn’t simply from the older and more nostalgic.
Alexander and Valeria, two students in their early twenties, were both eager voters. Valeria cast a vote “against them all”, while her friend supported Dodon. He’d been impressed by the socialist party’s support for pensioners on the 9th of May (Victory Day).
Alexander didn’t put much stock in Dodon’s various pro-Kremlin statements. After all, “the real intentions of candidates only become clear once they’re in office,” he reflected.
“It’s like Game of Thrones. We can only guess,” added Valeria, nodding emphatically.
A call to come home
Moldova is a major country of origin for labour migrants — their remittances comprise nearly a quarter of Moldova’s GNP. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Dodon’s campaign literature included bold promises to make life easier for compatriots in Russia, removing limitations on their stay and access to social welfare.
Of the 100 polling stations opened abroad, eight were in Russia, 11 in Romania and 25 in Italy, where 21,904 Moldovan citizens voted — the highest turnout of Moldovan citizens abroad.
Presidential candidate Maia Sandu votes in Chișinău on 30 October. She will face Dodon in a run-off on 13 November. (c) Roveliu Buga/AP/Press Association Images Roveliu Buga/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
Poor prospects have compelled many citizens to go elsewhere. In fact, as many as 106 Moldovans leave the country of 3.5 million every day, according to a study by the BBC. Moldovans’ average gross earnings for this August were a mere 5,242 Leu (£214.75). Moldova has earned the unenviable title of “Europe’s poorest country” in international media.
One voter at Polling Station 121 who declined to give me her name had lived in Russia for 11 years, and saw the failure of Moldova’s politicians reflected in the absence of her friends and relatives.
“I want them all to come home. I want us to live here, in our country. We’ve good land, and Moldovans are hard-working,” she began. “But it’s not possible”.
“Is it normal to have to speak with your mother and children over Skype?”
It seemed a question for a candidate to answer.
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