CEPA STRATCOM PROGRAM
03 November 2016

East meets West in Moldova’s presidential elections

On 30 October, Moldovans voted for a new president in the country’s first presidential elections in 20 years. As expected, socialist candidate Igor Dodon won the most votes in the first round, while Maia Sandu, candidate of the democratic, pro-West alliance, followed by a difference of only 10 percentage points. The biggest concern for pro-European leaders and citizens was to ensure a second round of voting, which is now confirmed even if it was only by a very narrow margin that Dodon did not become the president from the first round.

Thus, the runoff will pit against each other two rather prototypical politicians: a pro-European, Western-minded candidate running on an anti-corruption, pro-democratic platform and a pro-Eurasian Union candidate, whose political aspirations are heavily influenced by Russia. A bigger danger than the geopolitical fault line to Moldova’s democratic evolution is the control of fundamental institutions by oligarchic interests. Although not a direct actor in the elections, Vladimir Plahotniuc remains Moldova’s most important player and dividing factor in its politics.

The next two weeks leading up to Moldova’s second round of elections on 13 November will prominently feature anti-oligarchic discourse—providing yet more proof that corruption is not confined to national borders and will inevitably drag neighbors into the political game.

Even so, Moldova’s political landscape is already a mixed bag. Donors and partners have expressed fears that political pluralism is shrinking there. The electoral campaign—and in fact the two years since Moldova’s previous general election—illustrate this fact. However, despite the apparent political fragmentation, there is more affinity and many times undue connections—through corruption or blackmail— among parties. The fact that 10 candidates competed in the first round clearly indicates pluralism by default, but also the behind-the-curtain games aimed at confusing and fragmenting voters. Fortunately, fears about electoral fraud have not materialized, and Moldovan democratic forces can now focus on helping Sandu’s campaign. If she does win—a difficult challenge as she must close a 10-point gap—supporters hope they can more strongly anchor the country to the West.

So, a few important elements should be noted after the elections on Sunday. One, and probably the most encouraging, is that Moldovan politics has the appetite and room for newcomers in Moldovan politics. Sandu’s success is remarkable, especially for someone who lacks resources and political experience, and doesn’t have an established party infrastructure behind her. This should instill some hope for an eventual renewal of Moldova’s political elite.

Second, youth participation rates have been low compared to those for citizens over 55 years old and to general expectations. One reason is that students may only vote in their home cities. This limits the ability of democratic forces to mobilize supporters across the country and among Moldova’s overseas diaspora, and to convince youth that their vote counts. It is also a symptom of the disenchantment created by the negative legacy left by pro-EU governments that has tainted the expectation that Moldova would reap the fruits of a European, democratic path. This partly explains the pro-socialist vote as well.

Third, the elections show that some politicians or political agendas, like the unionist one, are likely to become irrelevant, while the major fault line remains corruption and state capture, superimposed on the East-West confrontation. The political trend that seems to be consolidating once again is the pro-EU v. pro-Russia tension, while Moldova’s 2014 banking crisis has created an opportunity for the anticorruption meta-trend to surface and become the almost undisputable topic in the elections. Given the very personal nature of Moldovan politics, the rise and fall of political forces beyond the two fault lines depends almost entirely on individuals—so it remains to be seen what will happen with parties like those of Iurie Leanca, Renato Usatii or the communists, who didn’t even present a candidate.

Easy to fit in a geopolitical frame, the run-off between the Eastern-oriented politician and the Western-style technocrat is about more than that. And this is precisely why predicting the winner is so difficult, even though mathematically the socialist candidate is favored to win. This election is really about making a mental and political shift towards a different type of politics—and giving meaning to the concept of checks and balances. Even with limited prerogatives, a president who focuses on rule of law, anti-corruption and good governance will likely make it more difficult for interest groups to strengthen and then swallow fundamental democratic institutions. It can also bring about the stability that Moldova’s Western partners have been so intent on preserving in the past—sometimes even if it meant not choosing their political counterparts wisely. For them as well, the outcome of these elections can be another opportunity to provide the support Moldova’s citizens so desperately need.


Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Gleb Garanich/Reuters