The acronym for the group led by Maia Sandu – PAS – has a symbolic meaning in the context of the latest elections. This word means ‘step’ in Romanian, and indeed Sandu’s victory, although it was ground-breaking for all the reasons mentioned below, is only the first step on the way towards possible serious changes to the political and social situation in Moldova. On 15 November, Maia Sandu, the former prime minister of Moldova and the leader of the pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the second round of the presidential elections in Moldova with 57.75%. At the same time her rival Igor Dodon, the outgoing president and the informal leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) won 42.25% of the vote.
New elites and kingmakers from abroad
November’s elections were ground-breaking in many respects. Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups. Dodon, for example, is perceived by many as a corrupt representative of the oligarchic elites and the defender of the ‘old order’, in which the state serves primarily as an instrument for the enrichment of a specific group of people. On the other hand, the first three presidents of the republic between 1990 to 2009 had previously held high positions in the Communist Party of Moldova, the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Also for the first time, the Moldovan people, who are quite conservative and have a traditional view of social roles, decided to entrust not simply a woman, but an unmarried and childless one, with the position of head of state. The gender issue, and especially Sandu’s matrimonial status, has been exploited many times in recent years by her political opponents. The absence of spouse or children allowed her political opponents to spread groundless rumours about her sexual orientation.
Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups.
Another novelty is the role played by the diaspora. Moldovan emigrants, estimated at up to one million in number, have always shown interest in the elections held in their homeland, but the scale of their participation has never been as massive as it was in November 2020. In the second round of elections, over 260,000 votes were cast in polling stations abroad. This is twice as much as in the first round, and four times more than in the first round of the 2016 elections. Foreign votes accounted for up to 15 percent of all ballots cast. A quarter of the vote for Maia Sandu came from abroad. There is no doubt that one of the important factors that led to such a large mobilisation of the diaspora in the second round was the critical, if not mocking, comment made by President Igor Dodon after the results from the first round were released; he called the Moldovan emigrants a “parallel electorate”, and suggested that they do not fully understand the situation in the country. It is worth noting that this large-scale mobilisation for Sandu almost exclusively applied to Moldovan emigrants living in the West, i.e. the EU, Great Britain and the USA. These countries accounted for over 90% of all the votes cast outside the republic.
Meanwhile, the Moldovan émigrés in Russia – although estimated at up to half a million – remained very passive. In the second round of elections, fewer than 14,000 of this group went to the polls; their votes accounted for only 5% of all those cast by the diaspora. Moreover, the myth that Moldovans living in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inclined to almost unanimously support pro-Russian candidates was also broken. Although Igor Dodon won in Russia with a total of 75% of the votes, the 25% Sandu won there should be considered a huge success and proof that the views of the local electorate are evolving.
The fragmentation of the left and corruption fatigue
The final result of the elections was an obvious surprise for Dodon. Even though the incumbent president had realised he could lose the race, he did not expect his rival to obtain such a crushing advantage over him. One of the key reasons for the outgoing president’s failure is the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against him. The de facto leader of the PSRM is seen by many as an associate and informal political ally of Vlad Plahotniuc, an ex-oligarch who lost power in June 2019 and fled the country. Plahotniuc is suspected to have been involved in numerous frauds (including the embezzlement of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014), and he is the virtual embodiment of corruption in the eyes of the Moldovan public. Sandu took advantage of Dodon’s negative image and focused her campaign not on the usual geopolitical issues that divide the nation (the choice between East or West), but on the corruption fatigue that unites people beyond their political differences.
Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic.
This was one key to her success, but there were other issues that undermined Dodon’s position. One of the most important was the return of Renato Usatîi, the populist, pro-Russian leader of ‘Our Party’, onto the Moldovan political scene. Six years ago, this politician was the socialists’ main rival on the Moldovan left. In 2014, just a few days before voting, a court (presumably influenced by Plahotniuc) banned Usatîi’s party from participating in the parliamentary elections, which enabled the socialists to achieve a spectacular success. Soon after, Usatîi left Moldova and moved to Russia. He only came back to his homeland in the second half of 2019, after Plahotniuc had fled the country. His return initiated the fragmentation of the Moldovan political left. The leader of ‘Our Party’, who has been highly critical of Dodon’s presidency, managed to rebuild his support in just over a year and win up to 17% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This allowed Sandu to enter the second round in first place, which demobilised the socialist voters. Moreover, Usatîi asked his electorate to vote ‘against Dodon’ in the runoff elections. As a result, many of his supporters decided not to vote in the second round, or to cast their vote for Sandu, which – in both cases – contributed to victory for the leader of PAS.
What can a president do?
The limited prerogatives that the Moldovan constitution gives to the president will not allow Sandu to implement real structural reforms. However, this does not mean that her victory has no political significance. From her new post Sandu will be able to observe more closely what is happening behind the scenes and monitor the government’s actions. She will also gain access to materials prepared by the intelligence services. The office of the presidency will also provide her with greater recognition and access to the media. This in turn will boost the image of the opposition. She will also be able to influence the country’s foreign policy, which would be particularly important, as in the months to come Sandu will surely focus on diplomatic activities and try to improve Moldova’s relations with its Western partners from the EU, as well as its immediate neighbours Romania and Ukraine.
There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run.
Apart from corruption, Sandu laid the emphasis in her campaign on social issues and improving the citizens’ standard of living. Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic. Not only will this have a positive effect on the image of Sandu and the opposition (as the electorate will see it as a direct benefit of her victory), but it will also improve the perception of Romania in Moldova, which was damaged by the fact that in recent years Bucharest unofficially but clearly supported Plahotniuc. There is also no doubt that support from the EU (which will help improve the quality of life of the country’s inhabitants) will be of great importance in building confidence in the pro-Western opposition. Relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate, despite the new president’s desire to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Sandu will find it hard to avoid difficult topics such as the issue of Russian troops in Transnistria or the status of this region, as shown also by her recent media statements, which have elicited negative reactions from Moscow.
On the home front
PAS, strengthened by Sandu’s victory, will call for parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible. To start real reforms and deliver on Sandu’s election promises, the pro-European opposition needs not only the president, but also a parliamentary majority. This will not be an easy task, although the situation in the Moldovan parliament seems to be favourable. The Chicu government does not currently have a majority in the chamber. After Dodon’s dramatic failure, his party is no longer interested in early parliamentary elections, although the incumbent president had supported them just a few months ago. The socialists are not only afraid of the pro-Western electorate motivated by Sandu’s victory; more importantly, they realise that in the next elections they will undoubtedly face ‘Our Party’, which – judging by Usatîi’s result – may take away a lot of votes from PSRM. It is therefore clear that in this situation the socialists will attempt to rebuild their majority and maintain the current composition of parliament, at all costs and for as long as possible. Even though this will be difficult, there has been speculation about alleged agreements between the socialists and representatives of the Şor Party, together with a group of deputies affiliated to Plahotniuc. The true position of the ‘DA’ Platform Party led by Andrei Năstase is also uncertain. This grouping, although nominally pro-Western, has found itself increasingly at odds with PAS. Moreover, given the low support for ‘DA’, early elections could pose a threat to this party’s presence in the parliament. All these factors may foster the establishment of cooperation between ‘DA’ and the Socialists. There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run. This controversial politician, who has strong but very obscure ties to Russia, will probably try to position himself as Sandu’s ally in the fight against corruption and the oligarchy, although in geopolitical terms he is an opponent of PAS. As a result, his actions may compromise the opposition’s pro-reformist efforts. Establishing any cooperation with him or his associates should therefore be undertaken very carefully, if at all. Otherwise, PAS risks a repeat of the scenario from the end of the second half of 2019, when it was pushed out of power after just five months due to an agreement between the Socialists and the Democratic Party, which was previously led and sponsored by Plahotniuc.