Moldova’s election: against all of the above

Moldova’s presidential race isn’t over yet. Neither are the country’s geopolitical divides or its long-standing struggle with oligarchs. Can they ever be?

Maxim Edwards
1 November 2016

A polling station in Moldova’s capital of Chișinău. Photo (c): Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.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.

All bark and no bite

English-language coverage describes Moldova’s election as a “showdown” or a “tug-of-war” between the west and Russia. Given renewed tensions, that’s no surprise. 

But for some Moldovans like Alexei and Irina, a journalist and nurse from Chișinău, the great-power rivalries obscure as much as they illuminate. The couple voted for Maia Sandu, and complain that geopolitics — whether to choose the west or Russia — divides Moldovans’ struggle against oligarchs.

Moldovans protesting against corrupt pro-European governments are labelled “pro-Russian”, while a powerful “pro-European” oligarch is given the red carpet treatment in Washington.

As Moldova’s example teaches us, everything can change — yet so much can stay the same

“Everything must revolve around geopolitics,” explains Alexei. “It was the exactly the same in Chișinău’s mayoral elections, and the role doesn’t even have serious influence over foreign policy”. 

In 2011, the candidate of the pro-European Liberal Party Dorin Chirtoacă narrowly beat Igor Dodon in the race for the mayoralty. Chirtoacă, still in office, congratulated Sandu yesterday, urging her to “squash this colorado beetle in the run-offs”. “Colorado” is a derogatory term for people with pro-Russian sympathies. 

This focus on geopolitics is one reason why a handful of citizens (beyond the scandal in Orhei) boycotted the vote. Civic activist and sociologist Vitalie Sprȋnceană believes that “the fragile consensus between the main opposition parties has transformed into a contest of personal vanities. Back then, the opposition decided to abandon rhetoric about geopolitics and national identity, and build a civic agenda faced on economic and social problems. This was dissolved with the decision of the constitutional court to re-open the race for president.”

Storm clouds gather overhead. Campaign poster in Chișinău for Ciubașenco, the second pro-Russian presidential candidate. His supporters will most likely support Dodon in the second round. Photo (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.

The Communist Party, which ruled Moldova from 2001 to 2009, also boycotted the vote. Leader Vladimir Voronin declaring that reinstating direct elections should have been taken after referendum, not a decision by the constitutional court. 

Sprȋnceană told me that the hype has distracted from a key fact: as Moldova remains a parliamentary, not presidential, republic, there are practical limits to the bold promises of both candidates. For example, the levers at Dodon’s disposal may not be enough for him to steer Moldova away from its pro-European course. At least not on their own. 

Moldova’s president can return legislation to parliament for a second vote, appoint members of the national security council and call referendums on “matters of national importance”. 

This final point is key. Dodon has suggested that one of those “matters” could concern a constitutional amendment, or a vote on the country’s geopolitical course. He’s promised to fight against “LGBT values” in Moldova, defend Orthodoxy, bring the country into Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and declared that Crimea belongs to Russia. For a country aiming for European integration, such a head of state could well be a liability. 

Moldova’s parliament has a pro-European majority, over which Plahotniuc wields considerable influence. “If Dodon becomes president and abandons the pro-European course, he knows what I can do and will see what real protests mean,” warned the oligarch in a candid interview. “If he makes me the hero of the pro-European revolution, you will see how my rating will change overnight.”

We are most displeased

Vladimir Plahotniuc is widely known as the most powerful man in Moldova, and not without good cause. He has bankrolled both the Communist Party of Vladimir Voronin (in power from 2001-2009), then becoming vice-chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, which ruled Moldova as part of a pro-European coalition between 2009 and 2013.

Once one of the most secretive men in Moldova, Plahotniuc has been thrust into the limelight by recent events, and is now one of the most loathed. This campaign has seen him open his front door to Moldovan TV crews, in an attempt to win over the electorate. Every third viewer that night watched the programme on PrimeTV


Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc gives an interview for discussion show VIP Confidente, October 2014. Image still via YouTube / Prime TV. Some rights reserved.

“Who would Plahotniuc prefer?” is a big question in Moldova’s internal politics. Dodon’s pro-Russian orientation causes clear problems for Plahotniuc in his dealings with the EU. Nevertheless, as Moldovan commentator and former ambassador Andrei Popov has commented, it could allow Plahotniuc to present himself as the only viable pro-European politician able to rein in pro-Russian passions. The struggle against vested oligarchic interests would again be sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.

In contrast, Sandu shares pro-European aspirations but could be less open to compromise with big money.

For example, when Andrei Năstase (another pro-EU and anti-corruption candidate) withdrew his candidacy for president, Sandu was grateful for his support.

Marian Lupu, candidate of the ruling Democratic Party and protege of Plahotniuc, soon followed suit. Plahotniuc then began to openly praise Sandu — given his 94.6% disapproval rating, such a blessing must also be a curse. Sandu’s struck back, declaring that she did not need Plahotniuc’s money or his blessing.

Watching their wallets, some of Moldova’s elite could just about reconcile themselves to a Dodon presidency

Thus Sandu finds herself in a difficult position. A second round could see a higher turnout, and the 6% gained by pro-Russian candidate Ciubașcenco would likely go to Dodon. Had Ciubașcenco’s pro-Russian mentor Renato Usatȋi decided to join forces with the Socialists, Dodon would probably now be president.

As of this morning, Dodon had called on members of “Our Party” to support him, and flies to Moscow on 4 November to meet Usatȋi. Sandu can expect support from voters for Iurie Leancă and Mihai Ghimpu, who took 3.1% and 1.8% of the vote respectively.

Having forced Dodon to concede a second round, Sandu will need all the help she can get — Plahotniuc might offer it. If she accepts, political expediency would have compromised a promising anti-oligarchic reformer. Moldovans’ prevailing mantra that “they’re all the same” will become that much more convincing. 

Which path now for Moldova? Ştefan cel Mare Boulevard, central Chișinău, the evening before presidential elections. (c) Maxim Edwards. All Rights reserved. Political analyst Cornel Ciurea sees things differently. Both candidates need support from Plahotniuc in the run-offs, he says, but only unofficial support. For example, while Sandu would not accept aid from Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party, party members will still support her. “In general,” he observes, “it is difficult to say what strategy Plahotniuc will take over the next few weeks”. 

“Unofficially, nobody really considers Dodon a threat to the pro-European course,” continues Ciurea. “In fact, Dodon as president would allow Plahotniuc to monopolise the centre-right opposition and strengthen the Democratic Party. If Sandu wins, Dodon will build strength as the left opposition, and the Democratic Party will be squeezed in the middle, with no obvious terrain”. 

Watching their wallets, some of Moldova’s elite — including the Democratic Party — could just about reconcile themselves to a Dodon presidency. Reformists and Moldova’s western backers are hedging their bets on Sandu.

The theatre on Eminescu Street is going back to more routine spectacles. Ballot boxes are collected and the count begins.

As Moldova teaches us, everything can change — yet so much can stay the same.


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