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Moldova: new faces, old struggles

It’s been 20 years since Moldova has held direct elections for president. This Sunday, Moldovans go to the polls. Русский

Maria Levcenco
29 October 2016
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Instability in Moldova is typically explained away by geopolitics, with the country positioned on a rift between the west and Russia.(c) Roveliu Buga AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This Sunday, Moldovans elect a new president. According to opinion polls, Igor Dodon, leader of the Party of Socialists and a proponent of restoring close ties to Moscow, is in the lead. The second favourite is Maia Sandu, leader of the pro-western Action and Solidarity party. 

Dodon’s slogan is that “Moldova has a future!” He aims to strengthen Moldova’s statehood by fighting unionism (that is to say, the idea of Moldova joining neighbouring Romania, to which it once belonged). The socialist candidate also promises to build a stable and socially just economy, as well as friendlier relations with Russia and defence of Orthodox christianity. In the latest Barometer of Public Opinion, a survey carried out by the Institute of Public Policy on 20 October, Dodon’s rating stood at 27%. 

Maia Sandu, for her part, is more blunt in her promises. “I choose victory” reads the slogan on her campaign posters, “victory over poverty, corruption, and oligarchs”. These words can only be seen in her party’s headquarters. Action and Solidarity was only registered with Moldova’s ministry of justice as a political party a few months prior to the elections. It exists solely thanks to donations, and as such the party hasn’t been throwing money at advertising campaigns. According to the Barometer of Public Opinion, Sandu’s rating is just 19.3%. 

However, it’s important to note that this survey was carried out between 6 and 16 October. On 15 October Andrei Năstase, chairman of the Dignity and Truth Platform (another pro-European, anti-corruption party), announced his withdrawal from the contest in favour of Maia Sandu. On 16 October, Marian Lupu, the candidate of Moldova’s ruling Democratic Party, followed suit. Lupu declared that this could give Sandu the chance of beating Dodon in a second round.

A fork in the road

I set off for the central bus station and market in the capital of Chișinău, to get a sense of the public mood. Most voters are waiting impatiently for Sunday’s elections, and talk about Dodon and Sandu far more than any of the other candidates. People are hungry for change, and they feel that Dodon or Sandu will bring it — though that doesn’t mean that everybody can explain their choice of candidate. 

As she waits for her bus Nina, a 65 year-old pensioner from the Telenești region, tells me that while she’s curious about the election, “people don’t trust anybody anymore”. Like many Moldovans, Nina’s disillusioned with the country’s political elite. “We were once enthusiastic about elections,” she says, “but these days, politicians don’t care that people have come and cast a vote for them; they don’t understand that they have to do something of value [for the electorate].” 

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January 2016: Igor Dodon confers during the January political crisis. (c) AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda. All rights reserved.Nina wants an efficient manager in charge of the country. “We need a president who will care about our wages and pensions,” she says. “My monthly pension is 1,000 Leu [£41]. I worked as a cook in a local canteen for 40 years. I’d get up at four in the morning every day, and that’s the pension I get.” Of the nine candidates on offer this Sunday, she’s voting for Igor Dodon. “People have a little trust left for him. Perhaps, God willing, we’ll have a president with a soul, somebody kind and compassionate. Somebody who’ll open their door to everybody and listen to their problems. I don’t want somebody distant from the people, who drives around in a convoy of ten cars, surrounded by security.” 

“Whatever happens, I just don’t want Dodon,” says Yevgeny, 31, a minibus driver from Orhei. “He was with the communists — he’s a traitor! I don’t trust him. He stole a lot when he was the minister of the economy [ed. from 2006-2009]. How much exactly is anybody’s guess,” he sighs. Yevgeny is casting his lot with Maia Sandu, who he knows was educated at the Academy of Economic Studies, and even went on to graduate from Harvard. “I see a leader in her. She’s a smart woman.” 

The young man fears that if Dodon wins, Moldova will lose its visa-free regime with the EU, which was implemented in 2014. “What happens if he wins? Are we then only to travel to Russia? We have a visa-free agreement with the EU – that’s a big plus! We needn’t sit in this hole any longer,” says Yevgeny. He admits that he’s not waiting so much for Sunday’s elections as for the results on Monday.

Not far from Yevgeny’s minibus sits Vitalie, selling nuts. He’ll certainly go and vote, but won’t tell me who for: “That’s a secret”. Vitalie believes that Moldova will see some big changes, and needs a president who will tackle corruption. That, he reflects, is the country’s most pressing problem.

Alla has come from Anenii Noi district, and also plans to go and vote – but in order to spoil her ballot. “I’m going to put a cross against everybody and everything. Why should I vote for anybody? They’re all thieves! I don’t know who to choose”, says Alla, 45, who has to care for her disabled husband. His monthly benefit payment is never more than 200 Leu (£8.20). 

The old way of doing things

Moldova returned to direct presidential elections following a decision by the constitutional court. In March 2016, the court overturned amendments to the country’s constitution, which were passed in 2000. Prior to this, presidential candidates were elected by the country’s parliamentary deputies, and required at least three fifths of their votes to win (meaning 61 of the 101 deputies). 

A return to direct presidential elections was one of the demands made by the opposition following mass protests in January 2016

The constitutional court’s decision allowed the Moldovan authorities to placate the protest movement against the “Plahotniuc regime”. While the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is officially only the vice chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, analysts call him the most powerful man in Moldova. Furthermore, in returning to direct presidential elections, the authorities have avoided another political crisis similar to the situation in March 2016, when the mandate of president Nicolae Timofti expired. 

Curiously, Dodon, Lupu and Sandu are all “people of the system” to varying degrees. The first two were in the top echelons of power during the Communist Party’s government between 2001 and 2009. Their “divorce” from the Communist Party is directly linked to the political crises the country experienced. 

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Maia Sandu. MaxoDrive / Realitatea TV / YouTube.Following the parliamentary elections of 2009, the Communist Party was represented by some 60 parliamentary deputies. As such, they were missing just one candidate to be able to elect a president from among their ranks. Two attempts to elect a president failed, and as the constitution permitted, parliament was then dissolved.

After these failures, Marian Lupu, who had served as minister of the economy (from 2003 to 2005) and speaker of parliament (between 2005 and 2006), unexpectedly left the Communist Party and joined the Democratic Party, which immediately elected him as its chairman. It later became known that the Democratic Party was being financed by a certain Vladimir Plahotniuc, a relatively unknown businessman from the inner circle of Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin. 

From 2005 to 2009, Igor Dodon was Moldova’s minister of the economy. He left the Communist Party in November 2011, and after a month had become leader of the Party of Socialists. A few months later on 16 March 2012, the “Dodon group” voted in Nicolae Timofti as president, a figure largely unknown to Moldovans. Having elected a head of state thanks to this circle of politicians, the Moldovan authorities averted a crisis, avoiding early parliamentary elections. 

Maia Sandu began her career in the ministry of the economy, working under both Dodon and Lupu’s leadership for six years. Sandu also had an international career, gaining her position as an advisor to the World Bank’s executive director partly due to a recommendation by her boss, former minister of the economy Valeriu Lazăr. Upon her return to Moldova from the USA in 2012, Sandu was appointed minister of education. She became widely known due to her tough reforms on optimising and modernising the school system. 

The oligarch and the president 

Political analyst Corneliu Ciurea believes that the intrigue has run dry in this election. “The intrigue was because this was going to be a battle between the authorities and the non-systemic opposition. At times, Dodon joined the latter, as he did when supporting the mass protests”, he begins. “However, it’s practically disappeared given the withdrawal of Năstase from the race. Another reason is the criminal case brought against Renato Usatîi, leader of Our Party, a pro-Russian group, who is accused of the attempted murder of Russian banker German Gorbuntsov in 2010. Năstase and Usatîi were representatives of the non-systemic opposition. Sandu didn’t take part in the protests.” 

Andrei Popov, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, has a different take: “after the withdrawal of Marian Lupu, the main intrigue is whether Dodon will win the first round, or whether a second round will be held on 13 November, which Sandu may be able to win.” Popov believes that Dodon has already reached the pinnacle of his popularity, polling at around 40%. Sandu, in contrast, has more untapped reserves and therefore a greater potential for growth”. 

A pressing question discussed by local analysts and journalists is: which of the two favourites for president better suits Plahotniuc?

“Năstase’s withdrawal and his active support for Sandu ever since has given a serious impulse to the campaign of a single candidate to represent a centre-right, pro-European opposition. That’s a positive trend. The open support for Sandu from several European leaders, such as Juncker, Merkel and Tusk has also been very helpful. She’s also held colourful and convincing performances in key televised debates, which led to Dodon and Lupu being largely ignored”, remarks Popov.

Both analysts agree that Lupu withdrew his candidacy once he understood that he could not beat Sandu. “From the very start, Lupu said that he followed the polls closely, and in all of those polls, Lupu lost”, states Ciurea.

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Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc gives an interview for discussion show VIP Confidente, October 2014. Image still via YouTube / Prime TV.Popov stresses that Lupu’s rating simply was not growing, regardless of significant administrative, financial and media resources put at his disposal by Vladimir Plahotniuc.

Many Moldovan analysts, commenting on the Democratic Party’s decision to remove their candidate from the presidential race, regarded it as a result of pressure on the party from the West – specifically from the USA.

Corneliu Ciurea strongly disagrees, and believes that the decision was taken independently by Plahotniuc. “He beat the Americans and the Germans at their own game. Were Sandu to defeat Lupu in the fist round, there would be important implications for Moldova’s pro-western parties, supported by the EU and US. The West isn’t against further rule by the Democratic Party, but they want to see a weakened party with whom they can negotiate on their own terms”. 

Importantly, Sandu has not accepted her former opponent’s support, hurrying to add that she “doesn’t need the support of Plahotniuc”.

A pressing question discussed by local analysts and journalists is: which of the two favourites for president better suits Plahotniuc?

The oligarch would find pluses and minuses in both, suggests Ciurea. “Dodon is not geopolitically favourable. He would create definite problems in relations with Moldova’s western partners. However, he is more open to negotiations than Sandu. There’s an element of unpredictability about her.”

On the other hand, Popov believes that the authorities have a greater interest in Dodon winning the vote, and “are even playing him up in many ways”. He notes that Dodon is frequently suspected of making backroom deals with Plahotniuc. The gentle approach of pro-government media towards Dodon has not gone unnoticed. Nor have the lack of criminal cases brought against activists and members of the Party of Socialists, or the transfer of licences of two television channels, which have since become mouthpieces for Dodon.

Popov supposes that Dodon’s victory might allow the authorities to attempt to restore relations with Moscow, “almost as a token of gratitude to their new president”. A pro-Kremlin president “would also be very useful as a bogeyman in dealings with the West, as the current authorities would be able to present themselves as the only people able to rein in the successes of anti-European forces at the next parliamentary elections in 2018”, concludes Popov. 

At the beginning of this presidential contest, Moldova’s central electoral commission registered 12 candidates. On Sunday, there will only be nine on the ballot paper. Năstase and Lupu were joined by Inna Popenko in backing out of the race, who struck from the ballot after accusations of bribing voters. Popenko was the presidential candidate for a political party founded by Ilan Shor, a key figure in the scandal which saw $1 billion disappear from Moldova’s banks in 2014 and remains under house arrest.

It is, as they say, the agony of choice.

Translated by Maxim Edwards.

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