Recent presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova were won by Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), a party advocating for judicial and anti-corruption reform and for rapprochement with the European Union (EU). Sandu becomes the first female president of Europe’s poorest country, securing 57.7 percent of the vote ahead of incumbent Igor Dodon’s 42.2 percent. The result followed an unprecedented election campaign during which verbal violence was widely witnessed.
President-elect Sandu was previously an economist with the World Bank, served as Moldova’s Minister of Education between 2012 and 2015, and is known for her anti-corruption and justice reform agenda. She served as prime minister of Moldova for almost five months in 2019 as head of ACUM, a pro-Euro alliance between PAS and the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA). Having secured 26 seats in parliament, ACUM formed a coalition government with Dodon’s Party of the Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PRSM). The hastily made decision to join forces with a pro-Russian party was to oust controversial oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc from power. Plahotniuc fled to the United States in June 2019 before being forced to leave again in the summer of 2020. Though far from home, the oligarch participated in presidential election campaign debates, sparking accusations of collusion from both sides.
President-elect Sandu's four percent victory in the first round of voting placed a ball and chain on Dodon, who led one of the most threatening, and ultimately disastrous, election campaigns in Moldova’s history. Dodon is considered by many as an aggressive, boorish, and misogynistic politician. In the end, he upset and insulted voters with his behavior, compelling them to turn out and vote.
High voter turnout amongst the Moldovan diaspora, which is sizable in comparison with other EU countries, was a factor in Sandu’s victory. Of a total 1,650,000 voters, more than 260,000 ballots were cast by the diaspora, despite the small number of polling places established by authorities. Moldova’s diaspora had grown used to aggressive criticisms from Dodon, who dubbed them 'parallel voters,’ a phrase echoing the notion of a 'parallel state.’ It was therefore unsurprising that no less then 93 percent of ballots cast outside the borders of Moldova were for Sandu. Even the cumulated traditional election pools of pro-Russian separatists in Transdnestr, with paid voters bussed into the polls, and the southern Gagauz region voters, who voted 85 and 95 percent for Dodon respectively, were unable to sway the ballot. As such, Sandu would have won the election even without diaspora votes, further bolstering her legitimacy.
Many hope Sandu's victory can once again set Moldova – a small state with not much more than 2.5 million people (excluding separatist Transdnestr) and on the margins of the former Soviet empire – on a European path and away from Russian influence. The importance of this region was significantly enhanced with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the nearly outright war between Russia and Ukraine in the eastern Donbass region. Moldova could be a valuable partner for the West as a strategic entry point, given its proximity to Odessa, the Danube Delta, and the Russian Black Sea fleet moored in Sevastopol, only a few hundred kilometers from American bases in Romania. Though of less strategic importance for Moscow following the annexation of Crimea, the separatist region of Transdnestr remains a destabilizing threat for Moldova, NATO, southeastern Ukraine, and eastern Romania.
If Sandu manages to gain political support for her ambitious reform agenda, Moldova could become an oasis of stability and prosperity in just a few years, with a predictable political landscape. Moldova could easily become a 'success story' of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), launched over a decade ago by the European Union in an effort to extend a hand to six former Soviet Republics. What once seemed an overly ambitious project, the EaP has changed the trajectory of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova by bringing them closer to the West.
However, the present configuration of Moldova’s Parliament prevents PAS from forming a reform majority. Both Dodon and Sandu campaigned on the prospect of early parliamentary elections but faced a difficult path in gaining the majority needed to trigger them. Even pro-European political parties, with the exception of PAS, are unlikely to accept early elections given their very presence in a future parliament is on shaky ground.
Moldova's recent history has shown hope. In order for Sandu to avoid making the same mistakes as other pro-European leaders in Chișinău – many of whom ended up compromising the European vector of development, making it synonymous with corruption and organized crime – she must generate a veritable political revolution that can lead to early elections. This will enable a new pro-reform majority in parliament and establish a new pro-European government to partner with the president.
While Sandu’s victory has sparked hopes amongst the Moldovan people, with many now holding high expectations for her presidency, her powers are in fact limited. In 2016, under the control of Plahotniuc, Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the president should be elected by popular vote. This was an attempt to diffuse the political situation at a time when people were taking to the streets to protest against the regime.
While she enjoys tremendous legitimacy, Sandu has limited leverage to be able to change things. An early parliamentary election will only be made possible with intricate political negotiations between parties, pressure from citizens and foreign entities, combined the legitimacy through her landslide victory. The sooner things are achieved, the better the chances of there being a pro-presidential reform coalition.
The scheduled elections of 2023 would mean a trench war with a reform-hostile parliamentary majority kowtowing to Moscow, and a government of Dodon socialists whose main objective would be election retaliation in two years’ time. However, the social and economic crisis facing Moldova calls for reforms that can encourage foreign financing, on which the country is sorely dependent. In order to regain credibility with the EU, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Moldova needs a new government, supported by a reform-oriented coalition in Parliament in Chișinău. Neither can emerge unless early elections are held.
Armand Gosu is Associate Professor of Russian Politics, Political and Diplomatic History of Russian Empire and Soviet Union at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Bucharest. Formerly, Armand was an Advisor to the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images