Moldova’s election looms – and so does trouble

There is a presidential election coming up in a former soviet country on the EU’s Eastern flank. It’s going to be a close contest between an incumbent who embraces Russia and a challenger whose outlook is more western.

The country is Moldova and, whilst the situation is very different from that faced by Belarus two months ago, there are sufficient similarities that should worry the west. The country will go to the polls on November 1st and then again for an almost certain second round two weeks later.

Moldova has been the site of a so-called frozen conflict almost since independence. Following a three month war in 1992, Transnistria has been a breakaway state subject to a tripartite agreement that doesn’t look like being resolved. Apart from anything else, the status quo allows for a Russian army base (and huge arms dump) to be sited on NATO’s eastern flank (and, considentally, on the border with Western Ukraine). There have been proposals to help end the stand-off, but the most likely was hijacked to form the basis of a solution to the Donbas conflict. It always seems to be the case that Moldova’s needs play second fiddle to wider regional or geo-politics.

Moldova’s major political problem is that it has three major forces which tend to balance each other out. The incumbent president is Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He has claimed to be equidistant between Russia and the EU, but few have ever believed this to be the case and that mask has slipped in recent months as his true colours as a Kremlin ally are to the fore.

Dodon’s main challenger is Maia Sandu of PAS. Sandu is a technocrat who was briefly prime minister and who lost to Dodon in the 2016 Presidential run-off by 52-48%. As Prime Minister, she relied on a coalition deal with the rather shaky PPDA party and an informal alliance with Dodon and the Socialists. Although favoured by the west, she has been outplayed by other parties in the past, never more so than when she resigned on a matter of principle that was engineered by the Socialists to expose her naivitée.

The other grouping centres around the country’s oligarchs. Chief among these is Vlad Plahotniuc, the former motivating force behind the Democrat Party. Plahotniuc was run out of the country and escaped to the USA where he is currently under investigation. Nevertheless, he maintains a lot of political influence in Moldova and, although the Democrats have withered away to almost nothing, he and his fellow oligarchs have been shamelessly buying up sitting MPs under a range of party names.

From doing a deal with the Socialists to get rid of Plahotniuc, Sandu is now contemplating a deal with the oligarchs to get rid of Dodon. Certainly she seems like the most likely candidate to make it through to a run-off with the incumbent and she will need to win the votes controlled by the oligarchs in order to triumph. What price she is willing to pay – especilly in terms of credibility – will be watched closely.

Polling in Moldova is not widespread, but the US group IRI carried out a survey over the summer which found that Sandu and Dodon were within 2% of each other in first round preferences, but that neither could manage the support or more than one in five of the electorate (not voting and don’t knows were 33% of the responses). 

Where the Moldovan elections echo those in Belarus is this suspicion of vote rigging. Sandu’s party has put up billboards in Chisinau declaring, “He thinks he can steal the election” (NG-Dipkuryer, September 20). But even as President, Dodon has not captured enough of the state apparatus to declare that he won 80% of the vote. But there might well be significant irregularities on both sides. Dodon would like to face anyone other than Sandu in the second round and Sandu herself will be reliant on the votes of people controlled by the oligarchs who have done so much to ruin the country.

If there are protests – and that seems likely whoever wins – then these will not just be about the election. The Moldovan economy has been wrecked in the decades since independence and GDP is less than a third of what it was in 1991. Dodon is as mired in corruption scandals as the oligarchs were but does not have the state apparatus to control the streets if it comes to that. The same IRI poll found 72% of respondents believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Economic issues feature at the top of the list of concerns with political leadership and unprofessional governance next. Despite having a terrible record dealing with Covid-19, this issue doesn’t make the top three concerns. A despondent country in which neither of the main players can enthuse the electorate leaves the contest wide open to falsification.

Some are suggesting that the country has failed to such an extent that integration with Romania is the only answer. Such a move would not find favour either within the EU or Russia, but is demonstrative of the situation Moldova now finds itself in. With such embedded pessimism, even a solution to an electoral problem might not be enough to end any protests.