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Moldova heads to an electoral run-off as “apocalyptic” discourse gains ground

The challenger Maia Sandu and the incumbent Igor Dodon will go head-to-head in a second round of the Moldovan presidential election on November 15th.

November 4, 2020 - Denis Cenusa - Articles and Commentary

Triumphal arch in the capital of Moldova, Chișinău. Photo: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

The first round of Moldova’s presidential elections is over. More than 1.3 million people have voted for their chosen candidates. Ex-Prime Minister Maia Sandu, as well as the incumbent President Igor Dodon, will now compete in a run-off vote on November 15th. A second-round vote involving these two candidates was forecasted months and even years before the current elections. Both have been political adversaries since 2016 and even during last year’s coalition, which was formed after the fall of the oligarchic regime. This relationship soon changed after Dodon’s Socialists Party toppled Sandu’s government one year ago.

In the beginning of this month Sandu won with 36 per cent, which is about 4 per cent more than her main challenger. For Sandu, this may seem like revenge for her defeat in 2016. However, the second round will be tougher and Dodon has already presented the arsenal of topics and tools that he hopes to use against Sandu. This includes fighting against the defamation and disinformation campaign, which in many ways resembles the themes of the 2016 elections. Some new topics are also present, such as COVID-19 and potential destabilisation surrounding the Transnistrian conflict.

The loss of voters

Sandu and Dodon altogether received around 69 per cent of the total votes, which numbered 927,501. Overall, the support they received is smaller than in the first round in 2016, which amounted to 1,229,702 or 86 per cent of the total votes.

As the table below shows, Dodon has experienced a significant loss of votes compared to Sandu. This is true both in terms of the number and total share of the votes. Dodon lost around 240,000 supporters from 2016. For Sandu, the loss was less tangible at around 61,000 votes. Only a small proportion of these losses can be explained by a lower turnout compared to 2016, with just under 70,000 fewer voters participating in this year’s election.

Sandu and Dodon’s reduced share of votes largely can be explained by the participation of other candidates with similar profiles this year, such as Andrei Nastase and Renato Usatii. Nastase rose to prominence as one of the main leaders of the opposition, together with Sandu, on the anti-oligarchic platform between 2015 and 2019. The 43,924 votes won by Nastase could easily become votes for Sandu in the second round. Similarly, a large part of Usatii’s 227,939 votes likely came from those who backed Dodon in 2016. Sandu enjoyed widespread support within the country’s diaspora, with 70 per cent of the total votes cast abroad supporting the candidate.

“Anti-corruption” versus “destabilisation” discourses

The primary topic used by Sandu against Dodon was corruption. She has frequently discussed Dodon’s involvement in corruption schemes, as well as the Socialists Party’s financial relations with Russia and the former oligarchic regime. In a series of arranged leaks, footage showing the incumbent president accepting bribes from the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc has flooded the public space. This footage, however, did not result in any sort of investigation, as Moldova’s prosecutor’s office challenged the credibility of the information. Sometime before the elections, clearly, as a means of damaging Dodon’s chances for re-election, other damaging information was released to the public. This time the focus was on Dodon’s collaboration with Russian officials and in particular the special services. In contrast to the allegations of corruption, Sandu did not clearly try to exploit this potential example of treason for political gain. Dodon has rejected any claims of collaboration, claiming that an elaborate disinformation campaign is being run from abroad.

From a softer and more neutral electoral campaign, Dodon has now switched to a more confrontational style. He has set out a list of areas in which he is going to confront Sandu. For example, Dodon has revived discussion surrounding plans to improve schools, which started in the late 2000s. This programme began before Sandu led the country’s Ministry of Education between 2012 and 2015. Despite this, she is accused of indirectly contributing to the dismantling of rural schools and with that the destruction of many village communities.

Moreover, Dodon argues that the country entered the pandemic unprepared because of Sandu’s government in 2019. In doing this, he has also revised earlier comments made about the role of Sandu’s predecessors in weakening Moldova’s medical services. Shifting the blame for the current crisis may help Dodon reduce criticism against the current ruling majority and executive’s previous mismanagement of the system. At the same time, the incumbent president is playing the geopolitical card in several ways. Firstly, he is trying to convince the Russian speaking minority that Sandu is appropriating the Russian language specifically for electoral goals. Secondly, Sandu’s close ties with Romanian politics are being used to suggest that she may question Moldova’s right to statehood. Thirdly, Dodon intends to shame his opponent for her belief that Moldovan citizens from Transnistria should not be allowed to vote in elections through illegal means, such as the voter transportation. With this, he hopes to stir up memories of the war and paint Sandu as a “provocateur” capable of destabilising the frozen conflict. Last but not least, Dodon plans to appeal to Moldovan voters’ sense of dignity by claiming that the country needs more independence from Western donors. This is in contrast to Sandu’s call for more European integration, which Dodon believes is undermining national sovereignty. In much the same way, the current president has questioned the ex-PM’s ability to maintain close relations with Russia due to her critical stance in the past. In reality, Sandu is openly running in support of a multi-vector foreign policy much like Dodon, with a focus on close ties with Brussels and Moldova’s neighbours taking priority.

The uncertain run-off

It is difficult to predict how voters will behave in the second round. The population’s overall response to disinformation and exaggeration will likely play a key part. This is in contrast to the hopes and recommendations of America, the EU and other international organisations. Ongoing developments in relation to the pandemic at home and abroad will also impact participation in the second round. The next two weeks will only result in more controversies and citizens will have an even harder time deciding on who is the more competent candidate. While Sandu can easily boast of her political integrity, Dodon has no alternative but to distract the public from questions surrounding accusations of corruption and treason. 

Denis Cenusa is a PhD candidate and researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the Giessen University in Germany. He is an associate expert at the “Expert-Grup” think tank in Moldova and a contributor at IPN News Agency in Moldova since 2015.

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