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Moldovans elected an anti-corruption president, avoiding a “colour revolution”

Former prime minister Maia Sandu was victorious in her bid for the Moldovan presidency on November 15th. Popular in the West, she will need more allies at home in order to act on her anti-corruption program.

November 18, 2020 - Denis Cenusa - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Voters in Moldova have waited almost half a decade for the opportunity to once again voice their support for Maia Sandu and her presidential ambitions. The recent electoral run-off on November 15th brought 1.6 million voters to the country’s polling stations, with 300,000 more voters participating compared to the first round. One third of this number was made up of new voters from the diaspora, who were responsible for 162,000 of these extra votes in the run-off. Overall, more than 260,000 Moldovan voters, who largely reside in EU member states, gave their support to Sandu. Consequently, she received 92 per cent of this group’s votes. Around 18,000 of those who voted abroad supported Igor Dodon. This represents only seven per cent of the total voting diaspora. The territorial division of support for each candidate is very clear. Sandu won 21 administrative units within the country, including the capital Chisinau. In contrast, Dodon came first in 13 territorial districts and at the 42 polling stations where more than 30,000 citizens residing in Transnistria cast their votes.

It is important to note that no “colour revolution” has taken place in Moldova. This is firstly because the election represented a victory for the country’s opposition. Some voices in Moldova and Russia expected a strong political reaction if the country re-elected Dodon. Secondly, despite all the pre-election speculation, a “colour revolution” is almost impossible in the country given the lack of protest potential in the society.

During these elections, it seems that many voters felt empowered by their participation and re-connected with their country. This was especially true among the diaspora. 

Problematic campaign

Overall, the elections were affected more by speculation regarding electoral issues than actual irregularities. Like all elections in the country, media coverage favoured the candidate with more influence among Moldova’s main television channels. In this case, this was Dodon. This, however, did not stop Sandu, who relied on independent media that is often funded from abroad. The opposition’s publication of several investigations, as well as leaks of old videos allegedly depicting Dodon participating in corruption, greatly influenced the electoral campaign. As a result, the outcome of the election was almost determined before the vote. The diaspora’s massive support for Sandu effectively secured her victory.

It is now clear that citizens who live in the breakaway region of Transnistria played a less important role in the election than expected by the opposition. This group cast 31,000 votes, with 85 per cent of these ballots supporting Dodon. However, issues surrounding ‘voter bussing’ and various reports of vote-buying within this population have exposed the current vulnerabilities of the electoral process. Living in Transnistria according to the rules of the separatist regime, these voters perceive less pronounced the nature of the irregularity they are willing to accept for remuneration or other material benefits. 

Problematic future

Whilst Sandu has succeeded in winning the presidential election, this victory has not handed the former prime minister any real power. The Moldovan president has always been a weak player in the country’s political power structure. Perhaps most crucially, Sandu is aware that she will not be able to influence the parliament. As a result, the Socialists, under Dodon’s leadership, are now attempting to obstruct a new coalition that is necessary to save the current government and its various appointments across state institutions. Sandu’s political resources in the legislative body consist of only 14 representatives. In these circumstances, it will prove difficult for the new president to act on her electoral programme. This is particularly true regarding Sandu’s anti-corruption goals. At this stage, therefore, the president will need to seek consensus with various political parties on urgent issues such as the economy and the ongoing pandemic.

Until new elections do not clean up the current parliament, the president-elect Maia Sandu will have a challenging mission of “mediator” and “deal-maker” between the various groups of interests. This will only further impact the president’s ability to push through radical domestic change. Whilst the situation in parliament remains uncertain, however, the president is likely to thrive in international politics.

For instance, the governments of Romania and Ukraine have already expressed their interest in cooperating with Sandu. Angela Merkel and the European Commission also appear enthusiastic. At the same time, even Vladimir Putin has expressed desires for “constructive” relations with Sandu’s presidency.

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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