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Challenging the status quo in Moldova. What now after Maia Sandu’s victory?

The future of Moldovan politics will depend on Maia Sandu’s ability to consolidate forces in the parliament. Changes in the standings of certain oligarchs is also bound to have an impact.

December 1, 2020 - Oktawian Milewski - Articles and Commentary

President-elect of Moldova Maia Sandu. Photo: European People's Party flickr.com

Maia Sandu won the Moldovan presidential elections with 57.75 per cent of the vote. This victory represented a crushing defeat not only for Igor Dodon (42.25 per cent) but also Russia’s various political investments in the country over the last decade. However, Dodon’s defeat should be regarded for the time being as no more than an act, albeit an important one, in a long political struggle. The outgoing Moldovan president still holds a great amount of power thanks to the help of his Party of Socialists (PSRM), the biggest political party in Moldova. This struggle is not only geopolitical, whereby Moldovans have to choose between the EU and Russia’s models of development. Indeed, it is also cultural-normative, as many Moldovans now wish to move on from an oligarchic system that was set up in the mid-1990s. This system was “perfected” by various administrations over the last decade.

In a political system where the parliament is the main body of the state, whoever leads the biggest party has the best chance of ruling the country with the help of the government. At this point, Sandu has won ‘political ownership’ of the institution with the least power in Moldova’s state system. Despite this, it must be admitted that the presidency is currently credited with the highest legitimacy, as Sandu was elected with the highest percentage of votes ever in the history of Moldova’s presidential elections. She can expect limited support in parliament from her own Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) (14 members), the 11 representatives of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), and a few non-affiliated MPs. In sum, this accounts for only a quarter or, at best, a third of the 101 strong parliament of Moldova. The other two thirds of parliament, which could form a constitutional majority, are dominated by pro-Russian and pro-oligarch parties that support the status quo.

Thinning the ice of the status quo

With Sandu’s election, Moldova seems to have taken its first genuine step toward rejecting its traditional political habits, which are often known as sovok. This Russian word describes a political system (and a social-institutional mindset) that maintains a clearly ‘Soviet’ system of values. Such a patronal system is based on corrupt networks and bears a strong resemblance to other hybrid “Eurasian regimes”. The way forward, however, will prove difficult given the various issues that Sandu’s presidency will likely face. She will be a president with great political capital despite having a small number of prerogatives. At the same time, Dodon and his party’s ability to cooperate with dozens of other parliament members eager to preserve the status quo suggests that the picture on the ground will not change too much for the next four to five months. Moreover, it is possible that the current system could remain intact until at least 2022, with Ion Chicu still leading a beleaguered technocratic executive.

Sandu’s electoral platform was built on promises to improve anti-corruption measures and justice system reform. This platform allowed her to reach across various ethnic, linguistic and geopolitical dividing lines during her campaign. Her electoral platform also helped the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) to become the leading voice of the pro-European opposition. However, the party, for the time being, remains constrained by the structural rules set by the runaway oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and his cronies in the Democratic Party. Breakaway party factions that still reside in the parliament and other state institutions are also complicating matters.

Sandu’s campaign benefited from what some observers call the “anti-system pro-Russian vote”, which primarily switched its support from Renato Usatîi to the new president in the second round of voting. Usatîi remains a convinced pro-Russian politician with highly conservative pro-systemic political views and is even a fan and good acquaintance of the Russian extremist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. However, during the elections it is clear that he did not give in to any pressure from Moscow. This is the result of Russian authorities opening criminal investigations against the politician due to his apparent involvement in organised crime activities.

Thus, Sandu did benefit from much of the protest vote that supported Usatîi, suggesting that she could successfully promote her narrative within the left-wing of Moldova’s political-social spectrum. This choice of narratives and practices would have to involve the rest of her party. It is still a promise of sorts, once the party passes through a renewed electoral campaign exercise supposedly in 2021 during the early parliamentary elections, one which would bring PAS to expected political maturity, just as the election of Sandu as president dedicated her as a fully formed politician and stateswoman after a path of about 5-6 years of political growth experience. At the time of writing, opinion polls show that the party is supported by around 40 per cent of the population. In parliament, however, it has only 14 per cent of seats.

There is one aspect of Sandu’s presidency that will likely change the status quo. The new president hopes to restore Moldova’s external relations with its two geographic neighbours: Romania and Ukraine. She is expected to reset the bilateral and maybe even the multilateral agenda with these states. This would immediately strengthen the possibility for common projects with Moldova’s neighbours. Sandu, however, will be dependent on the government to properly bring about this potential reset. She also aims to make Moldova much more approachable in Brussels and other European capitals. The new president therefore seems to hold genuine desires for reform. Whatever she can do in terms of constitutional powers and political culture, however, will only have small effects.

Where to Dodon?

Dodon faced a symbolic internal challenge immediately after the elections from Ion Ceban, the current mayor of Chisinau. This challenge will likely occur behind the scenes, as Dodon still remains the embodiment of the political-economic system that emerged after Plahotniuc who arranged for a distribution of power that supports the old oligarchic-patronal system. Plahotniuc is still present on the political scene through his proxies led by Andrian Candu (Pro Moldova Party) and Ilan Șor Party. Dodon was supposed to be the guardian of an elaborate system of dependencies that have persisted for a long time in the country. The networks and bureaucracy within this system simply do not have a replacement for Dodon. On the most concrete level this system exists as the aforementioned two-thirds of parliament. Though it also involves dozens or hundreds of high-level civil servants, judges and prosecutors who all depend on the illegal financial flows from schemes inherited from the times of Plahotniuc and earlier.

The Mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban is clearly a more intelligent political manager than Dodon. Despite this, it is unlikely that his experience will result in him embracing potential reform in the country. He remains a Moscow stooge who could potentially become Dodon’s replacement. Dodon is also a key actor in a growing business and media network between his brother Alexandru and Russian oligarch Igor Chayka, the son of the former prosecutor general of Russia. Their common business interests are spread throughout the networks of many important PSRM members. This further consolidates the importance of Dodon in the party hierarchy. Chayka is not the most influential oligarch in the Kremlin but he is still able to lobby for Dodon and his interests. Other Russian patrons of Dodon will, for the foreseeable future, support him in Russia in order to maintain support from the Kremlin. This is despite the fact that he cannot remain the exclusive vehicle of Russia’s interests in Moldova for too long. For the time being, Dodon will remain in charge due to support from Moscow.

When his mandate ends at the end of the year, Dodon will do everything possible to strengthen the office of the prime minister, which he will strive to control at any cost. There is a possibility that he could become prime minister with the help of Pro Moldova (Andrian Candu and his party), the Ilan Shor Party and possibly the Democratic Party. None of these parties are interested in early parliamentary elections as they currently risk losing representation in parliament. At this point, PSRM has 37 representatives and with the help of the other three parties they could reach a comfortable constitutional majority of over 60 seats.

Usatîi the joker

One by one, Moldova’s corrupt stakeholder politicians who dominated the last few decades are losing their power. Over the last decade we have witnessed the demise of Vladimir Voronin, Vladimir Filat, Vladimir Plahotniuc and now Igor Dodon. The Moldovan political playground possesses one key characteristic. It cannot handle a vacuum when it comes to actors capable of protecting a corrupt system that acts according to Russia’s interests.

When one of these figures loses, another is ready to fill the political space with their presence. One of the growing heavy-weights is the aforementioned Renato Usatîi. He is now competing for support among large parts of the left-wing pro-Russian electorate that is rejecting Dodon and the PSRM. These voters are not against the current system. They are rather protest voters who simply do not like the current stakeholder due to his supposed betrayal of their values. Usatîi is currently 42 and could now become a leading politician during the next decade of Moldovan politics alongside Sandu. He should not, however, be considered a potential future partner for Sandu as both politicians have different values, styles, personalities and visions regarding the strategic orientation of Moldova.

For the time being, Usatîi remains a wild card who could transform Moldovan politics. As long as he remains a fierce opponent of Dodon, he will continue to help Sandu. The 15 per cent difference between Sandu and Dodon in the recent elections was only possible due to Usatîi’s refusal to openly support Dodon. If we were to take away the votes received by Sandu in the diaspora, then she would have only won by two per cent of the vote. This advantage was therefore gained with the help of protest voters who supported Usatîi during the first round of elections. To reiterate, these left-wing, pro-Russian voters were willing to vote for the centrist pro-European Sandu.

Despite this, Usatîi’s unique position is not reflected in the parliament, where his party has no representation. He will therefore hope to gain a strong public and media presence as a means of challenging Dodon and the PSRM. His role in Moldovan politics could be especially important if Sandu and the PAS find a way to co-opt Usatîi as part of their political strategy. Both Sandu and Usatîi want early parliamentary elections but they do not know how to reach that goal. Should this happen soon, these two politicians and their respective parties (PAS and “Our Party”) could take between 55 to 60 seats in parliament. This would represent a momentous change in the Moldovan legislature.

The way ahead

After she officially becomes president in December, Sandu will need to develop a coherent strategy that will help her push for early parliamentary elections. This will likely start with discussions regarding corruption and other institutional issues that have become so characteristic of Dodon’s system. This approach should not be underestimated as Sandu now has real moral authority in the country’s political system. Up until now, all of Moldova’s presidents acted as ‘system-forming’ or ‘system-preserving’ actors. Sandu will try to act as a ‘system-reforming’ and maybe even ‘anti-system’ actor. In order to accomplish this, she would need strong parliamentary support. However, she can only currently rely on 14 MPs from PAS, potentially 11 MPs from PPDA, and one or two independents. She will subsequently have to find a way to either double her support in parliament or potentially dissolve the current legislature. Neither of these options seem possible at present.

At the same time, Sandu also hopes to forge a political nation out of Moldova’s divided citizens. This is an ambitious goal in a country where divides have persisted for over three decades since independence. Other issues will likely take priority over this goal. The country has never had a leader capable of transcending the Moldova’s various dividing lines. This is mainly due to clashing views regarding the geopolitical orientation of the state. This includes issues related to Russia and the West, as well as potential unification with Romania. Sandu seems to have learned this lesson of strategic consensus in the months before the presidential election. She did this as such divides could have jeopardised her victory. None of her predecessors managed to do this to such a degree. Will she, however, find support from Usatîi and his party regarding these aims? It is not yet clear.

Finally, Sandu has exposed the importance of the diaspora in Moldova’s political games. This is an electoral resource that could be lost forever in the next decade because of assimilation and loss of any faith in Moldova as a state project. No political candidate before has been capable of gaining so much support from the Moldovan diaspora, which makes up roughly two-fifths of the whole population of the country. The diaspora is also one of the very few guarantors of Moldova’s economic survival. This electoral pool has tilted the scales and made Sandu the first‚ anti-systemic’ president of Moldova. Changing this system only seems possible by consistently challenging the parliament and government with the help of the diaspora. The question, however, is how does Sandu include the diaspora as part of the reform of Moldova’s state and society?

Oktawian Milewski is a political scientist specialising in Central and East European studies. He is currently a Poland resident correspondent for Radio France Internationale, Romanian office.

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