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31 October 2016

The presidential election in Moldova: the upgrade of “the captured state”?

Whether this election will change the country is not in question. The question is how serious these changes will be…

The presidential election took place in the Republic of Moldova on October 30. As predicted by most observers, none of the candidates were able to secure an absolute majority. Igor Dodon, the leader of the Party of Socialists, and representative of the right-wing opposition, Maia Sandu, made it through to the second round. According to preliminary results obtained through the counting of 99% of ballots cast, the candidates won 48,5%  and 38% of votes, respectively.

Reinstatement of general presidential elections was one of the demands set out during protests that took place in Chisinau in September 2015 – January 2016. The primary motive behind these protests was to combat the political regime in Moldova which has been labeled “a captured state”. The so-called “theft of the year” whereby one billion dollars was syphoned off from the Moldovan banking system over a short period of time has become a symbol of the regime. The debt was subsequently imposed on the state and hence all of its citizens. Vlad Plahotniuc has become the key figure of this political system: both ownership of major Moldovan TV channels, and control over all relatively profitable sectors of the economy are associated with this persona. He is also said to be in control of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova whose member Pavel Filip has headed the Moldovan government since January.

The direct presidential election is in fact the only significant concession to be made by the Moldovan authorities in response to the protest movement. However, this is not so much a victory for the opposition as it is a means employed by the existing regime to channel protest moods. According to the Constitution of Moldova, the president has no significant powers and therefore poses no immediate threat to the existing political status quo.

On the other hand, the regime cannot allow the coming to power of an openly oppositionist candidate who has no desire to integrate into the existing system, and would be well-positioned to build his or her own political project ahead of the 2018 parliamentary election. Judging by the amount of mudslinging on TV channels owned by Plahotniuc, and the direct persecution pursued by the authorities, two politicians posed a real threat: Andrei Nastase – one of the leaders of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party and Renato Usatii – the mayor of Balti and the leader of the Our Party.

Since the electoral legislation of the 1990s has not been fully reinstated and the age limit of 40 years has not been lifted, Renato Usatii was not permitted to participate in the election. In his place was publicist Dumitru Ciubasenco who is less than charismatic and who enjoys far less popularity. As for Andrei Nastase, he withdrew his candidacy two weeks before the election in favor of Maia Sandu; a decision which was obviously arrived upon against his will since he insisted on his right-wing presidential candidacy until recently. It seems that Nastase was under pressure from the EU and US which consider Sandu a “purer” politician (according to Nastase himself, he is backed by Platohniuc’s intransigent enemies - businessmen the Topa brothers who reside in Germany). The candidacy of Sandu was approved also because the regime would have taken an uncompromising stance against Nastase which would have led to a revival of positional wars between political clans.

As a result, after Nastase and Usatii had been excluded from the race, the ruling coalition were left with only two serious rivals: Igor Dodon, the leader of the Party of Socialists, and Maia Sandu, the leader of the Action and Solidarity Party. On the one hand, both candidates have some experience, if not of cooperation, then at least of co-existence alongside the “captured state,” and may well agree to political bargaining and a compromise with it. Dodon and Plahotniuc have refrained from attacking each other for a long while. Moreover, the leader of the Party of Socialists took a moderate stance during the most recent election campaign which sat well with the plans of the Democratic Party. For example, he campaigned for the holding of trilateral talks between Moldova, the EU and Russia on finding a compromise with respect to trade and the economic sphere, not to mention his campaigning for the joining of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or his denunciation of the Association Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Moldova. Speaking of Maia Sandu, her biography evidences her pragmatism and prudence as a politician. During the 1990s and 2000s she long held various positions in the Ministry of Economics of Moldova, the World Bank and the UN. Sandu was also the Minister of Education according to the quota of the Liberal Democratic Party of Vlad Filat in 2012-2015. In the aftermath of Filat’s arrest, she said that he himself was to blame for having failed to build an independent justice system in the country and called on him to apologize for his mistakes.

On the other hand, Dodon and Sandu are more than capable of defying the “captured state” albeit on a symbolic level. Thus, back in 2015, Sandu’s nomination for prime minister, as proposed by Filat, was ostentatiously rejected by the Democratic and Liberal parties not least because she had adopted an overtly critical stance with respect to the ruling majority back then.

Thus, the regime undertook several steps to curb the excessive strengthening of the positions of both the left-wing and right-wing representatives, promoting a head-on collision. Hence, taking advantage of his image as “the grey eminence”, Plahotniuc gave a damaging interview in which he stated that Dodon was a politician who poses a threat to the national interests of Moldova (in connection with his efforts aimed at joining the Customs Union, and the offer of a federative settlement of the Transnistrian conflict). In contrast, Maia Sandu was described by Plahotniuc as a sincere, albeit misguided, politician with whom the government and parliament could potentially find a common language. The second step was the unexpected withdrawal of Marian Lupu of the Democratic Party from the election campaign. Marian Lupu announced his support for the candidacy of Maia Sandu at a press conference during which he sat next to the shrewdly smiling Plahotniuc. These moves are unlikely to have benefited Dodon and Sandu; Plahotniuc presented Dodon as a profoundly pro-Russian politician with whom the right-wing and centrist electorate share nothing in common. The support of Sandu by Plahotniuc did more harm than good thanks to his extremely high disapproval rating. Despite Renato Usatii’s inclusion on the international wanted list a week before the election, Ciubasenco’s name was not removed from the election list nor was that of Former Prime Minister Iurie Leanca. As a result, they were successful in sequestering some votes.

Having ensured that the presidential chances of both opposition leaders are comparable, Plahotniuc has in fact offered each an opportunity to cooperate. In this context, the nomination of Marian Lupu, the candidate of the unpopular ruling party, was no accident: the rise in his approval rating to 8-10 percent was intended to highlight the importance of the advantage of incumbency factor. It is precisely the advantage of incumbency factor which will decide the outcome of the race between Dodon and Sandu ,and will no doubt become a game changer when it is employed by Plahotniuc during the second round.

With respect to the geopolitical context of the election, it did not play a decisive role. The main motif of the campaign was no less than “the fight against the captured state”, although it is noteworthy that just a week before the election, all the candidates echoed the traditional geopolitical clichés of Moldovan politics which reflect the deep divide in public consciousness. Both the ruling party and the right-wing, which opposes it, began to position Dodon as a purely pro-Russian politician. They also disseminated a story about enlisting Transnistrians to serve alongside Russian troops in Transnistria. Speaking of Dodon, he lost out due to anti-Romanian discourse and his support for the Orthodox Church. He also exclaimed that “Crimea is part of Russia” (although only de facto according to him).

External actors took an ambivalent stance in relation to the Moldovan election. On the one hand, in line with the concept of Realpolitik, they do in fact engage in “handshakes” with the current authorities in Moldova. Since January, not only Victoria Nuland (she has visited Moldova twice) but also Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Romania Dacian Ciolos have met with different representatives of the Moldovan authorities. Romania has wired the first tranche of an interest-free loan of 60 million euros to Moldova, and the IMF has also allocated funding for Moldova.

International stakeholders, and the EU in particular, are hardly prepared for the sharp destabilization of yet another state from the Eastern Partnership. It is no coincidence that Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, clearly stated that an early parliamentary election was not desired when speaking to Prime Minister Pavel Filip during his visit to Chisinau. Such an election could mean victory for Dodon, could lead to protests by right-wing oppositionists and bring about unpredictable consequences.

External observers are in little doubt that the outcome of the presidential election is unlikely to radically change the situation in Moldova, although candidates who closely follow either the West’s or Russia’s agenda may alter domestic and foreign policy slightly. Speaking of Maia Sandu, the West expects that she will pedal reforms. Russia, on the other hand, expects that Dodon will facilitate the normalization of bilateral trade and economic relations, currently being discussed by both countries within the framework of developing the road map to be signed in November.

Russia’s stance is of particular interest here. Moscow quite openly supported “pro-Russian forces” during previous electoral cycles and tried to create center-left coalitions in Chisinau whereas this time around, it is distancing itself from Moldovan politics by taking a “wait and see” approach. One assertion of Russian discourse is the idea that no real pro-Russian forces remain in CIS countries. The history of cooperation with Vladimir Voronin, the leader of the Party of Communists, has taught the Kremlin a lot. One of the lessons learnt is that pre-election rhetoric and geopolitical orientation are relative when it comes to Moldovan politics. 

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