While the US presidential election captured international attention for most of the year, another historic presidential race will also be settled this week. The Republic of Moldova, a small country that is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and notable for being the poorest country in Europe, will decide on a new president this Sunday. The election will likely redefine the future of the country and push the country either eastward toward Russia or westward toward the US and the EU.
Moldova is a parliamentary republic with both a president, who serves as head of state, and a prime minister, who serves as head of government. As the Moldovan constitution was originally written, the president is chosen by the people in a popular vote, while the prime minister is appointed by the president and then confirmed, along with his cabinet, by the unicameral legislature. In 2000, a constitutional amendment was passed that gave the parliament the ability to elect the president, taking this power away from the people. This amendment was overturned by Moldova’s Constitutional Court in March of this year, making this the first direct presidential election in twenty years.
This election represents an exciting opportunity in Moldova, a country that has been engulfed in recent years by pessimism and dissatisfaction with its government. In a 2015 scandal that became known among Russian-speaking Moldovans as the “кража века”, or “Theft of the Century,” $1 billion disappeared from the Moldovan banking system. This represented 15 percent of Moldova’s GDP at the time. Many Moldovans believe the theft was carried out by corrupt government officials. In September 2015, hundreds of thousands of people staged anti-corruption protests in the capital, Chisinau, calling for increased investigation into the stolen funds and the resignation of the sitting government. Two different camps—the socialists and the pro-European “Truth and Dignity” group—set up tent cities in Chisinau, where they remained for several months. Given the political turmoil of the past few years, it is no surprise that many Moldovans see this as a chance to elect someone who will represent them and fight against the longstanding corruption.
Geopolitics are also on the ballot this election. The choice between East and West is a question that has troubled Moldova—and other post-Soviet nations—since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s. Pro-Western parties have led the country since 2009, and in 2014, they signed an EU Association Agreement. But because of the corruption within Moldova’s pro-EU coalition, the various socialist parties—which are generally more pro-Russian—have become more popular over the past year and a half. Many view a possible realignment with Russia as beneficial for Moldova because Russia provides a larger market for the country’s goods and could lift the trade ban it enacted after Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the EU.
Predictably, the positions of the two leading presidential candidates, Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party of Moldova (Партия Социалистов Республики Молдова) and Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party (Partidul Acțiune și Solidaritate), reflect these divisions and tensions in Moldovan society. To signal their anti-corruption bona fides, both candidates have taken official stances against the country’s current regime. In the official program of the Socialist Party, Dodon’s coalition claims that the “loud and pompous promises for democratic reform made by the ‘European integrators’, in actuality … [led to the] seizure of the country by political oligarchs.” In this way, Dodon has come to represent the opposition movement in Moldova, which appeals to the thousands of Moldovans disillusioned by the current government.
Maia Sandu has also come out publicly against corruption, which she has made the central issue of her campaign. In a political advertisement, she tells the Moldovan people: “As president, I will be your voice and your weapon. Together, we will get rid of corruption and thieves.” However, since she was the minister of education when the $1 billion was stolen, many Moldovans see her as a part of the corrupt system rather than its antidote. To make matters worse, Vlad Plahotniuc, an oligarch whom many Moldovans accuse of being the main actor behind the “Theft of the Century,” publicly endorsed Sandu. Sandu quickly rejected his support, but it is likely that this incident will harm the public’s perception of her.
The geopolitical alignment of the candidates’ platforms are more clear-cut. Dodon is strongly pro-Russian and supports strengthening ties with Russia. In addition, he stated that he would void the Association Agreement signed with the EU in 2014, although he recently reversed this stance. This pro-Russian leaning appeals to many voters in Moldova, especially Russian-speaking voters who are nostalgic for Soviet times and feel marginalized in today’s majority Romanian-speaking population. According to polls conducted by Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization, Moldovans are beginning to turn away from Europe, with 43 percent supporting a partnership with the Eurasian Economic Union above the European Union, and 42 percent opposing membership in NATO.
There is still, however, a large segment of the population that leans in favor of the West. In contrast to Dodon’s pro-Russian stance, Maia Sandu promotes further European integration. She hopes to bring Moldovan products up to European standards by forming joint economic and cultural projects with Romania, an EU member state. Furthermore, Sandu would aim to develop a “strategic partnership with the U.S.” In contrast to the older generation of Moldovans, the youth in Moldova support her in this. However, the question remains as to whether they will turn out to vote in the runoff election this Sunday.
So who will win Moldova’s presidential election—Dodon or Sandu? Russia or the European Union? Socialism or Democratic-Liberalism? Although we will only know for sure on Sunday, November 13, the odds are strongly in Dodon’s favor. He led the first round of elections on October 30 with a ten-point advantage, showing that he has the support of the people—or at least, of the people who are getting out to vote. Sandu has claimed that this is due to “massive fraud” in the election system, which is making it more difficult for her supporters—primarily the young—to vote. So far, there have been no claims by independent spectators of “massive fraud,” although the independent non-profit group PromoLEX, which is conducting the most comprehensive review of Moldova’s election process, has reported a few instances of oversights by election officials. Such instances, however, would only have affected a few hundred votes.
The election on Sunday will come down to two factors: corruption and international relations. Due to the unfortunate negligence and abuse of office by the pro-European parties in Moldova, Europe and the United States seem set to lose influence in the small Eastern European country. As things stand now, it looks like Russia will be given a chance to show Moldova that it will be better off in the East than in the West.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Alexandra C. Price
Alexandra Price is a third-year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As the 2016 recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent a summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not writing for the Gate, Alexandra loves to study foreign languages, read, and take long bike rides around the city.