By Petru Negura
The victory of Maia Sandu in the November 2020 presidential elections is a remarkable political event for the Republic of Moldova and the CIS countries for several reasons. The legitimacy of this victory is indisputable. Maia Sandu, a graduate of Harvard University and former adviser to the director of the World Bank in Washington D.C., defeated her opponent Igor Dodon, the leader of the Socialist Party, by over 15 percentage points (57.72% compared to 42.28%). Sandu secured a bigger share of the vote than any other candidate in the history of elections in Moldova since 1991. She is the first politician in Moldova to win elections with a platform focused exclusively on the fight against corruption and for the rule of law. Last but not least, Maia Sandu is the first woman to win in a close and unequal fight with her male opponents, primarily with the incumbent President Igor Dodon. She thus becomes the first female president of the Republic of Moldova and is, for now, the only woman president in the CIS space.
These aspects, as well as the massive vote of the diaspora, are the most notable differences between the result of these elections and previous ones.
Maia Sandu has a strong pro-EU orientation, in contrast to the pro-Russian Dodon. However, this campaign generally avoided geopolitical issues. Both candidates built their messages exclusively on a pragmatic discourse emphasizing the modernization of the country, developing the economy and reducing poverty, even though the functions of the president in the Republic of Moldova, a parliamentary regime, do not include such prerogatives. Furthermore, Sandu insisted on the need for independent justice and the rule of law, while Dodon focused his electoral discourse on defending “traditional values”, such as faith in God and family. These topics dominated the electoral campaign.
Maia Sandu constantly criticised her opponent as being corrupt. In summer 2019, Dodon was the subject of a scandal following the circulation on the internet of a video, in which the fugitive oligarch and former member of parliament Vladimir Plahotniuc is shown handing him a black plastic bag, purportedly containing a significant sum of money. This episode earned the president the defamatory nickname Kuliok (plastic bag – Ru.) on social media. Maia Sandu also accused Dodon of doing everything possible to gain control over the judiciary, other state institutions and the press, following Plahotniuc who controlled state and business institutions. In his turn, Igor Dodon criticized Sandu for being hostile to traditional values, especially for being single and participating in LGBT marches (in fact, Sandu participated in a March 8 feminist demonstration). He also accused his opponent of undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova – and especially of supporting the union of Moldova with Romania (in fact, this element was not part of Maia Sandu’s campaign).
Massive participation of the diaspora
Another important element that distinguished these elections and their result from previous ones was the massive participation of the diaspora. According to estimates, between 500,000 and 1 million Moldovans work and live abroad. The diaspora constitutes about 20-30% of the general population of the country (3 million inhabitants according to the 2014 census). In the second round of voting, 262,103 Moldovan citizens cast their ballots abroad (compared to 150,021 in 2016). Of these, 93% expressed their support for Maia Sandu. It should be noted that the diaspora voters in Western European and North American countries are usually more politically active. This year, however, the number of participants in the vote residing abroad was the highest in the history of the Republic of Moldova since 1991.
What is the reason for such a high turnout in the diaspora? The answer is obvious, judging by the result of the vote: the desire shared by many voters not to allow Igor Dodon to win another term, in the one hand, and the positive intention to promote a candidate considered competent and honest, on the other hand. After the first round, Igor Dodon launched a statement, considered uninspired by some observers, claiming that the diaspora was a “parallel electorate,” in the sense that they had radically different preferences from voters inside the country. This statement was evaluated by some observers as an insult towards the diaspora, which contributed to an even higher mobilization in the second round of elections.
The victory of Maia Sandu in these elections was due not only to the intrinsic merits of the candidate, which undoubtedly had a major impact, but also to a vote of no confidence in President Dodon. In the first round of voting, two other candidates received a high number of votes: Renato Usatii (16.9%), a controversial politician and mayor of Balti, and Violeta Ivanov, with 6.5%, the candidate of the Shor party (whose leader, Ilan Shor, fled to Israel, having been investigated and prosecuted in Moldova in connection with the infamous bank fraud of 2014). These candidates attracted the vote of an electorate disappointed by the quality of governance under President Dodon in recent years, and especially in 2020. Curiously, a significant part of the votes cast for these pro-Russian politicians went in the second round to Maia Sandu.
An unbalanced foreign policy
What could the voters not forgive Dodon for? Besides the accusations of corruption, symbolized by the “Kuliok” affair, Dodon was blamed for an unbalanced foreign policy. According to some estimates, during his term, President Dodon visited Moscow more than 40 times, but he never went to Bucharest or Kyiv, and visited Brussels only once. His visits to Moscow did not result in major investment projects initiated by Russia; the 250-million-euro loan promised by Russia did not ultimately reach Moldova’s budget. Moldovan voters also blamed Dodon for his failed leadership in managing the COVID-19 crisis. Through his frequently outrageous claims and behaviour, he disregarded the severity of coronavirus, while the curve of infections continued to grow. On the other hand, some Moldovans who do not believe in the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic (27%, according to POB-IPP poll from October 2020) were dissatisfied with the health restrictions imposed during his term, and especially with their negative economic effects. Thus, according to the survey, more than 80% of respondents were not at all or only to a small extent satisfied with how the authorities managed the pandemic.1 Finally, several groups of citizens were dissatisfied with the economic and social policies he promised to implement (especially the increase in salaries and pensions) but did not apply due to the state’s budgetary crisis resulting from the pandemic. Thus, the confidence in the president decreased from 42% in December 2019 to 28% in October 2020.2
Maia Sandu takes over the presidency of the Republic of Moldova not only at a time of drastic decline in trust in the presidential and other state institutions, but also against the background of a series of arrears that will have to be resolved in both foreign and domestic policies. In her speech after the final results of the elections were announced, Maia Sandu stated that she wants to rebuild a united society, and thus overcome the systematic division exercised by the politicians in recent years and, especially, in the last elections. In a parliamentary regime, the prerogatives of the president are limited. These could be undermined further by a hostile parliament in which a new ruling coalition is being formed between the Socialists led by Dodon and the new “For Moldova” platform, created ad-hoc from the defections of Plahotniuc’s party and MPs of the Shor party, the big suspects in the “theft of the billion”. The number one goal of President Sandu would therefore be the dissolution of the Parliament as soon as possible and calling early elections. Otherwise, a long and difficult cohabitation awaits her, in which the president’s program to fight grand corruption and build a state based on the rule of law could remain yet another idealistic political discourse.
Dr. Petru Negura is currently research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg. He is also a lecturer at Free International University of Moldova (Chisinau) and researcher at the Centre for Sociology and Social Psychology within the Institute of Legal, Political and Sociological Research, Moldova.
Disclaimer: The author has been a support of Maia Sandu’s government in the past.
Featured image: „Thanks Moldova”. Source: Photo courtesy of the electoral staff of Maia Sandu
- See the study “Social Cohesion in the Republic of Moldova in the context of the EU rapprochement”, conducted in July 2020 by the Center for Sociology and Social Psychology, the Institute for Legal, Political and Sociological Research, Chisinau.
- See the Public Opinion Barometer poll, carried out in October 2020 by the Institute for Public Policies and CBS-Research, Chisinau.