Politics have never been an entirely local affair in Moldova. Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the country has long been seen as a key battleground for influence between Russia and the West. In recent years, Moldova’s pro-Western government has made some major steps toward European Union membership, including an Association Agreement signed in 2014. Meanwhile, those who advocate for stronger relations with Moscow argue that Moldova would be better off joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). These competing forces typically come into full view during national elections, and this year’s landmark presidential election was no different.
Earlier this year, Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s president should be elected directly by the people, reversing a constitutional revision from 2000 that had designated this responsibility to parliament. Although executive power is still in the hands of the prime minister, many observers believe that direct elections will give the president a popular mandate to actively influence the policymaking process. Given the high stakes involved, over ten candidates registered to compete in this year’s election. As usual, they were mostly distinguished by their stance on European integration.
On one end of the spectrum, Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) emerged as the champion of pro-European voters who prefer an alternative to the establishment parties, which are widely seen as corrupt. Throughout the campaign, she consistently scored higher in opinion polls than Marian Lupu, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (PDM). Most voters associate the PDM with its deputy chairman, controversial oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, who is believed to wield a disproportionate amount of influence in the government. Four days before the election, Lupu withdrew from the race and declared his support for Sandu.
On the pro-Russian side, Socialist Party candidate Igor Dodon did not face any serious competitors. The Communist Party, which ruled the country from 2001 to 2009, decided not to field a candidate and urged voters to boycott the elections, calling them “illegal.” Populist candidate Dumitru Ciubasenco, representing Partidul Nostru (Our Party), was unable to gain significant traction among voters, particularly after party leader Renato Usatii became the subject of a criminal investigation regarding the attempted murder of his former business partner.
The first round of voting concluded on October 30, with Dodon nearly reaching the majority threshold required to avoid a run-off vote. In the end, he received 47.98 percent of votes, with Sandu coming in second with 38.71 percent; Ciubasenco led the rest of the pack with a distant 6.03 percent. The two leading candidates were set to face off again in a run-off vote on November 13, with Dodon being the clear favorite to win. In addition to his connections with officials in Moscow, he received substantial support from pro-Kremlin institutions within Moldova itself.
Adding to Dodon’s momentum was the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which ran a systematic smear campaign against Sandu in the weeks running up to the second round. The church is part of the Russian Orthodox Church seated in Moscow and competes for influence in Moldova with the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, which is part of the Romanian Orthodox Church seated in Bucharest, Romania. Although the Bessarabian Orthodox Church did not publicly take a position on the election, the Moldovan Orthodox Church played a leading role in the attempt to portray Sandu as a representative of “immoral” Western values. In particular, the church questioned Sandu’s morality because she is an unmarried woman. Bishop Marchel, a church leader in the city of Balti, went so far as to claim that her “attitude toward Christian morality… seems to diverge from normal principles.” Communist leader Vladimir Voronin refused to even shake Sandu’s hand, arguing that her marital status is a “betrayal of family values.” In a socially conservative country like Moldova, this type of rhetoric has real influence over how people vote.
Opponents to Sandu’s pro-European platform also started an anonymous campaign to discredit her with widely distributed leaflets stating that she supports homosexuality, mass immigration, and reunification with Romania, which Moldova was part of from 1918 to 1945. Sandu did in fact receive the endorsement of Moldova’s LGBT community, but the other two claims were highly dubious. First, a rumor that Sandu had agreed to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees during a meeting with Angela Merkel turned out to be false. Second, Sandu refused to accept an offer from presidential candidate Mihai Ghimpu to support reunification with Romania in return for his withdrawal from the race. In reality, Sandu’s agenda mostly focused on fighting corruption, reforming public institutions, and facilitating private sector growth. These facts were often greatly misrepresented in pro-Dodon media outlets, leading to widespread suspicion of Sandu’s true intentions among more conservative segments of Moldovan society.
Although geopolitical tensions inevitably took center stage during the election, domestic issues also played a major role. In 2014, Moldova was rocked by a corruption scandal that involved the disappearance of $1 billion from three large banks. This sparked widespread protests in Chisinau, led by the newly-formed “Dignity and Truth” movement. During the political crisis that ensued, two successive prime ministers, Chiril Gaburici and Valeriu Strelet, were forced to resign. However, many Moldovans feel that their concerns about corruption have not been fully addressed. When former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was arrested last October in connection with the banking scandal, many suspected that this was merely an attempt by Vlad Plahotniuc to eliminate his long-standing political rival. Meanwhile, local businessman Ilan Shor, who is believed to have been the primary beneficiary of the scandal, was recently elected mayor of the city of Orhei. Given this political climate, both Sandu and Dodon made fighting corruption one of the key themes of their respective campaigns. In particular, both candidates tried to distance themselves from Plahotniuc, who is almost universally despised in Moldova. After Plahotniuc declared his support for Sandu, many of her supporters claimed that this was actually a ploy to get Dodon elected, as Plahotniuc would then be able to ask Western countries for more aid money in order to fight the “threat” of losing Moldova to Russian influence.
In the end, Dodon won the second round with 52.11 percent of the vote. His support was largely concentrated in areas with large ethnic minority populations. For example, he received over 95 percent of the vote in Gagauzia and Taraclia, where most inhabitants are either Gagauz or Bulgarian. Sandu’s support, meanwhile, primarily consisted of ethnic Moldovans living in the central region of the country. She narrowly edged out Dodon in Chisinau with 53.4 percent of the vote. Perhaps more importantly, she received over 80 percent of the vote among the large Moldovan diaspora. Moldovans working in EU countries saw Sandu as the best candidate to ensure continued visa-free access to the Schengen Area. However, many potential Sandu voters in Britain, France, Italy, and Ireland were unable to vote due to a shortage of ballot papers. Although these votes would probably not have been enough for Sandu to overcome Dodon, this did not stop many of her supporters from protesting on the streets of Chisinau the following day. Sandu also called on election officials to resign, arguing that “Moldovan authorities didn’t respect the constitutional right of Moldovan citizens… to be able to vote.” In any case, the Central Electoral Commission did not change the results, and Igor Dodon became President of Moldova on December 23.