How Will Sandu’s Victory Change the Political Scene in Moldova?
The second round of the presidential election in Moldova took place on Sunday, November 15. Maia Sandu, the pro-Western leader of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won 57% of the vote and was declared the winner of the election. Her rival was the former president Igor Dodon, a supporter of integration with Russian geopolitical projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
However, issues of Moldova’s international affiliation did not dominate during the election campaign. The last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 showed that the main subject matter was corruption and not the geopolitical dimension. For this reason, the support of the first-round candidates, who can be described as pro-Russian, such as Renato Usatii, was transferred to Maia Sandu in the second round, who devoted a lot of time in her campaign to the problem of corruption in the party of President Dodon. An additional advantage of the election campaign of the winning candidate was the communication with the Russian-speaking community in Moldova, which was reached via social media in Russian. So far, the campaigns of the candidates representing the pro-western direction in international politics have focused mainly on the Romanian-speaking population, which usually voted for them anyway. The unquestionable success of Maia Sandu resulted from providing an alternative to those citizens who up to now have drawn information from the Russian media, which are hostile to Moldova’s European integration.
Furthermore, Sandu’s victory was possible thanks to the participation of the Moldovan diaspora worldwide. More than 10% of all votes were cast by the Moldavians staying abroad, which is about 262,000 of nearly one million people living permanently outside their homeland, mainly in Western European countries.
Sandu’s presidency may be quite difficult for her, given the lack of the majority in the parliament of her Action and Solidarity Party, which is only the second largest political force. Sandu’s party withdrew from the strategic coalition with Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party in October 2019. Given the difficulties in dialogue with the ruling Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), snap elections seem inevitable. The political scene in Moldova is at the crossroads after the victory of the pro-Western candidate in the presidential election, especially since the government does not have a majority in parliament.
However, the possibility of cohabitation, lasting until the end of the current government’s term in 2023, should also be considered. Given the strong support for Maia Sandu, her party could win the majority in the future parliament, which would enable the introduction of anti-corruption reforms. They would be troublesome for Igor Dodon’s socialists and the third force in parliament – the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) – associated with oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. It can therefore be assumed that the government will be able to survive until the end of the term if an informal support is given by the PDM.
The international context of Maia Sandu’s win
The public opinion sees Sandu’s victory as another turn in international politics towards the Euro-Atlantic orientation. In Moldova’s political system, the president has limited competences, but represents the country abroad. The future of Moldova in the European project largely depends on how the country is perceived internationally. Maia Sandu, who advised the Managing Director of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., is a trustworthy politician for the political and economic elites in Western Europe and the United States. Her presidency is likely to focus on maintaining Moldova’s credibility in the eyes of Russia and among EU partners, who feared that Kishinev (Chișinău) would resign from the Association Agreement with the EU and become involved in the Eurasian Economic Union (a geopolitical project of the Russian Federation, a kind of alternative to the EU).
In terms of international politics, the biggest challenge for Maia Sandu will be to build good relations with the Russian Federation, which has been betting on the current president Igor Dodon during the election campaign. Sandu, representing a pro-western stance in international politics, had become unpopular among Russians while holding the office of Minister of Education in Vladimir Filat’s government in 2012. Then, she led to changes in the education system, which made Russian language learning no longer obligatory in schools. Throughout the coalition of socialists and the Action and Solidarity Party in 2019, Maia Sandu, as the prime minister, pursued a pro-Western policy by visiting Western European capitals. Simultaneously, she left the dialogue with Russia to President Dodon. Now, however, as the new president of the Republic of Moldova, she will have to build good relations with Russia, for instance to coordinate actions against the self-proclaimed Transnistria (politically, economically and militarily controlled by Moscow), which is beyond the control of Kishinev and is de jure part of Moldova.
In European politics one should not count on major changes as long as the Socialist Party is in power, hence the actions of the new president will probably boil down to mediation between different groups on the political scene in Moldova.
To sum up, Maia Sandu’s victory does not fundamentally change the divisions in Moldova’s political scene. However, the removal of Igor Dodon from the office, who was involved in building strategic relations with Moscow, is a symbolic departure from building Moldova’s security policy solely on the basis of cooperation with Russia. Nevertheless, such a stance of Moldova was still present only at the level of declarations (Moldova has not abandoned the Association Agreement with the European Union, which is Kishinev’s main trading partner). Igor Dodon’s policy towards Moscow did not bring Moldova closer to the Eurasian Economic Union, with which, for example, Serbia is associated (also a candidate country for the European Union).
Consequently, it can be assumed that the presidency of Maia Sandu will only be effective if her political party has the majority in the parliament, implements reforms in the judicial system and effectively fights corruption. Otherwise, the chances for profound transformations in Moldova are slim and the authority of Maia Sandu as an independent, non-corrupt politician will be undermined.
Author: Jakub Lachert
Jakub Lachert is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences and International Studies at the University of Warsaw. His research interests include: European Union neighborhood policy, including, in particular, Eastern policy, Eastern Partnership, Western Balkans in the process of integration with the EU.