Monthly Archives: November 2016

Why Pro-Russian Candidate Won the Presidency in Moldova?

On November 13, over 52.1% of Moldovans voted for Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He is the country’s fifth elected president and only the third elected directly by the people. Those dissatisfied with the outcome took to social media to protest under the now popular slogan #notmypresident; a couple of hundred people also took to the streets calling for the Central Election Commission (CEC) members to resign. Dodon’s opponent, Maia Sandu, gained 47.9% of the vote and has not yet formally conceded. Following numerous instances of mismanagement by the CEC and allegations of voter fraud, Sandu announced plans to challenge the election results at the Constitutional Court. However, given the four percent difference in the number of votes, and, even more so, the fact that the Constitutional Court is known to be heavily influenced by the Executive Coordinator of the Ruling Coalition, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, the Court is likely to rule in Dodon’s favor and validate the election. On the off chance that it decides to cancel the results, the country is likely to see mass protests by Dodon’s supporters. In fact, Dodon already threatened Sandu’s backers in no uncertain terms demanding that they tone down their rhetoric and leave the streets; otherwise, they run the risk of being confronted by much larger groups of his own followers. The situation remains tense and somewhat uncertain. Therefore, it is helpful to evaluate how Moldova got to this point.

The presidential race itself was marred by controversy before campaigning even started. Direct presidential elections were reintroduced in March 2016 following a controversial Constitutional Court ruling, which canceled the 2000 Constitutional reform that mandated Parliament must elect the president. This ruling was seen as politically motivated and aimed at derailing the protest movement against government corruption.

The partisanship, divisiveness, and personal attacks waged during the presidential campaign will leave deep scars on Moldova’s political scene because it opened old wounds of ethno-linguistic tension and caused new ones stemming from misogyny, homophobia, and geopolitical fear-mongering. The presumed winner of the election, Igor Dodon, hopes to move forward, but many voters are not willing to accept his olive branch. Apart from his anti-European, anti-Romanian, and anti-Ukrainian message, Dodon led a negative campaign that divorced the facts from reality, and he was funded by powerful backers in Moscow and Moldova. Here are the three major factors that influenced the election in Dodon’s favor:

A political endorsement from Moscow made Dodon automatically a front runner in the election, particularly because the above-mentioned Constitutional Court ruling barred Renato Usatii, the other pro-Russian candidate, who was polling higher than Dodon, from running. The ruling set the age requirement for presidential candidates at a minimum of 40 years. Despite his harsh criticism of Dodon, Usatii still endorsed him in the runoffs—a decision that was dictated by Usatii’s own dependence on Moscow. At the same time, the Communist Party, lacking a feasible candidate, decided to boycott the election in the first round. They then halfheartedly supported Dodon in the runoffs not only to keep what was left of their electoral base, but also not to burn bridges with Russia. Clearly, had it not been for the Kremlin’s stamp of approval in the form of a personal blessing from Patriarch Kirill, Dodon would have struggled more to connect with Russian-speaking Moldovans and religious rural voters. In fact, having the Church in his corner allowed Dodon to a wage a dog whistle campaign questioning Sandu’s sexual orientation, morality, and faith, ultimately questioning her fitness for office.

Moreover, without the backing and covert support from Vladimir Plahotniuc, Dodon would have found it difficult to get his message across. After all, it is Plahotniuc who controls more than half of the Moldovan media market, including the rebroadcasting rights of the leading Russian news channel, which promoted Dodon as the Kremlin’s favorite.  Dodon’s ties with Plahotniuc go back to when Dodon was the Minister of Economy (2006-2009) and Plahotniuc was laying the foundation for his business empire, including by privatizing government-owned real estate. After Plahotniuc switched sides in 2009 when pro-EU parties came to power, Dodon stayed in opposition, but soon defected from the Communists and took over the Party of Socialists. He has been in opposition for the last seven years, but has nonetheless cooperated with the Plahotniuc-backed government on a number of crucial occasions. Most notably, in 2012, he helped to provide the necessary votes in the parliament to elect the President Nicolae Timofti, thus maintaining the pro-European parties in power. Despite this cooperation, during the 2016 campaign, Dodon not only absolved himself of any responsibility for electing Timofti, but also was instrumental in channeling the anti-government corruption sentiment to cast a shadow on Sandu even though she was not connected to a major bank fraud case known as the billion dollar scandal. As Sandu was running on an integrity platform, these allegations caused significant damage. Lacking the traditional media access enjoyed by Dodon, Sandu’s camp failed to respond to these and other allegations effectively, making the damage irreparable.

While the election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that the second round of the presidential election in Moldova was competitive and respectful of voters’ rights, there were still troubling cases of voter manipulation and electoral fraud. Dodon’s margin of victory stands at 67,488 votes, which is a relatively large margin considering the 1.6 million votes cast. However, this margin has shrunk from the moment preliminary results were announced due to what the CEC calls honest errors. Yet, more importantly, this election saw an unusually high number of Moldovan citizens residing in Transnistria voting. According to numerous media reports, there was a concerted effort to bribe and bus people from Transnistria into Moldova proper to vote for Dodon. It is estimated that about 20,000 Transnistrians voted in these elections, compared to almost no participation in previous elections. This mobilization effort would have been impossible without the explicit approval of the separatist authorities. Some of these voters from Transnistria confirmed on camera that it was the Transnistrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk who mobilized them. Local experts believe it was Plahotniuc who asked Shevchuk for a favor on Dodon’s behalf, and Moscow signed off on the voter mobilization effort to solidify Dodon’s chances. The phenomenon itself not only casts a shadow of doubt over the election outcome, but also needlessly antagonized many people from Moldova proper against their fellow citizens from Transnistria, who are perceived as having contributed to the rigging of the election even though the 20,000 votes would not have changed the results. On the other hand, there was a positive development in this year’s elections as a record number of Moldovans living abroad exercised their right to vote. In fact, more than twice as many people voted compared to the parliamentary election in 2014 despite a very limited number of polling stations opened by the Moldovan government abroad. The Romanian government provided free travel to polling stations for Moldovan students in Romania, but, unlike in Transnistria’s case, there have been no reports of bribes.

Dodon’s victory was hardly unexpected. He garnered much of the popular dissatisfaction with endemic government corruption taking place under the rule of nominally pro-European parties. Backed by Russia and the most influential oligarch in Moldova, Dodon’s victory was all but assured. From this perspective, the support that Maia Sandu was able to garner is remarkable. She was virtually unknown only a few years ago; trailed Dodon in pre-election polls by double digits; and lacked Dodon’s financial and political machine, but nonetheless almost pulled a major upset. Now, Sandu faces the challenge of maintaining the support of the coalition that propelled her to these heights by continuing the mutually-beneficial cooperation with her competitor-turned-ally Andrei Nastase and his party. Such cooperation will not be easy as Nastase and Sandu will soon become competitors again in the parliamentary campaign, but the success of the pro-Western forces will depend on their ability to stand united against the pro-Russian Igor Dodon and oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

Despite gaining no new powers, a nationally elected president will employ his newly gained popular legitimacy to project his agenda onto the public as well as state institutions. A president has a high international profile and an important role in defense and national security. Therefore, Moldova’s relations with neighboring Ukraine and Romania are likely to suffer as a result of Dodon’s antagonizing rhetoric. Relations with the European Union are also going to stagnate at best and, perhaps, see a downturn if Dodon pursues his anti-European agenda. On the other hand, Dodon is likely to score some political points by negotiating better market access for Moldovan goods and Moldovan workers in Russia. Despite Dodon being legally required to renounce his party membership once in office, the Socialists will nonetheless benefit and set themselves on a winning trajectory going into the next legislative elections.

Note: This article was written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute and can be  accessed here.

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Russia Scores Symbolic Victory in Moldova’s Presidential Election

On November 13, Moldova held runoffs for its first direct presidential election in 20 years. The change resulted from a controversial Constitutional Court decision earlier this year (see EDM, March 8), which was seen as an attempt by the ruling establishment to defuse the protest movement against government corruption. The move can be considered successful as the presidential campaign has overtaken the public agenda. Moreover, despite integrity being a major theme of the campaign, the candidate associated with the ruling establishment—and, in fact, supported by the media empire owned by Moldova’s gray eminence Vlad Plahotniuc—won the race. Igor Dodon (aged 41) was elected president with 52.3 percent of the vote. His opponent, Maia Sandu (aged 44), fell 70,000 votes short (Cec.md, November 14). Allegations of voter fraud abound: several polling stations abroad ran out of ballots, the Central Election Commission (CEC) misreported the results, and a concerted effort was uncovered to bribe and bus in Transnistrian residents into Moldova proper to vote for Dodon (Agora.md, ProTV.md, Ziarul de Garda, November 14). Several hundred protesters gathered to demand a revote and the resignation of CEC members (Agora.md, November 14). However, these cases are unlikely to carry much weight with the pro-government Constitutional Court, which is expected to validate the results in the upcoming days.

The presidential campaign was brief but divisive and, perhaps, the dirtiest in Moldovan political history. Former minister of economy (2006–2009) during Communist Party rule, Igor Dodon, now chairman of the Party of Socialists, went to great lengths to smear his opponent, Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated former World Bank economist and the current chairwoman of the Action and Solidarity Party. Sandu ran on an anti-corruption platform, but Dodon attacked her integrity by associating her with an infamous recent billion dollar scandal—the bailout of three Moldovan banks by the government with funds from National Bank reserves. At that time, Sandu served as the education minister in Vlad Filat’s cabinet. Filat was convicted to nine years in prison. No evidence exists to suggest that Sandu participated in or benefited in any way from the bank scandal. In fact, Sandu is on record questioning the government’s plans vis-à-vis the bailout (Independent.md, September 9). Nevertheless, Dodon had a significant advantage in publicizing his narrative by benefitting from larger traditional media access as well as stronger door-to-door efforts. Sandu’s lack of resources and weak grassroots organization forced her to rely predominantly on social media—first and foremost, Facebook. In light of the above, Sandu’s 47.7 percent of the vote is actually a remarkable achievement.

Geopolitical concerns played second fiddle in the campaign, partially because neither candidate had strong foreign affairs experience, but even more so because both candidates made the strategic calculation to downplay foreign policy in their platforms. Dodon has clearly learnt his lesson that a Moldovan politician cannot win a direct election by overemphasizing his or her ties with Russia. After all, Dodon himself and his fellow party colleague lost the last two races for Chisinau mayor largely because the contests had turned into referendums on foreign policy and the direction of the country, despite the mayor having no authority over international matters.

This time around, Dodon was much more cautions with his pro-Russian agenda. In fact, during the presidential debates and throughout the last few weeks of the campaigning, he veered toward the center by no longer insisting on the repeal of Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union. Moreover, he came out in support of the visa free regime with the EU (Europalibera.org, November 8). Still, Dodon toed the Russian line by openly acknowledging the illegally annexed Crimea as Russian territory, leading some Ukrainian politicians to call for him to be declared persona non grata and even introduce an economic blockade on Moldova, should Dodon maintain his stance once elected (Pravda.ua, November 4). Russian backing was also manifest in Dodon’s highly publicized blessing by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (Actualitati.md, September 22). Furthermore, the head of Moldovan Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir, publicly endorsed Dodon, followed by other prominent clergy who questioned Maia Sandu’s faith and sexual orientation, in light of her being single and childless (Ziarul de Garda, November 4).

Still, Dodon’s win would have been impossible without the backing of Moldova’s gray eminence, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. Despite throwing his toxic public endorsement behind Sandu, Plahotniuc actually ended up working tirelessly through his media conglomerate to advance Dodon’s candidacy (Ziarul de Garda, November 6). Thus, Plahotniuc bought himself some time until the 2018 parliamentary election, which is when the future of the country and Plahotniuc’s own fate will be decided. Should a Dodon-Plahotniuc coalition emerge after the 2018 elections, Moldova will re-enter the gray zone of trying to balance between EU and Russia, since actual integration with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is currently not feasible for economic, political and geographic reasons. However, Moscow does not need Moldova in the EEU per se, as long as it can successfully preclude the country from joining the European Union and, even more so, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). That is why Russia was quick to celebrate Dodon’s victory. The head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the State Duma, Alexei Pushkov, applauded “the downfall of the pro-Western liberals in Moldova,” adding that “association with the EU offered Moldova nothing and will give nothing to Ukraine” (Agora.md, November 14).

Nonetheless, the Russian victory is largely symbolic as the new president has no constitutional powers to influence the country’s course in the short run. And Dodon’s elections could, potentially, backfire by galvanizing the pro-Western base ahead of the 2018 election, thus again setting Moldova on a European integration path. Certainly, the upcoming two years will be prone to increased political instability. It will take foresight, wisdom and patience to navigate these turbulent waters. It remains to be seen if the new wave of pro-Western Moldovan politicians is up to the task.

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.