Presidential Elections in Moldova: Interim Success of Maia Sandu

Artem Fylypenko, Black Sea Center for Security Environment Research (BSCFSER)

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According to the results of the presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova, the former prime minister and leader of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) Maia Sandu won with 57.72% of votes. The incumbent President Igor Dodon, who also made it to the second round, gained 42.28% of votes. The gap of more than 250 thousand votes made it impossible to dispute the voting results, and Igor Dodon admitted his defeat.

Sandu’s victory became a kind of sensation, given the fact that her top rival had incomparable administrative, financial, and media resources. Also, Igor Dodon was openly supported by Moscow.


“Geopolitical” Elections without Geopolitical Choices

This is the second political duel between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu. The first one took place in the fall of 2016, when, after a long hiatus, direct presidential elections were held in Moldova (before that, the president was elected by the parliament). Maia Sandu then lost. An important role in Igor Dodon’s victory was played not so much by the pro-Russian slogans as by the organizational support from the ruling Democratic Party (PDM) and its head, the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. For Plahotniuc, the pro-Russian Dodon was preferable to the pro-European Sandu. In a dialogue with Moldova’s Western partners, Plahotniuc tried to offer a simple choice: either the power of the corrupt but pro-European PDM, or the possible victory of the openly pro-Russian Igor Dodon and the pro-presidential Party of Socialists (PSRM).

The 2020 presidential campaign (at least before the first round) differed from the 2016 campaign in a low level of “geopolitical” rhetoric. Recently, Igor Dodon nearly abandoned the anti-European slogans and did not raise the issue of breaking the Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU. On the other hand, in her campaign, Maia Sandu focused on reforms and the fight against corruption.

At the same time, the external players’  position made these elections “geopolitical”. Russia made an obvious bet on Igor Dodon’s victory. Thus, on October 22, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club: “We hope very much that at the next elections in Moldova, the Moldovan people will appreciate the efforts that the current president of the republic is making to build relations with Russia.” And a month earlier, during a video meeting with the Moldovan President, Putin announced his readiness to provide Moldova with humanitarian aid in the amount of 500 million Russian rubles (about $6.6 million) to support Moldovan agricultural producers affected by the drought.

The European Union emphasized the need to ensure democratic and transparent elections. The US Ambassador to Moldova Derek Hogan had a similar position, he especially emphasized the possibilities of attracting administrative resources and voters from Transnistria.

In response to this position, the Russian officials made statements about the US interference in the electoral process in Moldova and the “colour revolution” prepared there. In Moldova itself, the mass media supporting the Party of Socialists intensified anxiety, intimidating ordinary people with chaos and unrest that should arise if the opposition starts protesting against the rigging of election results.

But the opposition was seriously preparing to resist falsifications. They took polling stations in Russia and special polling stations for the voting of the Moldovan citizens living in the uncontrolled territory of the Transnistrian region as the most vulnerable places.



“The 2020 presidential campaign differed from the 2016 campaign in a low level of “geopolitical” rhetoric”



Thus, according to the CEC decision, the number of polling stations in Russia increased from 11 to 17, compared with the previous year’s parliamentary elections. This decision was preceded by a scandal with violations in the preliminary registration of the diaspora.

42 polling stations were opened on the right bank (territory controlled by Chisinau) for voting of the Moldovan citizens living in Transnistria. A strict quarantine and restrictions on movement across the administrative border with Moldova, introduced by the Tiraspol administration, could become an obstacle to voting. However, on October 1, the operational headquarters of the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” decided to allow the Moldovan citizens to freely leave the region on election day.

Opposition fears routed from the fact that a record number of the residents of the region with a Moldovan passport took part in the 2019 parliamentary elections, 37 thousand, massively brought to the polling stations. Given the pro-Russian sentiments of the residents of Transnistria, one could expect that if the situation repeated, Igor Dodon would receive the majority of votes.

After the unexpected victory of Maia Sandu in the first round, a kind of a “taboo” on the “geopolitical” rhetoric was lifted. Igor Dodon and his supporters accused the opponent of intending to spoil the relations with Russia, as well as striving for the closer relations with Romania. However, most likely, such a tough position worked against Dodon and helped to mobilize Sandu’s supporters.


What did the Vote Show?

In both the first and second rounds diaspora demonstrated the high activity. Traditionally diaspora plays a significant role in the economy of Moldova (in 2019, remittances of labour migrants accounted for 15% of the country’s GDP).

The second round was attended by almost 263 thousand Moldovan voters living abroad (120 thousand more than in the first round), which is 16% of those who took part in the voting. These are people of economically productive age raging from 21 to 40 years old. In the diaspora, 92.8% of the votes were cast for Maia Sandu, 7.19% – for the incumbent president. In general, about 25% of the votes received by the ex-prime minister are the votes of the foreign Moldovans and labour migrants, mainly those who work in the European countries. Although the number of diaspora representatives in Russia also increased, their total number (9,800 people) could not significantly affect the results.

At the same time, Maia Sandu cannot be regarded as a president of the diaspora,” since she won in Moldova too. Geographically, central and partly southern regions’  representatives voted for her, while the north and certain regions of the south of Moldova, where ethnic minorities live compactly, supported Igor Dodon. In particular, in the Autonomous Territorial Entity of Gagauzia, the incumbent president received 94.6% of the votes, and in the Taraclia region, where the Bulgarians live, he received 93% of the votes. Another important issue was the victory of Maia Sandu in Chisinau, where the representative of the Socialists won the local elections in autumn 2019.



“People who voted for Maia Sandu pin their hopes on her, which are incomparable with the powers of the president in Moldova”



The main intrigue of the second round was who would receive the votes cast in the first round for the leader of Our Party and pro-Russian populist Renato Usatii (228,000 votes or 16.9%). Usatii himself called on to support Maia Sandu. Besides, other candidates also expressed their support to her. However, in the end, the votes cast for the leader of Our Party were split between both candidates.


Finally, the threat from Transnistria turned out to be overestimated. About 32 thousand citizens of the Republic of Moldova, living in the uncontrolled territory, took part in the second round of the elections, so the turnout more than doubled compared to the first round.

During the voting, some right-wing parties’ supporters and participants in the 1992 war made several attempts to block polling stations and prevent voters from Transnistria from the voting. Dodon was supported by 85.8% of the Transnistrian voters, Sandu – by 14.2%. Compared to the first round, at the expense of the Transnistrian region, the incumbent president managed to increase the number of votes by more than 11 thousand, but, in the total number of votes cast for Igor Dodon, the proportion of voters from uncontrolled territories was only 4%, which had almost no effect on the final result.



“Maia Sandu’s victory opens up opportunities both for the resumption of high-level dialogue with the closest neighbors, Ukraine and Romania, and for the implementation of the Eastern Partnership initiative as well.”



Will Sandu Succeed in Changing the Situation in Moldova?

This is a question many people today are worried about, both in Moldova and abroad. People who voted for Maia Sandu pin their hopes on her, which are incomparable with the powers of the president in Moldova. The government, supported by a parliamentary majority, is responsible for the foreign and domestic policy in the country. To implement his program, the president should at least rely on such a loyal majority. In this context, the success of Maia Sandu looks not final, but rather interim.

Currently, the composition of the Moldovan parliament is highly fragmented as a result of the constant changes in the composition of factions and the formation of some new parliamentary associations. None of the parties has a majority. The ruling coalition of PSRM and PDM essentially collapsed. Shortly before the second round, I. Dodon, at the suggestion of Prime Minister Ion Chicu, signed the decree on the resignation of the government members previously appointed according to the quota of the Democratic Party.

At the same time, a new platform “For Moldova” (Pentru Moldova) was formed in the parliament, consisting of the “Shor” party faction (its leader, businessman Ilan Shor, is currently in Israel, and the Appeal Chamber is considering a case on charges of his involvement to large embezzlement from the banking system of Moldova) and a number of independent deputies. Within a year, these independent MPs already managed to move from the PDM faction to the opposition Pro Moldova faction, and then left that one too. In total, the “For Moldova” platform has 14 seats in the parliament.

As a result, today the situation may develop according to four scenarios.

The first one presupposes the formation of a new ruling coalition, the union of the Socialist faction and the For Moldova platform. In general, their union gives 51 mandates, which is a critical majority. Igor Dodon intends to return to the leadership of the Party of Socialists and lead the opposition to the new president. The key question in this scenario is whether other parties are ready to go for a coalition with Dodon. On the one hand, the losers are not particularly favored, on the other hand, fears for their political fate and the fate of their business can push the representatives of the For Moldova group, based on the PSRM, to creation of a new coalition.

The second scenario is the creation of a “pro-presidential coalition” by uniting the factions of the pro-presidential Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), the Platform Dignity and Truth Party (led by Andrei Nastase), the Democratic Party and Pro Moldova. PDM leader Pavel Filip already appealed to Maia Sandu and all the parliamentary factions with a proposal to elect a new government and postpone early parliamentary elections until autumn 2021. But in this case, Sandu will have to compromise with representatives of the forces that personify the previous regime of Plahotniuc and who are accused of involvement in corruption. This will inevitably lead to reputation losses.

The third scenario is the creation of a transitional “technocratic” government based on consensus with the majority of MPs without creating a coalition, or, alternatively, preserving the current minority government of Ion Chicu, subject to early elections in the fall of 2021. This option suits Igor Dodon but not Maia Sandu, against whom the time factor works.

The fourth scenario, which includes dissolution of the parliament in the near future and holding early elections in the spring, is the most optimal for the newly elected president. In this case, Maia Sandu gets the opportunity to bring a large faction to the parliament on the wave of victorious moods. She is supported by Renato Usatii, who hopes to convert the first round success into creation of the Our Party parliamentary faction if early elections take place. However, there are no clear legal grounds for the dissolution of the parliament yet, and among the deputies there are enough people not interested in early elections (factions of the Democratic Party, Pro Moldova, the mentioned independent deputies).

But even if the fourth scenario is realized, Sandu will have to seek a compromise with other political forces, for example, with Usatii, who is very far from European values.

At the same time, even in the current conditions of uncertainty, the election of Maia Sandu is a positive signal and opens up opportunities both for the resumption of high-level dialogue with the closest neighbors, Ukraine and Romania, and for the implementation of the Eastern Partnership initiative as well. In particular, there is hope for the formation of a consolidated position and coordination of actions of Ukraine and Moldova in the reintegration of the occupied territories. Maia Sandu already received an invitation from the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pay a visit to Kyiv, and it is quite possible that this visit will allow returning to the controversial issues of the recently “frozen” bilateral relations.

Sandu’s victory also became a moral defeat for Russia, which made a rather open bet on Dodon. Despite the fact that Vladimir Putin was the third to congratulate the newly elected president on her victory, Moscow is unlikely to accept the defeat and will do everything to strengthen the pro-Russian forces in power in Moldova.

It is in an anti-Russian vein that the Kremlin is also considering Maia Sandu’s statement to seek the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Transnistria. However, in general, one should hardly count on significant progress in the Transnistrian settlement. Even Igor Dodon, despite the control over the government, the expressed readiness to grant “broad autonomy” to the region, and repeated meetings with the head of the Transnistrian administration Vadim Krasnoselsky, could not achieve significant progress in resolving the issue.

At the same time, the participation of the voters from Transnistria in the Moldovan elections showed that Tiraspol can and will try to influence the internal political situation. Despite the fact that the region is entirely dependent on economic support from Moscow, the local administration is trying to play its own game, the goal of which is to maintain the status quo, allowing it to profit from the unrecognized status and the illegal or semi-legal “schemes” tied to it. This is confirmed by the results of the November 29 “elections” to the “Supreme Soviet” of Transnistria, in which representatives of the “Obnovlenie” party, the political wing of the local “Sheriff” holding, won on almost uncontested.


Maia Sandu speaks to reporters. Chisinau, November 15, 2020.