The presidential elections in Moldova have emphasized that there is no absolute winner. Following the validation of the first round of the elections, the two candidates with the most votes will face each other in the run-off.
More than 1.3 million voters has showed up at around 2000 polling station in the country and abroad to elect the new president. The majority of the votes have split between the incumbent president Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu. The latter has received 36.1% of the votes. The former has amassed 32.6%. Another candidate who joined the race and deserves a particular attention is Renato Usatii — around 228.000 votes and approx. 17%. The remaining five candidates obtained about 14%.
The biggest surprise of the first round constitutes the victory of Maia Sandu. Unexpectedly, she won against her political enemy Igor Dodon, regardless her speculations that the elections are rigged. Nor the cases of bussing of the voters from the breakaway region (Transnistria), which took place about 40 times — could not change the course of the voting.
The general outcome (almost 43%) was lower in 2020 than during the first round in the 2016 elections, when 50.95% of the registered voters (1.4 million people) casted their votes. There are two main spoilers that have lowered the participation.
The obvious primary cause is the pandemic. Although the population becomes used to this “new normal”, the infection has slightly trimmed the zeal for direct democracy. In the wake of elections, the Government reported that the country is on 9th position, between Spain and France, with 20.582 cases of infection per 1 million people. In the day of the voting, the toll of infections reached 76.582 cases. Nevertheless, the votes coming from the most vulnerable to the virus categories – age beyond 56 – constituted about more than 32% of the total votes — 397.139 votes. The elderly categories have been consistently disciplined throughout the electoral history of the country.
Another spoiler is represented by the numerous polls that mushroomed in the weeks ahead the elections. They portrayed the clear leaders of the run-up – the incumbent Igor Dodon and ex-Prime Minister Maia Sandu. Six surveys published in September-October contoured that namely Dodon and Sandu will compete in the second round. Massaged with this idea, some voters could decide to stay home preparing for an eventual participation in the run-off. Unless the pandemic doesn’t provoke unexpected developments, the voters are waited to cast their votes in a two-week distance.
Nevertheless, other occurrences have compensated the weaker electoral dynamism among the voters than at the past presidential elections.
The Moldovan emigrants and diaspora have showed an outstanding electoral performance. The presence abroad reached almost 150.000 people. This represents more than both during the first and second rounds of the 2016 presidential elections — 67.205 votes and respectively 138.720 votes. The pandemic had no impact on the travelling to the polling stations, which are both costly and complicated due to growing movement restrictions.The absolute majority of the vote abroad is in favor of Maia Sandu – almost 105.000 votes (70%), leaving Igor Dodon on the third place – around 5.000 votes. He was outperformed by the “black horse” of the first round – Renato Usatii – who is sympathized by more than 25.000 voters abroad. The latter is investigated by the Russian officials for allegedly committed crimes. In Russian banks, he holds the largest share of his declared financial assets.
And, secondly, the opposition vote was directed mainly to Maia Sandu. She accumulated around 488.000 votes. Her former partner, also a candidate at the presidential elections, Andrei Nastase obtained 10 times fewer votes – around 44.000 at home and less than 6.000 votes abroad. All these votes will most probably migrate to Maia Sandu.
Shortly before the day of elections, the Moldovan public was shocked by more palpable revelations pointing to Russia’s interference in the Moldovan political life. The investigative journalists spotted that the Russian officials have managed to dictate speeches and certain policies to the Moldovan political partners. The incumbent president Igor Dodon and the Socialists Party made this possible and showed loyalty along this process. Mikhail Hodorkovksky’s Dossier Centre has documented cases of fruitful collaboration between various Russian state institutions and Dodon-Socialists nexus. Contact points in Moscow were the Federal Agency for CIS countries (Rossotrudnichestvo), the presidential administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Foreign Intelligence Service. With them, the Moldovan counterparties developed a dynamic dialogue, especially after Igor Dodon’s elections as president in
2016. As a result, Moldova was dragged into the Eurasian Economic Union as observer state in 2018, and was pushed to almost sign a controversial EUR 200 million credit in the spring of 2020.
The Russian fingerprint only fortified the anti-corruption criticism against Igor Dodon. Earlier 2020, the secrete footages filmed by the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc have revealed deals between him and Igor Dodon. This involved the handing in of “black bag” with illegal money for the financing of Dodon’s party — the Socialists. The prosecutor office avoided investigating this case because the video was recorded illegally and there are suspicions of content manipulations. Nevertheless, the “black bag” incident turned to be the major driving topic of Dodon’s counter-candidate Maia Sandu. An important part of her electoral campaign was build around anti-corruption future that the citizens should vote for. This would mean bringing “good people” to power and clean the state institutions of corrupt individuals starting with Igor Dodon. For this reason, the latter avoided any public encounter with Maia Sandu putting aside, at least for a while, the issues that are toxic for his public image. Other candidates have tried to capitalize on “black bag” corruption case too, though with less electoral impact.
Fierce combat in the second round
After losing in the first round, Igor Dodon could feel forced to take more radical stance on various subjects. This could even include the exploration of the conspiracies about the interference of the West to support Maia Sandu through the civil society.
Another way to increase the chances against the emerging Maia Sandu is to negotiate support from the voters of Renato Usatii (about 223.000) and Violeta Ivanov (about 87.000). The former is an old enemy of Dodon who attempted to put Moscow in his counter. Thus, Usatii would rather see Dodon falling in order to take his place on center-left wing than helping him to win in the run-off. Violeta Ivanov and her party-chief, the fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, could be more open to some deals with the Socialists. They may think strategically about the imminent early legislative elections, after which they have chances to rule as junior partner of yet Socialists.
In this context, Maia Sandu should gather all the pro-Western voters. To do this end, she needs to collect the votes of the compatible candidates who lost the elections. This mainly includes Andrei Nastase and Tudor Deliu, partner of whom is Sandu’s ex-colleague the former Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, imprisoned in 2015 for corruption. Moreover, she might also need the support of the two candidates who rally for the reunification with Romania – Octavian Ticu and Dorin Chirtoaca. They obtained together around 43.000 votes. Nevertheless, Maia Sandu should choose wisely, because teaming up with controversial candidates could harm her more than help.
Maia Sandu has the support of the diaspora, as well the of the much richer Chisinau capital. She has an appealing image across all age and professional categories (Sandu holds a degree from Harvard University and served as Economy and Education Minister before becoming prime minister). Her main advantage lies in her integrity, which is of striking contrast with what the public have learned about Igor Dodon in 2020. Nevertheless, she needs to ensure that her electoral charm captivates the pro-Russian voters too.
Conclusively, the victory in the second round is far from be decided and the two candidates — Maia Sandu and Igor Dodon – will fight against each other and against their own weaknesses. Contrary to virtually impecable brand of Sandu, the incumbent president should give explanations about his intimate ties with the Russian special services and the high level corruption of which he and his political party are accused with plenty of evidence. It should not be underestimated the situation around the “second wave” of the pandemic, which can affect Maia Sandu’s electoral weapon – the Moldovan diaspora.