By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN
° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.
The geopolitical vote” is inevitable, because the election mobilizes the Moldovan diaspora and migrants, but its share is not yet fully decided and predictable…
The presidential election in November 2020, creates multiple “windows of opportunity” for Moldovan democracy. First of all, there is a real chance that a woman may take the reins of the presidency, thus stimulating the uninhibited participation of women in local politics. The second essential moment can be the registration of the first victory, following the popular vote, of a candidate with political views dominated by an irrevocable pro-Western affiliation. Last but not least, the opportunity arises to launch and pedal radical reforms on behalf of the president, for at least 4 years, provided the robust support from parliament and the executive. The stability of the President’s office mandate is incomparable to the ephemeral nature of governments. These are always exposed to the motion of censure or to the weakness of the parliament majority, which maintain the constant probability of early elections. The mentioned “windows of opportunity” can materialize, but only if the current President Igor Dodon loses the election to the prominent opposition leader, former Prime Minister Maia Sandu.
In a parliamentary governance system, the President has significant responsibilities in the field of foreign policy. So far, the (pre-) electoral political debates initiated by the opposition have focused on the numerous shortcomings in domestic politics. Specifically, the opposition focused on reviving old and new allegations about Igor Dodon’s involvement in abuses and acts of corruption between 2006-2020. Based on the divided nature of society’s geopolitical preferences, the priority is given to the issue of poverty, all-encompassing corruption, and inefficient governance of the old political guard can diminish the relevance of the geopolitical vote. This tactic seems to define, for the time being, Maia Sandu’s conduct. By contrast, Igor Dodon discusses not only the domestic policy but also the external orientation of the country. He regularly promotes the multi-vector approach, according to which the dialogue with Russia must be rebuilt to balance relations with the West.
Another “2016” or not?
Although most local polls suffer from low credibility, some of them still allow a careful drawing of the distance between the leading contenders for the presidency. If there are no radical changes in the electoral scenario – the non-registration of the candidacy or the aggravation of the epidemiological situation to extreme levels – then the only real contestants in the presidential race will be Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu. On one hand, the repetition of the electoral duel of 2016 (October 30-November 13) is due to Igor Dodon’s ability to capitalize on the removal from power of oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. On the other hand, Maia Sandu cemented her positions due to the intransigence of the reform agenda, despite the short term of her premiership (about 5 months).
According to the 2016 election results, Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu obtained 680,550 votes and 549,152 votes in the first round, respectively. In the second round, the outcome was divided into 834,081 votes (52.1%) for the first and 766,593 (47.8%) for the second candidate. In other words, Igor Dodon’s electoral superiority consisted of about 67,000 votes (4%). As in previous presidential elections, there is currently a gap in the voting preferences of the population between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu. The difference of about 5-10%, elucidated by the polls, is not at all decisive for the outcome of these elections (See the Table below).
Table. Intention to vote towards the main contenders (%, years 2016, 2019)
|Apr. 2016||Oct. 2016||Nov. 2019||June 2020|
|Igor Dodon (PSRM)||18,5||27||21,8||22,4|
|Maia Sandu (PAS)||12,9||9,3||17,5||11|
|Andrei Năstase (Platform “DA”)||7,7||8,1||2,6||1,3|
|Renato Usatîi (Our Party)||4,8||0||4,5||2,4|
A serious reason to regard these gaps reluctantly is the rate of indecision, which reaches about 60% of the population. To this are added the substantial variations in the disposition of the electorate, products of the advancing sanitary crisis (about 46 thousand cases of infections and over 11,530 cases per 1 million people population) and the insufficiency of resources for climate mitigation (drought of unseen proportions – reduction of fruit harvests by about 25 %).
2016 versus 2020
Igor Dodon’s victory against Maia Sandu in 2016, even if at an insignificant difference of about 4% (or 67 thousand votes), resulted from comparative advantages, not far from the electoral impact of individual merits. Several political factors – controllable and involuntary – influenced the conduct of the election for the benefit of Igor Dodon.
Intentional political factors. To start with, the oligarchic regime, led by Vladimir Plahotniuc between 2016-2019, favored Igor Dodon through media discrediting of Maia Sandu. The failure of the most credible leader of the emerging opposition worried Plahotniuc more than the victory of Dodon’s hyper-compromised candidacy. Part of the efforts focused on media discrediting, the culmination of which was the spread of the fake news about the takeover of “30,000 Syrian refugees” from Germany, in the eventuality of Maia Sandu’s victory. The misinformation spread in the public space and stimulated certain pro-Dodon votes. The transportation of voters from the Transnistrian region (6,964 people in the first round and 16,728 – in the second) contributed to Dodon’s victory as well. Despite the massive mobilization of the diaspora (67,205 voters – in the first round and 138,720 – in the second round), the unsolved problems of voting abroad downsized Sandu’s chances. Concerns about ensuring the correctness of voting in 2020 continue to refer to the transportation of voters from the Transnistrian region and the voting at the polling stations abroad. On one hand, President Dodon is pushing for the right to vote for citizens on the left bank of the Dniester, by facilitating their participation. On the other hand, requests for prior registration for voting abroad are suspected of manipulation to justify the augmentation of polling stations in Russia. The suspicions stem from the tripling of the pre-registration of Moldovan voters abroad for the 2020 election (more than 60 thousand) compared to the interest in the 2019 parliamentary elections (only 24 thousand). The Central Electoral Committee has already ordered the opening polling stations externally, with an incremental change in the number of polling stations in Russia – from 8 units in 2016 (8% of the total of 100 polling stations) to 38 units in 2020 (18% of the total of 202 polling stations).
Unintentional political factors. In 2016, PAS was barely taking its first steps in domestic politics. It was set up almost 5 months before the presidential election (May 2015), and Maia Sandu’s political experience was somewhat incipient. And the vote in 2016 was to protest against Dodon to a greater extent than it will be in 2020 when Maia Sandu gathered a series of personal merits. Within 4 years, under her leadership, PAS propelled 14 deputies in parliament. After the local elections in October 2019, the party has a branched territorial infrastructure, developed together with The DA Platform, collectively summing up about ¼ of the population’s votes. Maia Sandu’s political trajectory between 2016 and 2020 was essentially marked by the sacrifice of the prime minister’s position in the fight for the reform of the prosecutor’s office. The gesture overshadowed the criticism towards allying to govern together with PSRM, in the summer of 2019, after the dismantling of the oligarchic regime.
Elections with or without geopolitics?
In accordance with the constitutional provisions, the president appoints judges and the prosecutor general, on the recommendation of other institutions (the Superior Council of Magistracy and the Superior Prosecutors Council, respectively). The president is also the political actor proposing the candidacy for prime minister and can delay the adoption of laws by applying the veto (only once per legal act). In many respects, the functions of the President are (inter-)dependent on other institutions, as it occurs with converting the right to legislative initiative into a de facto voted law. Therefore, the president’s office cannot be completely self-sufficient, and the areas in which it acts autonomously are insignificant. For this reason, the president’s strength in domestic and foreign policy stems from the sufficient representation of his political interests in parliament and government. Consequently, a President’s office without a convenient parliamentary majority and government composition will lead to a weakened mandate for inter-institutional conflicts.
In the field of foreign policy, the President’s major task is to negotiate and sign international treaties, which must then be ratified by parliament. President Igor Dodon circumvented these limitations, when he applied for the observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union, conferred in May 2018 (IPN, May 2018). Therefore, with some deviations, the presidential powers may be partially extended, though temporarily, especially if no appeal to the Constitutional Court arises.
Until the start of the election campaign, Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu mainly formulated messages that attack the country’s socio-economic problems. Although without excessive zeal, Dodon still maintains a geopolitical emphasis by reiterating the multi-vector character of foreign policy preferred for Moldova. This encourages the ultimate increase of Russian influence. In return, he aspires to receive Russian assistance (inter-state credit, humanitarian aid) and access to moderate and pro-Russian voters during the elections. This wanted geopolitical dependence on the East differs from the relations with the West, which are based on the magnification of reforms, their development strengthening the local democratic institutions. It is this type of foreign policy that is subtly promoted by Maia Sandu. Even if she does not display pro-Western discourses, she replaces them with the dedication to the establishment of the rule of law in Moldova, which is the established principle of the Western development model.
As long as Moldova is outside the EU and Russia is present through the Transnistrian region and the Gagauz autonomy, the “geopolitical vote” will play a role in the elections. Unlike in 2016, the main political competitors use geopolitics in a quieter or disguised regime. Both sides understand that an open geopolitical positioning can be a disadvantage in a polarized society. Any movement on this ground will be carefully calculated to reduce election costs.
In lieu of conclusion…
Both Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu have known that they were the main candidates for presidency, long before the electoral preparations began. The pertinent question about the difference between the two refers to the geopolitical vote and how much it will count to determine the winner.
So far, only Igor Dodon has recalled foreign policy on several occasions. The main opposition leader, Maia Sandu, brought to public attention issues stemming from the field of domestic policy. In a society polarized on multiple criteria, including the external orientation of the country, geopolitical configuration can isolate the pool of potential voters. This is something that both contenders are trying to avoid.
However, Igor Dodon seems to have a better position, thanks to the multi-vector policy, which unites both moderate and pro-Russian votes. However, Maia Sandu can compensate for the absence of a rhetoric that outlines foreign policy by focusing on domestic reforms, including the fight against corruption. In addition to practical effects, they will still materialize the Western principles of state functioning, meaning the silent integration in the Western space of rules. The “geopolitical vote” is inevitable, because the election mobilizes the diaspora and Moldovan migrants, but its share and weight are not yet fully decided and easily predictable.