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The presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova were won, in the second round, on 15 November, by opposition candidate Maia Sandu, who scored higher than pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon (57,72 to 42,28%). Maia Sandu is the president who gathered the most votes in the short, but turbulent history of the Republic of Moldova. The future president will have to face off against a parliament dominated by Socialists and led by their chairman, Ms. Zinaida Greceanyi, as well as a government made up largely of former advisers to President Dodon. If she wants to make changes in the country and apply anti-corruption measures and justice reform, which her campaign focused on, Ms. Sandu will have to force early parliamentary elections, before squandering the sympathy she enjoys now.
Maia Sandu is a petite woman, even frail, with a late blooming teenager face, with a short haircut, always with a warm smile. Her appearance is in contrast with that of the president of the the Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon, a hefty man with a big, perfectly round face, always ruddy, with a receding hairline. The two are similar in age, were born in the Soviet Union, during Leonid Brezhnev, are professional economists... but that is where the similarities stop.
Mr. Dodon got into politics as a young man and had an impressive career in the shadow of Vladimir Voronin, president of the Party of Communists in the Republic of Moldova, getting appointed Minister of Trade and the Economy (2006-2009).
After graduating with a degree in economics, Ms. Sandu went on to study international relations at the Academy of Public Administration in Chișinău, a school for the higher level public servants of the newly independent state. In 2010, she graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After two years in Washington, as an adviser to the World Bank, she returned to Chișinău in 2012 to be minister of education.
Although they have the same training and are of similar ages, Sandu and Dodon are the two faces of Moldova: one that aspires to be a part of Western structures, and have that type of lifestyle; the other, still nostalgic for the Soviet Union, looking towards Moscow, but not out of love for the Kremlin, but rather out of a political pragmatism, because this position comes with votes, and with running in elections on a wide corridor with few competitors, while the pro-European corridor is too crowded.
Maia Sandu's victory, unexpected for some analysts, but especially the large margin by which she won it, has several causes. First of all, Dodon is a product of the era dominated by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is now wanted by Moldovan prosecutors and hiding in Northern Cyprus, where he awaiting departure for a Gulf country. After Crimea was occupied by Russia, the West focused on security issues in the Black Sea basin, and not on the quality of democratic reforms in the countries of the Eastern Partnership. The anti-corruption and justice reform rhetoric offered the perfect context and pretext for Plahotniuc to extend control over the main institutions of the Moldovan state. His operating principle: if you cannot be bought, you can be blackmailed. His motto was: a kompromat for every official!
Between 2015 and 2019, Plahotniuc was introduced in Brussels, Washington, or Berlin by his enthusiastic supporters in Bucharest as a guarantee that Moldova would always be facing West, and that Russian tanks would stop at the river Dnestr. However, in the autumn of 2016, the 'pro-European' Plahotniuc supported Socialist Igor Dodon, an unconditional Putin admirer, in becoming president, running against Maia Sandu then as well. This detail was recently confirmed by the closest collaborator and godson of the oligarch, Andrian Candu, Speaker of Parliament in Chișinău at that time. The first thing that Dodon did after his victory was to go, with his wife, to personally thank the oligarch for his support. It was difficult for the Socialists to break out of Plahotniuc's grip and forced Deputy PM Dmitri Kozak to come twice to Chișinău last year to force an alliance between the ACUM pro-European bloc and the Party of Socialists, which removed Plahotniuc from power, resulting in him fleeing the country. After Plahotniuc's departure in June 2019, Dodon seemed a politician without a compass. Lacking imagination, Dodon could not turn from Voronin's right hand, then Plahotniuc's, into first soloist.
In Plahotniuc's absence, whose creation he largely was, Dodon's chances of getting a new term dwindled. The accusations of corruption sapped the public's trust in the president, and the video footage of Dodon's receiving a black bag full of money from Plahotniuc went viral instantly. Add to that his weak performance in office, as well as the disastrous response that his government had to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maia Sandu had on her side the Moldovan diaspora in Western countries, about a million people strong. After Romania increased its efforts to grant citizenship to the descendants of those who had been Romanian citizens before 1940, hundreds of thousands of Moldovan citizens went to work in the West. If up until five years ago the typical profile for and emigrant was a woman over 45 who takes care of children or the elderly in Italy and Spain in order to keep her kids and grandchildren in school, today the Moldovan diaspora is made up mostly of young people, many of them trained and educated, seeking a better life in the West, depressed by corruption and criminality in society and politics in Chișinău. Of the total of 1,650,000 voters, over 260,000 came from the diaspora, in spite of the small number of polling places put up by the authorities.
For the first time, the left side of the political chessboard, nostalgic for Soviet times, pro-Putin, Russian speaking, and pro-Russian, fielded several candidates. The charismatic mayor of Bălți, Renato Usatîi, a combination of populist politician and adventurer with ties to the post-Soviet criminal world, as well as Russian intelligence, snatched away from Dodon quite a few percentage points, coming in third, with 17%. In the second round, his votes were divided up between Dodon and Maia Sandu. In fact, the star of this election campaign was, without a doubt, Renato Usatîi, who put up a show up to the last day, when he held a press conference where he talked about the FSB plan to murder him. The second candidate to snatch away votes from Dodon in the first round was Violeta Ivanov of the Shor Party, with 6%. Maia Sandu's four percent victory in the first round put a ball and chain on Dodon, who launched the most disastrous election campaign imaginable. Extremely aggressive, boorish, misogynistic and sexist, Dodon ended up upsetting voters who rarely show up at the polls, and who felt insulted by the unnatural behavior of the candidate. Commentators in Chișinău blamed the Russian consultants sent by Moscow for this election campaign that was inadequate in its aggression.
Moldova's recent history had its good times, of rising hope. In order for Maia Sandu to avoid making the same mistakes as other pro-European leaders in Chișinău, who ended up by compromising the European vector of development, making it synonymous with corruption and organized crime, she needs to generate a veritable political revolution that will lead to early elections, leading to a new pro-reform majority in Parliament, and to a new pro-European government to partner with the president.
The Constitutional Court decision issued in early 2016, which returned presidential elections to the popular vote, was a diversion on the side of Plahotniuc meant to ease the pressure from the people who were out in the streets. Moldova remains a parliamentary republic, but with a president elected by the people. Even though she enjoys tremendous legitimacy, Maia Sandu has few points of leverage to be able to change things.
Triggering early elections is a task that matches the new president's ambition and tenacity. Only a few months before, it was said that Maia Sandu doesn't stand a chance against Igor Dodon.