The result of Moldova’s upcoming presidential election—scheduled for October 30, 2016—is likely to shape the country’s politics and international orientation for the foreseeable future. Formerly part of the Soviet Union,, Moldova is caught between the competing Western and Russian spheres of influence and is of strategic importance to both actors; Europe looks to Moldova as a bulwark against Russian aggression, while Russia seems intent on preventing Moldova from orienting towards the West in order to preserve a buffer between itself and NATO.
Moldovan politics have been tumultuous as of late, and this election constitutes no exception. It will be the first Moldovan presidential election decided by a popular vote, rather than a vote of Parliament, since 1996. The parliamentary vote for president, who serves as Moldova’s head of state, was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s highest court in March 2016. Furthermore, Moldova has not had a stable parliamentary government for almost two years. Since the last parliamentary elections at the end of 2014, six different politicians representing three different parties and three different coalition governments have served as Prime Minister (PM):
Timeline of Moldovan Governments (2013-present)
It is under these inauspicious circumstances that Moldovans will go to the polls in less than a week. The most recent polling, conducted on October 16, suggests that only eight candidates, from an original field of 25, have received enough public support to be on the first round ballot. The remainder have either dropped out or are not predicted to meet the required number of signatures to be on the ballot (the actual ballot is not released until the day before the election). Of these eight, there are two clear frontrunners to make it to the second round of elections: Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party (PSRM). Polls attempting to predict second round voting show that Dodon would receive 40.8 percent of votes, compared to Sandu’s 24.1 percent. A second round of voting will occur on November 13 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on October 30. Polling shows this to be the most likely scenario.
No matter the result of the election, the authority of the President of Moldova is likely to strengthen. As a popularly-elected official, the president will gain legitimacy, and his/her words and ideas will gain momentum as a consequence. According to the Constitution of Moldova, the President has the authority to determine and execute the country’s foreign policy and to command its military (Articles 86-87). As Moldova’s position in the international system, relative to the EU and Russia, is arguably the largest question facing the country—a question that may be answered by the electorate on October 30—the president will be a key player in Moldovan politics for the near future.
A Dodon presidency is likely to see Moldovan foreign policy orient toward Russia, reversing the country’s current trajectory towards European integration. Dodon’s Socialist Party makes up the largest unified bloc in Moldova’s Parliament, and there is the possibility that the Socialists could form a government after the 2018 parliamentary elections, giving them control of parliament and the presidency. Given that parliament must approve any international agreements negotiated by the president, this would allow Dodon to push through pro-Russian deals, potentially including membership in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. In the period between his election and the parliamentary elections, Dodon would be in an ideal position to promote pro-Russian attitudes among the general population in the hopes of winning a majority in parliament for his party in 2018. With or without a Socialist victory in parliament, the pivot towards Russia is likely to occur as a result of a Dodon presidency. Russian forces already have a presence in Moldova in the form of a ‘peacekeeping’ mission in the breakaway region of Transnistria. These forces, however, haven’t had a chance to cross the Dniester River into the rest of Moldova. With a friendly Moldovan President and closer Russia-Moldovan relations as a result, Russia’s foothold in the EU’s backyard may gain even more strategic value. This has been a source of worry for Moldova for some time. And, change brought about by Dodon’s presidency could quickly turn to instability, creating yet another unnecessary distraction in Europe’s eastern neighborhood. The possibility has clearly worried some European officials, including Stefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy. Furthermore, if Dodon were to turn away from Europe economically and reorient trade to Russia, Moldova could suffer at least in the short term. The European Union makes up 62 percent of the market for Moldovan-produced goods.
On the other hand, a Sandu presidency would likely deepen integration between Europe and Moldova. Even though her own party is not represented in parliament, Sandu would draw support from the coalition government of pro-European parties. Working with the coalition would allow her to push pro-European agreements and legislation from the outset of her term. This agenda could provoke the Kremlin, but Moldova already has taken steps towards integration with the EU over the past several years—including joining the EU’s Eastern Partnership and signing an Association Agreement facilitating trade and visa-free travel—without facing any reprisals from Russia outside of angry rhetoric. There is worry about Russia’s reaction to deeper Moldova-EU integration nevertheless because Russia already has the tools at its disposal to ‘punish’ Moldova if it saw fit: Moldova depends on Russia for a significant proportion of its energy needs. While the country has taken steps towards diversifying the sources of its energy to prevent Russia from holding the threat of an energy crisis over its head, that threat still exists.
The election is not, however, so black and white. Voters are not solely choosing between Europe and Russia. Sandu represents Moldova’s pro-European establishment, which, through a series of scandals, corruption, and mismanagement of the country, has angered the majority of the Moldovan population and lost billions of dollars. Its incompetence, under the pretense of European integration, has given that project a bad name. Moldovans are faced with a near impossible decision: should they vote in favor of Europe, knowing that corruption will follow, or should they vote to give a new government a chance to operate without corruption, knowing that a shift to Russia will follow? It is, of course, possible that Dodon and a socialist government would be just as corrupt, as some have argued. But, in voting Sandu, the Moldovan voters would be nearly guaranteeing (at least from their perspective) continued corruption. Dodon and the Socialist Party represent a fresh start.
The result of Moldova’s upcoming presidential elections is bound to have broader geopolitical consequences. A Dodon victory—whether or not he ever intends to fully orient Moldova towards Russia—will embolden the Kremlin. A Sandu victory, regardless of her policies, would upset Moscow, but it would also reinvigorate the EU to continue to work with Moldova. A Dodon victory could cause the EU to retreat, in part or in whole, from the country. In either of these cases, the line dividing European and Russian spheres of influence is likely to move. It remains to be seen in which direction.