Moldova’s presidential election is over, now the battle for the parliament begins

Moldova’s presidential election is over, now the battle for the parliament begins
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow November 26, 2020

The second round of Moldova’s presidential election on November 15 ended in a landslide victory for Maia Sandu, leader of the centre-right Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), against the incumbent President Igor Dodon. Sandu has plans for radical changes in Moldova starting with an overhaul of the judiciary, but to achieve this, she will need an ally as prime minster which can only be achieved through snap elections. 

Mihai Popsoi, Moldova’s deputy parliament speaker and vice president of PAS, told bne IntelliNews that the party will use “all legal means” to trigger new elections. 

The PAS thereby wants to achieve a “clean, representative parliament and a government that would be a reflection of the new parliament to work together with the president to put forward and implement the reform agenda that the people voted for,” Popsoi told bne IntelliNews

The current parliament was elected in 2019, following the adoption of a controversial new electoral code. Dodon’s Socialist Party (PSRM) holds 37 of the 101 seats, making it the largest faction but far short of a majority. The next largest bloc comprises the PAS and its ally the PPDA. Other parties represented in the parliament are the Democratic Party, Pro Moldova, a newly formed political vehicle that splintered off from the Democratic Party, and the Sor Party led by fugitive businessman Ilan Shor. 

“The current parliament is totally discredited, it lacks legitimacy and has major issues with representativeness, as it’s a result of the controversial electoral system adopted in very murky circumstances. The 2019 election was far from free and fair, and since then a large number of MPs have switched parties (many of them more than once),” said Popsoi. 

Many of the defections across party lines were from the Democrats or Socialists to Pro Moldova, headed by former parliament speaker Andrian Candu, the godson of Vlad Plahotnuic, once Moldova’s most powerful politician but a fugitive since mid-2019. In one notorious example, Stefan Gatcan, who resigned from the Socialist Party to join Pro Moldova on June 30, claimed he was physically forced to sign his resignation as an MP by his former colleagues from the PSRM.

Analysts agree that for Sandu to achieve what she has been elected to do, she needs a government she can work with. 

“Overall, the president is the weakest in the hierarchy after the government and the parliament. However, the president can become a vocal and visible domestic and international actor, within the existing competences,” commented Denis Cenusa, associated expert at Chisinau-based think tank Expert-Grup.

“[E]arly parliamentary elections are now a condition for successful reforms,” said Natalia Otel Belan, regional director for Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise, adding: “It’s important to note that in Moldova, any positive reform can fail if it is not understood well or does not have support of the majority of population. This is the main reason why president Sandu plans to reorganise the presidential administration to enhance its role as a pillar of democracy through greater transparency of decision making and accountability to citizens.” 

Harvard-educated former World Bank economist Sandu entered politics in Moldova, serving as education minister from 2012-2015. She lost to Dodon in the second round of the 2016 presidential election. This was followed by a brief stint as prime minister in June-November 2019, when the PAS forced a temporary alliance with Dodon’s PSRM.

Having secured the presidency and with hopes of forming a more sympathetic new government the priority for Sandu will be justice reform, an area that will be critical to fighting corruption in Moldova, and fostering independent institutions. Moldova was an increasingly captive state when Plahotnuic was pre-eminent, and after ousting the businessman and politician, instead of freeing its institutions, Dodon sought to bring them under his own control. 

Sandu's party’s website stresses the urgent need for reform in a country where the system created by the current political class "does not reward the honest, those who work and does not help those who need help”. Corruption is rooted at all levels, it adds.

Justice reform will also allow a Sandu presidency to achieve its other objectives such as bringing in more investment and assistance from the EU that in turn will kick-start the economy and increase salaries and pensions.

According to Popsoi, “we are 100% committed to European integration. This is the core of our foreign policy message, part of our political DNA.” 

The priority now “is the full implementation of the Association Agreement and hopefully when we have proven to our international partners that we mean business, are serious about benefiting from all opportunities in the Association Agreement and implementing all the commitments, then we can hope for a more advanced integration with the EU … We are confident our partners in Brussels and across the EU will give us the chance to become more integrated on the European market, the digital market, the energy market, and slowly but surely increase our chances of our membership application being approved positively,” he told bne IntelliNews

That being said, while being committed to European integration, the incoming presidency will take care not to needlessly alienate Russia as previous governments have done.

Attracting investment and achieving better access to European markets are crucial in Moldova, which vies with Ukraine for the title of Europe’s poorest country. The situation worsened with the pandemic this year. Unlike the Central European economies that managed to borrow on international markets to shore their economies up through lockdown, Moldova relies mainly on donor finance. As Chisinau struggled to get funding from the EU, the IMF or Russia this year, the government could only offer a minimal level of support to companies and households whose incomes were hit by the pandemic. 

On top of that, Moldova is among the most corrupt countries in Europe, ranked 120th on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International, which is worse than all the countries in Europe except for Russia and Ukraine. 

The country was shaken by the “$1bn bank frauds” a massive scam to siphon money off from three local banks; the bill will ultimately be footed by the Moldovan taxpayer. Numerous politicians and central bank officials were implicated in the scam, and some have already been sentenced, though the ultimate beneficiaries are not known.

Whether Moldova will hold a snap election or not is the “million-dollar question”, said Popsoi. Dodon is understood to be trying to put together a new majority in parliament, possibly with a view to moving from the presidency to the prime minister position. However, Popsoi argued, “It’s very unlikely such a government would be able to do anything meaningful for the voters in terms of reforms and increasing living standards.”

Popsoi acknowledged that of the MPs in the current parliament “of course hardly anyone wants snap elections apart from us”, but says that the presidential election result clearly shows that the “majority of voters want snap elections, they want the parliament to be cleaned up, a parliament that represents the will of the people”. 

“The forces in parliament find themselves in a dilemma. They want to remain in parliament, they don’t want snap elections, but they also don’t want to face the anger of the Moldovan people who, according to polls, overwhelmingly want snap elections,” he said. 

“We are going to use the overwhelming mandate we received on Sunday to put pressure on parliament to accept the political reality and agree to snap elections. Otherwise there’s going to be a huge disconnect between parliament and the voters. This is a recipe for further instability, further mismanagement and bad governance.”