For Moldova, a fresh start

Without the handicap of overt assistance from neighbouring Romania, Maia Sandu is elected Moldova’s president.

Maia Sandu has comfortably defeated incumbent Igor Dodon to become the first female president of Moldova.

The Harvard-educated Ms Sandu, the leader of the Action and Solidarity party (PAS), won 57 per cent of the vote in a run-off against Mr Dodon, officially independent but backed by the Socialist party (PSRM), on November 15.

Sandu was helped enormously by the votes of Moldovans living abroad who accounted for more than 15 per cent of all ballots cast. Many thousands of expatriate Moldovans were forced to queue for hours at polling stations set up at embassies and consulates across Europe, such was the interest in an election that most view as pivotal for the country’s future.

“I want thank the diaspora,” said Sandu shortly after polls closed. “They have demonstrated that no matter how far away from home they are, they still care about the future of this country.”

Sandu is now likely to push hard for a parliamentary election. Moldova is currently ruled by a coalition of two centre-left parties, Mr Dodon’s PSRM and the Democratic party, formerly led by the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, who is currently fighting extradition to Moldova from the US on corruption charges.

The ruling coalition has just 51 deputies out of 101, and even if she is unsuccessful in forcing an election Sandu, who was briefly prime minister of a short-lived anti-corruption cabinet last year, will be keen to put together a new government committed to fighting graft.

Fighting corruption

Long viewed by the international media, in somewhat simplistic terms, as a “pro-European” candidate (as opposed to Mr Dodon, who favours closer ties with Russia), Sandu – who lost out to Dodon by a narrow margin four years ago – centered her campaign not on Europe but on eradicating poverty and fighting the corruption that has done so much damage to the economy of what remains Europe’s poorest country.

In October, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, GRECO, condemned Moldova for making little progress in the fight against high-level corruption, saying that measures taken in recent years were “clearly insufficient”.

Sandu has also pledged to renew Moldova’s European aspirations, although while still cheerleading for eventual European integration, in comparison with 2016’s election the pro-EU rhetoric was considerably less evident on the campaign trail, as were – perhaps as a result of Covid-19 restrictions more than tactics – appearances by leading politicians from neighbouring Romania.

Speaking to reporters the day after the election, Sandu vowed to maintain a “true balance” in foreign policy and “pragmatic dialogue with all countries including Romania, Ukraine, European countries, Russia and the United States.”

She made a particular commitment to Mr Dodon’s Russophone electorate, saying, in Russian: “You have not lost, I will be winning your trust with concrete deeds.”

Absent Romania

Moldova’s ethnic Russian, Ukrainian, and Gagauz minorities — which make up around a quarter of the population – get understandably spooked when Romania takes any kind of interest in the country, viewing it as the first step towards the eventual unification of the two countries.

Most of present-day Moldova was for part of the 20th century an integral part of Romania, but while talk of reunification was once prominent, few have ever given the idea serious credence: not least because most Moldovans oppose it.

Furthermore, except for a few extreme nationalists, most Romanian politicians appear to have tacitly accepted that history and politics aside, Romania simply could not afford to absorb Europe’s poorest country. Few would admit to that publicly, but by preferring to utter polite but ultimately meaningless statements about a “strong partnership” and “support for Moldova’s European integration”, as opposed to explicit support for unification, they do just that.

In doing so, and by staying away from the campaign trail, they might well have helped Moldova’s Russian speakers view Sandu more favourably.

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