Moldova must bolster its electoral integrity ahead of this year’s presidential election

Moldova is due to hold its next presidential election in autumn this year. Laurențiu Pleșca and David Levine write that given the high risk of Russian interference, bolstering the country’s electoral integrity should be a key priority ahead of the vote.

In November last year, Moldova’s Intelligence and Security Service published information documenting Russian interference in the country’s 2023 local elections. This included details on illicit financing, disinformation operations and cyberattacks.

While Moldova successfully prevented any such operations from undermining the local elections, the incident highlights the need for a more proactive approach to election security, especially as presidential elections and a European Union (EU) referendum are set to be organised this autumn.

One of the authors of this piece went to Moldova to observe the local elections for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The other author frequently comments on Moldovan national security matters, including the ongoing hybrid threats it faces from Russia.

High stakes

Ahead of last year’s local elections, Moldovan authorities banned the pro-Russian Chance party from participating in the vote due to allegations of illicit financing. However, this decision was made only 48 hours before the election, which raised serious legal questions.

To prevent similar events from occurring again, Moldova must develop a more comprehensive strategy for countering electoral interference, one which incorporates well-defined limits on foreign contributions to political parties.

The stakes are high. The presidential election, with incumbent Maia Sandu seeking a second term in office, will have a major impact on the country’s future and the proposed EU referendum could propel the country closer to the bloc. There’s little doubt this will motivate Russia to want to shape the outcomes. A full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the banning of the Chance party could help identify additional lessons learned, best practices and recommendations to help secure future elections.

Indeed, there is evidence Russia has intensified its efforts to destabilise Moldova with the involvement of political actors within the country. The banning of the Chance party centred on allegations against the party’s founder, Ilan Shor, regarding disinformation campaigns, vote buying and illicit campaign funding.

Some actors who now articulate pro-European positions, such as the mayor of Chișinău, Ion Ceban, have also come under scrutiny because they previously held pro-Russian views or opposed Moldova’s EU accession process.

As a result, many Moldovans are concerned about whether their elected officials are exercising independent judgement on importance policy matters or are being unduly influenced by malign actors.

The danger is that Russia may use underhanded tactics to foster doubts about EU integration to encourage citizens to vote against EU accession in the referendum. Despite legal measures adopted in December 2022, Russia has discovered new methods to finance pro-Russian parties in Chișinău, influence Moldova’s elections and destabilise the country’s pro-European government. For example, Russia is now using PYYPL cards, digital technology, and cryptocurrency to promote its aims.

Tangible solutions

Implementing reasonable restrictions on foreign funding for Moldovan political parties would be a tangible first step to protecting the electoral process. There are grounds for expanding this to ban candidates affiliated with actors found guilty of criminal activity like Ilan Shor from running in future elections.

Extending these restrictions to pro-Russian candidates with established links to organised crime groups would also establish greater safeguards for Moldova’s decision-making processes, an area of concern for international institutions such as the OSCE.

These steps would demonstrate Moldova’s willingness to maintain its independence and protect its democratic processes. Alongside these measures, there are several other critical areas to address to ensure fair elections, building on ongoing reform efforts within Moldova.

Strategic planning

Those actors currently working to improve Moldova’s election security would benefit from working even more closely together. One possibility would be to work on developing an early warning system to detect and response to threats in advance, such as the highly touted Critical Election Incident Public Protocol used in Canada.

Comprehensive training on threat detection and greater engagement with international and local expert organisations, such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, could also further strengthen Moldova’s elections.

External consultations

International partners can play a crucial role in improving Moldova’s election security. Reforms can be strengthened by ensuring they comply with European standards and international best practices.

The Moldovan Government, together with the Central Electoral Commission of Moldova, should be holding more frequent consultations with international organisations such as the OSCE, the Venice Commission, the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) and other international organisations such as the German Marshall Fund of the United States with deep experience in electoral integrity matters.

These steps were emphasised in the European Commission’s latest progress report on Moldova in November 2023. The goal should ultimately be to seek regular feedback and guidance from international partners on how to improve the country’s electoral laws and regulations.

Institutional reforms

Election security could be further improved by providing the Central Election Commission of Moldova more money to improve their ability to review electoral complaints and investigate any potential political party funding problems.

The ability of regulatory bodies to investigate and prosecute cases of unlawful financing should be enhanced and these bodies should work with law enforcement agencies to guarantee their investigations are free from bias.

Strict monitoring tools should be developed to detect and prohibit illicit funding from flowing into Moldova from Russian citizens or proxy actors. These tools could be established by the National Bank of Moldova, with oversight from newly appointed Romanian reformist Anca Dragu, together with a newly established Financial Intelligence Unit responsible for analysing financial intelligence related to money laundering and financial crimes.

Public awareness and collaboration across sectors

The Moldovan government needed to improve public awareness through civil society about election reforms, the rights of citizens and the value of active participation. Fostering a sense of civic duty and encouraging participation in the electoral process would provide clear benefits for election security. Work by civil society actors to improve Moldova’s election security can also help in this regard as well.

More broadly, it would be beneficial to encourage government agencies, civil society organisations and international partners to work together to develop a coordinated and comprehensive approach to electoral integrity. International resources could be used to provide technical help for cross-collaboration between government and civic actors.

By addressing these issues, Moldova will be able to continue its upward trajectory on electoral reform, mitigate external threats and preserve the integrity and fairness of its election process.

This article was co-authored by David Levine, Senior Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund.

Photo: Maia Sandu official Facebook page.

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