Moldova’s upcoming elections are likely cement its pariah state reputation with the international community

On Sunday, parliamentary elections will be held in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest and most corrupt countries. The incumbent Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) will face off in a three-way contest against the Moldovan Party of Socialists (PSRM) and the anti-corruption ACUM bloc. Opinion polls suggest that no party will win a parliamentary majority, increasing the likelihood of coalition talks or an election re-run.

Moldovan politicians have sought to frame the electoral contest as another battleground for the West’s ongoing proxy war with Russia. PDM head Vlad Plahotniuc – a powerful oligarch who is also Moldova’s de facto leader – is nominally pro-European, having made strong appeals for European integration in the past. By contrast, Moldovan President and PSRM leader Igor Dodon is staunchly pro-Russian, having visited Moscow nine times in 2018 and endorsed a Moldovan foreign policy that strengthens relations with Russia.

In reality though, Dodon is unlikely to seriously jeopardise Moldovan relations with the EU, a market that now accounts for 70% of the country’s exports. Meanwhile, Plahotniuc’s pro-Europeanism is a smokescreen that helps his party to court EU foreign aid. Although between 2012-2014 Brussels had remained hopeful of PDM’s reformist intentions, relations began to sour over democratic backsliding concerns and an eroding rule of law.

PDM headquarters in Chisinau, Moldova (photo by CrimeMoldova)

In 2018, Moldova ranked a dismal 117 out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last July, the European Commission froze its Moldovan aid package after the Chisinau mayoral election, in which a surprise victory by an opposition candidate was arbitrarily voided by the Moldovan Supreme Court. Plahotniuc is widely believed to control all key state institutions, including the judiciary, the prosecutor general’s office, the media, and a plurality of politicians and media outlets. His assets are estimated at an eye-watering $2-2.5 billion, or one third of Moldova’s GDP.

Plahotniuc and Dodon like to trade barbs in public, but behind the scenes they have a history of cooperating for mutual gain. A 2017 electoral reform law passed with the support of PDM and PSRM switched the country’s proportional voting system to a mixed model, in which 51 out of the 101 seats are decided in single-member constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis.

Vlad Plahotniuc with Igor Dodon (photo by Basarabia.md)

Other parties have argued this makes the electoral system a sitting duck for voter manipulation. Parties backed by large financial resources can easily split the vote to favour a candidate of their choice. Under the new law, a pro-Russian candidate in a predominantly pro-European constituency could still snatch victory by fielding decoy candidates to dilute the pro-EU vote share.

Though Plahotniuc and Dodon will both be vying for power in the upcoming election, they are united in their desire to see the rival ACUM bloc implode at the polls. ACUM – led by Harvard-educated economist Maia Sandu – has campaigned on a staunchly anti-corruption platform that turns its ire on both established parties. But while its broader message should resonate with voters in a country where state corruption has ballooned, ACUM lacks the administrative and financial resources of PDM and PSRM and will struggle to draw votes. A decision by the Plahotniuc-controlled Central Election Commission to limit the voting rights of Moldova’s large emigré community will also hurt the bloc’s chances, since the Moldova diaspora strongly favors ACUM parties.

On current polling projections, the Socialists could become the largest parliament party after Sunday’s elections, though they would also fall short of a majority. As the ACUM have ruled out coalition talks with either major party, a PSRM-PDM coalition appears most likely. However Plahotniuc will be intent on retaining as much control over the Moldovan state apparatus as possible, which could make a compromise agreement with the Socialists more difficult.

Igor Dodon campaigning with the Party of Socialists (photo by Moldnews.md)

It is also notable that a majority of the public is favorably disposed towards Dodon, whose party endorses popular policies like increasing pensions and not raising the retirement age. Meanwhile Plahotniuc’s corruption-mired image has left his ratings in pariah territory, with 71% unfavorably disposed towards him. Failure to reach a satisfactory agreement could allow Dodon to campaign for fresh elections with an even stronger mandate to root out the corrupt political establishment.

Whilst the electoral outcome remains unclear, Moldova’s geopolitical direction of travel looks unlikely to alter significantly. According to Institute of Strategic Initiatives head Vladislav Kulminski, the country has become a ‘grey zone’, in which elites can write their own rules rather than take ‘orders’ from Brussels or Moscow. Despite their fake ideological battles, neither PDM or PSRM are likely to pivot too far from this sweet spot.