Moldova’s New President

Paula Erizanu

In a runoff vote on 15 November, Moldova elected its first female president, Maia Sandu. A graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and former World Bank adviser, she ran promising to fight corruption and poverty, and to take Moldova out of international isolation. The defeated incumbent, Igor Dodon, has been investigated by journalists for alleged human rights infringements, corruption schemes, the use of Russian funds in his campaigns (via offshore accounts in the Bahamas) and secret deals with Vladimir Plahotniuc, the tycoon who – informally, if not secretly – controlled the country between 2016 and June 2019, when he fled to the US, and then Turkey.

Dodon mobilised the clergy to tell churchgoers that Sandu would not be an appropriate president as an unmarried and childless woman in her forties. In 2016, when the two ran against each other for the first time, Dodon suggested that Sandu might be a lesbian, in a bid to scandalise conservative voters. He won that election by 5 per cent (there was evidence of votes being bought in the breakaway region of Transnistria). But this time Sandu defeated Dodon by 943,006 votes to 690,615.

Of those 1.7 million votes, more than 262,000 were cast by Moldovans abroad. After the first round, which Sandu also won, Dodon called Moldovans abroad ‘a parallel electorate’ whose politics diverged from those at home. He was proved wrong in the second round, when Sandu won both the local and the diaspora vote.

I helped organise the queue as a volunteer at the polling station at the Mama Shelter Hotel in Hackney. I hadn’t managed to vote in 2016, despite queuing for four hours, because the polling station ran out of ballot papers. There were more polling stations and more ballot papers this time round, but still not enough. More than 14,000 Moldovans voted at 17 polling stations in Russia; in the UK, more than 26,400 voted at only seven polling stations, and four of them ran out of ballot papers.

Four years ago, 138,000 people voted abroad. The number doubled in 2020 not only because Sandu’s support has increased, but because young and economically active Moldovans have continued to emigrate. At home, the biggest demographic – a third of all voters – was 56 to 70-year-olds; in the diaspora, half of those who voted are between 26 and 40 years old. They’ve left not only to get away from Moldova’s low wages and high cost of living, but also out of a sense of political hopelessness. Sandu’s election victory may have brought hope, but it will still be a challenge for her to encourage Moldovans abroad to return home.

She has promised closer ties with the EU, and more balanced international relations. The Kremlin congratulated her on her victory, but also criticised her for telling the BBC that she would like to see Russia withdraw its troops from Transnistria, as requested by the UN in 2018 – and Moldova’s official position since 2004. Moscow may have been more exercised by Sandu’s refusal to take on Transnistria’s $7 billion gas debt to Russia.

Soon after he lost the election, Dodon’s party, PSRM, went into coalition with the Șor Party. Its eponymous leader, Ilan Șor, was involved in a billion-dollar fraud in 2012-14, which broke three banks in Moldova, using shell companies in the UK and Hong Kong. He absconded last year; his current whereabouts are unknown. The coalition is carrying out a scorched earth policy: it has passed a law to weaken presidential powers, and a budget that the opposition describes as ‘anti-citizens’ and ‘pro-oligarchs’. On the night of 16 December, it voted, without due procedure, on more than twenty measures, such as allowing the import of drugs ‘unauthorised’ in their country of production, and lowering the pension age without budgeting for it, which risks bankrupting the country as well as blocking a deal with the IMF and the EU. Opposition parties, including Sandu’s (PAS), declared the laws unconstitutional, filed complaints at the Constitutional Court, and requested a vote of no confidence in the government. The prime minister resigned today.

On 6 December, thousands of people joined Sandu at mass protests outside parliament, asking for snap elections. Her inauguration is tomorrow.