Moldova’s presidential election has been declared for Maia Sandu, who unseated incumbent Igor Dodon in a historic victory. Against a backdrop of longstanding geopolitical tension, the election has been described as a win for pro-Western interests in Moldova. Yet Maia Sandu won her race by sidestepping this narrative, playing down her geopolitical alignment and focusing instead on corruption reform.
Despite polls predicting a narrow Dodon victory, Sandu ultimately won in a landslide, receiving 57% of the vote. For the first time, the Moldovan diaspora population was a decisive constituency. Sandu won 93% of votes from abroad—some 244,000—far surpassing her 27,000-vote margin within Moldova. In the wake of a 2019 political crisis, the 2020 election proved to be a referendum on the establishment. The results are hardly surprising; their underlying dynamics, however, fly in the face of traditional post-Soviet analysis.
Commentary on democracies in this region often contextualizes their domestic politics as a microcosm of East-West geopolitics, pitting Russia’s “sphere of influence” against the EU’s. This perspective—a holdover from the Cold War—has reemerged in light of Moscow’s increasing regional aggression. Russia’s invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) are widely understood to have been activated by those countries shifting towards the EU. The diplomatic impact of domestic politics likewise looms large in Moldova, whose primary trade partner is the EU but whose energy imports are mostly Russian. Given Moldova’s parliamentary framework—a president and prime minister—Sandu inherits a sharply limited range of powers. Until her coalition secures a legislative majority, Sandu is largely confined to the diplomatic realm.
From a strategic standpoint, however, steering the narrative away from foreign policy makes great sense for an opposition candidate. Moldovans are strongly polarized on foreign policy, in a way that remains static over time and splits along familiar demographic lines. As opposed to so-called “pro-Russia voters,” so-called “pro-EU voters” skew young, urban, educated, and socially liberal. Elections that foreground geopolitics force Moldovans to self-select into these traditional camps, leaving the electoral map unchanged over time, allowing little room for innovation. When foreign policy is the axis of polarization, Moldova’s weak institutions do not generate the conditions for an opposition victory.
Corruption, conversely, is generally a “valence issue…there exists little disagreement among political elites and voters” (Pavão 997). If corruption reform theoretically has broad support, we should expect that corruption is major electoral issue wherever it is a major problem. Yet this expectation is not empirically confirmed in Moldova (or elsewhere). Why is this? Nara Pavão finds that, at an extreme, “the high frequency of misdeeds may lead voters to believe that all politicians are potentially corrupt.” (Pavão 1004) In other words, candidates sideline corruption if they cannot convince voters they are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Eventually, public distrust becomes so severe that corruption ceases to be a campaign issue entirely.
This expectation has come to unsurprising fruition in Moldova, a country riddled with corruption at all levels. Among non-autocracies, Moldova has ranked near the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index every year. The poorest country in Europe, Moldova’s economy was rocked in 2014 by the theft of $1 billion—some 12% of Moldova’s GDP—in a watershed scandal implicating some of the country’s highest officials.
Since then, democracy in Moldova has continued to stumble under the weight of a corrupt elite. For years, Vladimir Plahotniuc stood at the center of a vast political and business network. Moldova’s wealthiest man, he was long viewed as the pro-EU darling of the “west”—in truth a meaningless distinction, given his connections to “pro-Russian” oligarchs. Under his behind-the-scenes leadership of the Democratic Party, Plahotniuc consolidated control over large portions of the judiciary, media, and Constitutional Court. This left little practical room for pluralistic political competition.
The aftermath of 2019’s parliamentary elections saw long-simmering tensions boil over. In the lead-up, Plahotniuc had come under increasing fire for his blatant corruption and far-reaching political influence. Sandu campaigned as head of a pro-reform party, her second foray into Moldovan politics after a failed 2016 presidential run. Her bloc’s second-place victory resulted in the last-minute formation of a fragile coalition government with Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, to the exclusion of the Democratic Party. The narrow coalition victory spurred a constitutional crisis, with allies of Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party refusing to step down, attempting to block the election’s results. This effort failed dramatically. In the face of “increasing international pressure from Moscow and several European capitals, and a private visit from the American ambassador” (Kingsley), the Plahotniuc-affiliated prime minister stepped down. Plahotniuc, fearing arrest, fled the country.
The chaos of 2019 set the stage for 2020’s presidential election, pulling back the curtain on Moldova’s institutional dysfunction and setting up the country for a referendum on the establishment. Despite his uneasy alliance with Sandu’s reform party in 2019, Igor Dodon represented the old guard in the recent election, his Socialist Party the pro-Russia counterpart to Plahotniuc’s Democrats. Dodon will be remembered for a foreign policy that favored Russia but let EU relationships lay fallow: he “visited Moscow more than 40 times, but he never went to Bucharest or Kyiv, and visited Brussels only once” (Negura). Few would dispute either that Moscow is disappointed by Dodon’s electoral loss or that EU leaders are cautiously optimistic.
Ultimately, this history-making campaign was not about geopolitics. The 2020 campaign saw both Sandu and Dodon move toward the center on foreign policy, affirming a dual mandate of continued Russian partnership and stronger European ties. At a time of global recession and domestic economic pain, Sandu eschewed high-concept geopolitics in favor of a bread-and-butter commitment to clean government. Harnessing public resentment, Sandu shifted the narrative towards the failures of the state. The burden of those failures ultimately came to rest on Igor Dodon.
For years, Moldova was trapped in a cycle of corruption and complacence, as Pavão would predict. Corruption was so rampant that it had become an untouchable non-issue with zero electoral gravity. To create the illusion of competition and choice, the establishment played up age-old geopolitical divides. Only a special candidate, acting at the right moment, stood a chance of breaking through this impasse and meaningfully differentiating herself to the public.
Enter Maia Sandu, a brand-new politician who emerged on the stage only four years ago. Sandu’s certifiably swamp-free career is a rarity in Moldova, allowing her to authentically take on corruption as a headline issue. She lacked the establishment connections that gave Igor Dodon a boost but compromised his democratic credibility. Most importantly, Sandu’s entire movement is fresh on the scene, and it rejects the contrived labels of the past. Recognizing that the established “pro-EU” and “pro-Russia” camps were guilty of the same injustices, Sandu carved out a third way and enfranchised Moldovans who were sick of choosing between two evils. Her message resonated strongly with Moldovans abroad, many of whom had been driven to emigrate by poverty and corruption.
These challenges are bigger than Sandu, and certain to outlive her tenure. Looking forward, there are more questions than answers about how much she can achieve with a divided, sluggish government. Under Maia Sandu’s administration, one thing is certain: Brussels might come before Moscow, but nothing comes before reform.
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“Presidential candidate Maia Sandu, Chisinau, 12 November 2016” by oscepa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
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Hi Kofi, I think this pattern of avoiding the most polarizing issues is quite interesting, in the Moldovan context but also globally. Comparing it to the US, I think the 2020 election followed this pattern where many of the most controversial topics were skirted (particularly for Democrats) while issues that were seen as more unifying (both within party and across party lines) got more attention on their respective platforms. I would be curious to see if there are other examples and whether this is a widely used political strategy that has developed as a result of increased polarization on all levels.
Democracies of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus (post-Soviet states that is) are often overlooked, even though their consolidation or erosion could have significant implications for the balance of power between Russia and the European Union. Georgia is very similar in the formation of coalitions and the distraction from foreign policy (which is also a great source of polarization in politics) to achieve political power. Pavão’s thesis of corruption in politics also holds true in the case of Georgia, as executive corruption has been so consistent throughout its democratic history that the population looks over it and focuses more so on issues of poverty and foreign affairs. Georgia, Moldova, and other post-Soviet states are in a critical period of their democratic history, so it will be interesting to see how (and if) Sandu will address issues of corruption in Moldova and what reforms she will impose during her term.