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Maia Sandu. November 16, 2020.
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Maia Sandu’s victory What you need to know about Moldova’s 2020 elections and first woman president

Source: Meduza
Maia Sandu. November 16, 2020.
Maia Sandu. November 16, 2020.
Sergey Gapon / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On Sunday, November 15, Moldova held a second round of voting in its 2020 presidential elections. Opposition candidate Maia Sandu won, becoming the first woman president in the country’s history. Sandu defeated the incumbent head of state, Igor Dodon, who is often referred to as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main supporters in the post-Soviet space. Sandu, on the other hand, is considered a pro-EU, anti-corruption candidate. Here’s what you need to know about the results of the elections in Moldova.

What happened during the vote?

During the run-off vote on November 15, former Prime Minister Maia Sandu, the head of the liberal, pro-EU Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the 2020 presidential elections with 57.75 percent of the vote. Igor Dodon, who has served as president since 2016, received 42.25 percent. Sandu was also the leading candidate during the first round of voting on November 1, when she gained 36.16 percent of the vote compared to Dodon’s 32.61 percent. 

Dodon has already promised to dispute the election results in court: his campaign headquarters claims to have recorded an “unprecedented number of violations.” For example, alleged attempts to prevent residents of Transnistria from voting, as well as allegations of “transporting and buying of voters” from among the Moldovan diaspora living in European Union countries. 

Dodon’s campaign team also maintains that European politicians “interfering” in the election campaign constitutes a violation — former Polish Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk spoke out in support of Sandu, as did the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

“I promise my supporters that I will not give in. We are obliged to protect the interests of our citizens [and] to use all legal methods to challenged the election results — an appeal to the Central Election Commission, the court, the Appeals Court, and the Constitutional Court,” Dodon stated. That said, he has already congratulated Maia Sandu on her victory.

Sandu and Dodon were also considered the favorites during Moldova’s presidential elections in 2016. In the end, Dodon won with 52.11 percent of the vote, while Sandu gained a little less than 39 percent. 

Who is Maia Sandu?

An economist by training, 49-year-old Maia Sandu began her career in government in 1994, working for Moldova’s Economy Ministry. In 1998, she went to work for the World Bank’s Moldovan branch. In 2005, she returned to the country’s Economy Ministry, where she held a variety of positions ranging from consultant to office director. After graduating from Harvard University’s School of Government in 2010, she became an adviser to the World Bank’s Executive Director in Washington, D.C. 

After two years in Washington, Sandu returned to Moldova in 2012 to take up the position of Education Minister. Under her leadership, the ministry tightened procedures for conducting exams (for example, installing video cameras in classrooms hosting undergraduate examinations) and made the study of the Russian language optional in schools. Whereas studying Russian was mandatory prior to this change in 2014, Sandu explained that the decision was meant to give parents a choice regarding which languages their children learn. “Nobody is going to do anything against Russian speakers,” she underscored

Sandu left the post of Education Minister in 2015 and the next year she became the leader of the pro-EU Action and Solidarity Party (which grew out of the platform “In Step with Maia Sandu”). Also in 2016, she took second place in the presidential elections. 

In 2019, Maia Sandu served as prime minister of Moldova for six months. She headed the cabinet after her party and its allied political forces formed a coalition government with Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party (the PSRM), in an attempt to wrest control of the country’s politics from billionaire oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Sandu was dismissed in November 2019 after parliament passed a vote of no confidence in her government. The official reason was dissatisfaction with the work of its ministers. However, sources told the BBC Russian Service that the real reason could be either Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the “pro-Western” prime minister or Plahnotniuc’s resurging influence. 

A Moldovan oligarch and politician, Vladimir Plahotniuc led the country’s Democratic Party (PDM) until the summer of 2019. For many years, he was considered the most powerful person in the country. Plahotniuc fled Moldova for Switzerland after an unsuccessful attempt at seizing power amid the constitutional crisis last summer, drawing criticism from the U.S., the EU, and Russia. Plahotniuc faces criminal charges in numerous countries: in Russia, he was charged and arrested in absentia with leading a criminal group, drug trafficking, and carrying out illegal monetary transactions. In October 2019, Moldova added him to Interpol’s wanted list on suspicion of large-scale money laundering .

Sandu ran her presidential campaign on promises to reform the judicial system, support business development, raise pensions, and bring Moldova closer to the European Union. The country currently has a visa-free travel agreement with the EU.

Her campaign program centered around the fight against corruption. “We are faced with a choice — leaving the government at the mercy of a corrupt system and the population at their own peril and risk, or radically remaking it by building an effective government that takes care of all citizens. I will be a president who will put things in the country in order and will work to ensure justice and the well-being of every citizen!” Sandu said in her program.

She also planned to dissolve the current parliament ahead of schedule, considering it illegitimate. “After one and a half years of work, the shaky legitimacy of the current makeup of the parliament has been undermined by some lawmakers changing political parties, political pressure, and corruption,” her program said. Currently, Igor Dodon’s PSRM occupies the most seats in the national parliament (though the party doesn’t have a parliamentary majority). This is important because Moldova is a parliamentary republic — the president proposes a candidate for prime minister to the country’s lawmakers, who then decide to approve or reject the appointment. Control over foreign policy and defense matters are concentrated in the hands of the head of state, whereas the cabinet is in charge of domestic affairs and the economy.

Generally speaking, Sandu is perceived as a “pro-Western” candidate — she received the most support in large cities and members of the Moldovan diaspora voted for her actively from abroad. She has called repeatedly for bringing Moldova closer to the European Union and criticized Dodon for his overwhelming focus on relations with Russia. That said, Sandu emphasized that she too wants to develop Chișinău’s relationship with Moscow.

On the other hand, she advocates for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the breakaway territory of Transnistria and has tread carefully when it comes to the topic of ownership over Russian-annexed Crimea. In a recent interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, Sandu said that she respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “I believe that Moldova and Ukraine are in the same geopolitical boat,” she underscored. 

Why did incumbent President Igor Dodon lose?

Igor Dodon is widely regarded as a pro-Russian politician. In 2016, his first international visit as a president was to Moscow — there, he promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that Chișinău would break off its Association Agreement with the European Union, end its rapprochement with NATO, and join the Eurasian Economic Union (he didn’t manage to fulfil any of the promises, in part due to opposition from parliament). 

In 2017, Dodon was the only foreign head of state to attend Moscow’s Victory Day Parade. 

Igor Dodon after the elections. November 15, 2020.
Dumitru Doru / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Dodon is an experienced government official. In 2005, he became Moldova’s Deputy Economy Minister, in 2006 he became Economy Minister, and from 2008 to 2009 he served as First Deputy Prime Minister. At the time, the country was led by its third president, Communist Party (PCRM) head Vladimir Voronin, who is also considered a pro-Russian politician. 

In 2011, Dodon left the Moldovan Communist Party and established his own Socialist Party (the PSRM). A recording then surfaced in the media, in which he admitted to using Russian financing to construct the party. Ahead of Moldova’s 2014 parliamentary elections, Dodon met with Vladimir Putin, which helped the PSRM secure the largest faction in the parliament. 

As Moldova’s president, Dodon made regular visits to Moscow. And Putin expressed his support for Dodon publicly ahead of Moldova’s 2020 presidential vote.

The first point in Dodon’s campaign program outlined plans to restore a strategic partnership with Russia. This was followed by plans to reunify the country — in other words, he promised to find a solution to the “Transnistrian issue.” Like Sandu, he promised to raise pensions to the level of a living wage and deal with the property of judges and prosecutors. That said, Dodon had largely failed to fulfill the promises he made ahead of the 2016 elections, in part due to the restrictions on presidential power in Moldova. The country’s Constitutional Court even suspended him from his duties as president on several occasions. Ahead of the 2020 elections, Dodon was criticized for the country’s economic problems. Meanwhile, supporters of European integration accused him of being unwilling to draw closer to Brussels, whereas those seeking rapprochement with Russia felt he had moved too slowly on this front. Indeed, there were no breakthroughs in terms of Moldovan-Russian relations during the four years of Dodon’s presidency.

Before of the second round of voting, the investigative platform Rise Moldova reported that Russian political strategists — in particular, Olga Grak and Leonid Gonin — were trying to help Dodon win the 2020 election. However, a Meduza source close to Putin’s administration called them “technologists at the level of elections to the municipal council in a small district.” “If they really wanted to help Dodon technologically [strategically], they wouldn’t have sent such people,” the source assured.

In conversation with Meduza, political consultant Dmitry Fetisov called Igor Dodon “conditionally pro-Russian.” “Constantly meeting with Russian politicians, Dodon most often used his pro-Russian status to obtain financial assistance from Russia, rather than representing Russian interests in Moldova,” he maintained. According to Fetisov, Dodon has acted in Moscow’s favor only in connection with two issues — “he imposed a discussion on the federalization of Moldova and ignored the UN resolution on the withdrawal of the Russian military contingent from Transnistria.”

It appears as though the Russian authorities haven’t overestimated Dodon either. President Vladimir Putin has already sent a congratulatory message to Maia Sandu on the occasion of her election as president of Moldova. 

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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