COMMENT: Another nail in the coffin of Moldovan democracy

COMMENT: Another nail in the coffin of Moldovan democracy
Igor Dodon meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest October 27, 2016

The expected victory of Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon in Moldova’s upcoming presidential elections is set to consolidate local oligarch Vlad Plahotnuic’s grip on power and put him in a strong position to play off Russia and the West against each other.

Moldovans will go to the polls on October 30 to vote in the first round of the presidential election. After the last minute decision by Marian Lupu, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, to drop out, on the surface at least it looks like a straightforward race between the pro-Russian Dodon and a pro-EU candidate, former Education Minister Maia Sandu.

Polls indicate the two will meet in the second round of the election on November 13, with a victory for Dodon the most likely outcome; the latest Public Opinion Barometer from the Public Policies Institute in Chisinau showed Dodon would defeat any rival candidate by at least 12 percentage points in the second round.

Lupu stressed the importance of this contest at a press conference on October 26, when he announced he was standing aside in favour of Sandu. “Moldova has to continue on its European path,” he told journalists.

Sandu had already been picked as the joint candidate of three pro-EU opposition parties. However, she was quick to reject the support of the highly unpopular Plahotnuic-backed Democratic Party, which she described as a “poisoned apple”.

“Being supported by Plahotniuc and promoted by his media holding has the sole purpose to compromise me,” Sandu wrote on her Facebook page, accusing the oligarch of trying to benefit Dodon by tarnishing her image among voters.

While the ruling coalition describes itself as pro-EU, two analysts speaking to bne IntelliNews on condition of anonymity also believe that Plahotnuic is playing a deep game with the aim of having Dodon elected president. There is speculation in Moldova that the oligarch has “kompromat” - a Russian term for compromising materials on a public figure - that he plans to use to blackmail Dodon. Sandu, by contrast, is believed to be “clean” and therefore a genuine opposition figure who would be impossible to control.

If Dodon takes the presidency, Plahotnuic, who put together the ruling coalition and has a high degree of control over the judiciary, would have a full set of Moldova’s most important institutions. This would leave the country “entirely under his control”, said another analyst.

This would virtually complete the process of state capture in Moldova, where the weak institutions and lack of a coherent national identity have opened the way for oligarchs to seize control of state institutions. For most of the last 25 years there has been a balance between rival oligarchs, but Plahotnuic dealt a death blow to his main rival Vlad Filat, who was arrested in 2015, and is now the supreme power in Moldova.

Balancing game

Plahotnuic is also believed to be hoping a Dodon presidency would bring about a reset in Moldova’s relations with Russia, which have deteriorated since Chisinau signed its Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Demonstrating that he had allowed the pro-Russian candidate to take the presidency would also improve Plahotnuic’s personal standing with the Kremlin. At the same time, Plahotnuic would be able to present himself to Brussels as the EU’s best hope of balancing Moldova’s new pro-Russian president.

“Dodon might be a very useful factor in playing the balancing game between Russia and the EU. He will be used as a scary toy for the EU and as a bridge towards Russia,” a second analyst told bne IntelliNews.

While Sandu has warned of possible fraud in the upcoming election, others argue that Plahotnuic wants the election to at least appear free and fair to avoid damaging Moldova’s reputation in the West and forcing Chisinau into dependence on Russia. It will be in the ruling coalition’s interests to ensure at least the appearance of a free fight, even as their powerful backer consolidates his grip on the country’s institutions.

Should the election be seen as rigged, this would also most likely bring angry opposition supporters onto the streets, possibly resulting in a threat to the country’s stability.

“Within the country’s fractured and fragile institutions, opposition tends to be expressed through sizeable protests that, at times, can turn violent. Given how much is at stake in the October vote, the election could easily destabilise the country, bearing consequences that will no doubt be felt far beyond Moldova’s borders.”

In any case, Dodon has emerged as a genuinely popular figure in the country. Like Sandu or fellow opposition leader Adrian Nastase but unlike Lupu, Dodon is perceived as a new, young politician not yet tainted by scandal. At the same time, he is an experienced politician who knows how to appeal to populist sentiments - as demonstrated by his support for the Orthodox church against corrupting Western influences.

Aside from roughly half the population who see Moldova’s future as being with Russia, there are many who are fed up with the lack of progress made by successive pro-Western governments since 2009.

Stratfor analyst Eugene Chausovsky wrote on October 24 that popular opinion had shifted toward the pro-Russia camp. “Since 2009, Moldova has been ruled by pro-Western coalitions that have become weaker and more divided with each administration. The internal squabbling and ineffective governance has, in turn, led to disillusionment with pro-Western parties - and a surge in support for their pro-Russian rivals.”

In addition, both Dodon and Lupu have also been able to outspend Sandu in the election campaign. Sandu’s new party is determined to rely on open and transparent funding sources, and has been unable to gather enough funds for expensive billboard campaigns.

Barring a last minute surge of support for Sandu, the election therefore seems likely to snuff out the brief flame of genuine opposition that sparked in the country after the autumn 2015 protests, exemplified by figures like Sandu and Nastase. Dodon’s expected victory is set to dash hopes that Sandu’s PAS or Nastase’s PPDA could gain control over the presidency or parliament, bringing about real change in Moldovan politics. It will be at least a few years before they have another chance.