Nastase takes head start in Moldovan presidential campaign

Nastase takes head start in Moldovan presidential campaign
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest October 10, 2016

The head of Moldova’s Popular Party Dignity and Truth (PPDA) Andrei Nastase has de facto started his presidential campaign by publishing a manifesto ahead of planned final talks among the pro-EU opposition to select a single presidential candidate. 

The three main pro-EU opposition parties were expected to choose either Nastase or his rival Maia Sandu of the Social Action Party (PAS) as their joint candidate to fight pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM) leader Igor Dodon and the ruling party’s candidate Marian Lupu in the October 30 elections. However, recent statements from the two, culminating with the publication of Nastase’s manifesto, leave little if any room for negotiation.

The manifesto is only the latest step in the silent confrontation between Nastase and Sandu, which could lead to both of them running in the election - a situation that would benefit Dodon and the ruling coalition. 

A win for Dodon would secure smooth functioning of the regime - which would be welcomed by Moldova’s international development partners - while should Nastase or Sandu take power they are expected to embark upon radical reforms at the cost of the current fragile stability. However, the continuation of the status quo under Dodon might result in an accumulation of public frustration.

The decision on whether Nastase or Sandu would run as the joint candidate of the pro-EU opposition was supposed to be based on who made the stronger showing in the polls. Until recently, Sandu had consistently been placed second after Dodon, although a recent poll puts Nastase in second place after the PSRM leader. 

However, Nastase indicated fairly explicitly in his manifesto that the decision would not be based on opinion polls. 

“When the statistics and the polls cannot really help us [to choose a single candidate] we must admit it and at least in the last minute [we must] turn to the people,” Nastase said.

However, Nastase’s better score in recent polls might be misleading. More detailed examination of the polls indicates that Nastase would not win in the second ballot against Dodon. Sandu’s voters are less inclined to support Nastase than Nastase’s are to support Sandu, polls reportedly showed. Therefore, the logical choice of the pro-EU coalition would be Sandu, despite more voters preferring Nastase as their first option. Such a decision might seem puzzling for Nastase’s voters and might not be accepted easily by Nastase himself.

Sandu would not only have a higher level of support from pro-EU voters in the second round, but she would also gain votes from some of the ruling coalition’s supporters, political analyst Iulian Chifu told Realitatea TV on October 9, and quoting private polls carried out by Moldovan political parties.

Meanwhile, Nastase’s manifesto stresses his credentials as a political outsider, in contrast to both Dodon and Sandu. Dodon served as economy minister in Communist-led governments in the mid-2000s before splitting from the Communist Party to form the PSRM.

“I have never been part of this system,” Nastase’s manifesto reads. The document continues:

“I have never [been a] candidate for a top position in government or other public authority

“I have never run in elections

“I have never served in public administration, either central or local

“I do not need ministries traded against loyalty”

In another hint to Sandu, Nastase said that he had proposed to her that they run together for president and prime minister in line with recommendations from analysts. Vladimir Socor of Jamestown Foundation suggested recently that Sandu would better fit the prime minister role while Nastase would be a better president.

In his manifesto, Nastase states that Moldova does not need a president that has been part of the system – a visible dig at Sandu, who served as minister in a two cabinets on the ticket of the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM), including the cabinet that approved plans to cover losses resulting from the $1bn banking frauds from public money. She was also nominated by the PLDM for prime minister after former Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici resigned in summer 2015.

Sandu’s position as a political insider also dates back to her university education; she graduated from the Public Administration School run by Moldova’s presidency in 1998, before studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (2009-2010). She was later appointed by the government of Moldova as an assistant to the World Bank’s regional executive director (2010-2012). 

Sandu reportedly benefitted from her political partnership and close personal ties with Natalia Gherman, the daughter of Moldova’s first President Mircea Snegur. This might not be relevant for the presidential elections, but explains her higher acceptance among the conservative voters at least compared to radical pro-EU activist Nastase.

Nastase’s sole weakness as a presidential candidate, apart from his radical views that are not shared by more conservative voters, is his connection with the Topa brothers, two investors in Moldovan banks, who also own Jurnal media channel, which is an important asset benefitting Nastase’s campaign. 

Victor and Viorel Topa have repeatedly clashed with Vlad Plahotniuc, the influential backer of Moldova’s ruling Democratic Party, who also has substantial interests in the banking sector. 

In an open letter in 2010, Victor Topa accused Plahotniuc of raider attacks on four banks the brothers controlled at that time. Immediately afterwards, he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for the alleged fraudulent purchase of a stake in Victoriabank. Two years later, Viorel Topa was sentenced to eight years in prison for MDL11mn (€1mn) frauds at Banca de Economii. In 2015, the Moldovan authorities sent extradition requests for the Topas to Germany, where they are currently living. 

However, the court decisions are hardly a liability for Nastase since voters have no trust in the local judicial system and suspect Plahotniuc of manipulating the courts. Nastase never hidden his connection with the Topa brothers, and claims they are not responsible for the alleged frauds. The German courts have refused to extradite them to Moldova due to the political dimension of the trials, according to Nastase.