Moldova: Sandu is president, but the battle for power has only begun

Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated anti-corruption crusader was on her way to becoming Moldova”s first female president on Monday but her power to reform the country remains curtailed as her pro-Russian political adversary continues to control parliament.

Sandu won the presidency with 57.75 per cent of the vote, while incumbent Igor Dodon gathered 42.25 per cent of ballots.

The 48-year-old’s victory sends a clear signal the electorate want closer ties with the European Union and more political transparency, experts told Euronews, but her impact on domestic politics may not be immediately felt.

“If you’re president you have very limited power to do positive things,” Nicu Popescu, a former Moldovan minister for foreign affairs, now director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Euronews.

Moldova has a semi-parliamentary political system. The president can initiate legislation but is mostly tasked with confirming the appointments of high officials and negotiating international treaties. Legislative power is concentrated in parliament and thus wielded by the largest formation there.

The Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), from which pro-Russia Dodon hails, is the largest group with 37 MPs. It is in a coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) as well as a few independent MPs in order to get the 52 votes needed to control the 101-seat parliament.

Sandu’s liberal centre-right Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) counts 15 MPs. A coalition with the Republican Socio-Political Movement gives the formation a total of 24 seats.

For Popescu, Sandu’s priority will thus be to engineer a situation that would trigger early parliamentary elections in the hope of securing a majority to implement her agenda.

‘High levels of corruption’

Sandu, a former World Bank economist who made her first foray into politics in 2012 when she was appointed Education minister, campaigned on a pledge to clean up Moldovan politics.

Transparency International ranked Moldova 120th out of 180 countries in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index. Dodon, himself, was beset by corruption allegations following the release of a video in which he appears to tell an oligarch that he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Russian authorities.

But her election comes as the country, like the rest of the world, is reeling with the human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed more than 2,000 in the eastern European nation of 3.5 million.

“The economy has not been doing well for the last decade. There are very high levels of corruption, mismanagement and, of course, COVID-19 aggravated all of it,” Popescu flagged.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects Moldova’s economy to shrink 4.5 per cent this year due to the global health crisis which has lowered external and domestic demand and led to a “significant slowdown in remittances”.

About one million Moldovans have fled their native country to seek greener pastures abroad. The money they send home is a key lever of the country’s economy, estimated to represent 16 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

But a survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) highlighted earlier this year that close to half of overseas Moldovans had lost their jobs to the pandemic and stopped sending money home. It also estimated that 150,000 labour migrants — 10 per cent of the country’s domestic working population — would return home which will push up the unemployment rate.

For Cristina Gherasimov, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank, the new president must “urgently prioritise addressing the COVID-19 crisis that has affected the country to the bone.”

“Her priorities will include identifying international support to address the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, identifying financial resources to support farmers and SMEs (small and medium enterprises), and address corruption as a national security threat.

But again, “without a parliamentary majority, however, the implementation of any roadmap that Sandu will propose becomes a very difficult task,” she stressed.

‘Moldova will get much closer the EU’

What she can do right now, without a parliamentary majority, is rebuild Moldova’s foreign policy.

“The previous president (Igor Dodon) was very pro-Russian and Russia was pretty much the only country with which he had good relations,” Popescu told Euronews.

Gherasimov concurred. “In the last four years, Moldova became gradually isolated on the international arena under a pro-Russian president. Sandu’s victory means prioritising Moldova’s ties with the EU and with its direct neighbours, Romania and Ukraine.”

Both experts agree however that Sandu is highly unlikely to cut ties with Moscow and will instead seek to establish a more pragmatic relationship.

The EU has welcomed Sandu’s victory with Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and Council head Charles Michel both saying the bloc “is ready” to support Moldova.

“Your victory is a clear call to tackle corruption and restore respect for the rule of law,” von der Leyen tweeted to Sandu.

Moldova and the EU signed a treaty in 2014 which lowered trade barriers between the two sides. The bloc accounts for more than half of Moldova’s total trade and receives about 64 per cent of its exports.

Part of the Association Agreement also commits Moldova to implement economic, judicial and financial reforms that would see the country align itself with European standards, but few reforms were implemented during the Dodon years.

“Maia Sandu’s role going forward is to implement the Association Agreement with the EU and a key element is to fight corruption and just by doing that, Moldova will get much closer to the EU,” Popescu said.

The bloc, he added, should continue to support the country’s independent media and civil society and develop joint infrastructure projects with Moldova to further cement the partnership.

‘High demand for democracy’

For the two analysts, Sandu’s victory also signals that Moldovans want more transparency and democracy.

Sandu won both the domestic vote and that of the diaspora, 92 per cent of which backed her, according to Gherasimov.

“This says Moldovans want change, and a clean and transparent political elite, something that President Dodon was not able to offer,” she said.

Popescu flagged that Sandu won despite the ruling party running a “dirty, divisive campaign”, saying her election would lead to instability and war and with plenty of fake news circulating about her.

“It tells that the electorate is able to filter a lot of fake news,” he went on.

“Moldova’s case, Belarus’ case show they’re high demand for democracy, not for fake news peddlers, and there’s high demand for anti-corruption and this is positive news not just for Moldova but also on a wider European scale,” he concluded.

Sandu will officially take office with 45 days of her confirmed victory, according to statute.

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