A runoff in Moldova

Moldova goes to the polls on Sunday in the second round of its presidential election, in which incumbent Igor Dodon faces challenger Maia Sandu.

For the background to this election, start with my preview of the country’s last parliamentary election in February last year. That election saw the country split evenly three ways, between the pro-Russian Socialists, the pro-European alliance ACUM, and the Democratic Party, nominally centre-left but more the personal vehicle of oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.

In order to form a government, two of the three had to work together, and the expectation was that Plahotniuc would be able to play the other two off against each other. But surprisingly enough, the Socialists and ACUM reached a deal to lock him out, and Sandu, leader of the centrist component of ACUM, became prime minister.

The deal didn’t last; the Socialists, Dodon’s party, walked out a year ago and the Sandu government fell on a vote of no confidence. The president appointed a technocrat, Ion Chicu, to replace her, and he assembled a government with the support of the Socialists and the Democratic Party.

In the meantime, however, Plahotniuc, facing charges of corruption and money laundering, had fled the country – he is said to be in Turkey, having been made unwelcome in the United States. Without him, the Democratic Party split, with a minority joining the pro-Europeans in opposition. But the Chicu government has managed to soldier on, helped by the rallying effect of the health crisis.

Dodon was elected in 2016, narrowly beating Sandu in the runoff, 52.1% to 47.9%. Now she is trying again; in the first round, held two weeks ago, she led with 36.2% to Dodon’s 32.6%. Populist Renato Usatîi was third on 16.9%; Violeta Ivanov (right-wing pro-Russian) had 6.5% and Andrei Năstase, from the centre-right component of ACUM, was back on 3.3%.

The constant in Moldovan politics is that pro-Russian and pro-European forces are very evenly matched. One opinion poll gives Sandu a narrow lead, 51.5% to 48.5%. Turnout in the first round was only about 41%; as in most places, Covid-19 has made elections difficult. And as is normal in eastern Europe, pro-Russian sentiment is stronger in the poorer countryside, while the westernised and more affluent urban population leans the other way.

Some of the pro-Russian sentiment is ethnic or linguistic in nature; about 15% of the population speak Russian as their first language. (The proportion is much larger in the breakaway eastern district of Transnistria, most of whose residents can also vote in Moldova.) But it is also driven by nostalgia for Soviet times, and by a sort of provincial resentment of Romanian influence.

On the surface, Moldova doesn’t make much sense as a country – there seems no logical reason why it should not rejoin Romania, from which it was detached by the Soviet Union in 1940. But plenty of illogical countries nonetheless survive, and eventually develop an identity of their own. Nearby North Macedonia, which once stood in a similar relationship to Bulgaria as Moldova does to Romania, is an obvious example. Canada and the United States have a similar dynamic on a larger scale.

The powers of the presidency are mostly ceremonial, so the fate of the Chicu government will ultimately depend on what parliament does. But a win for Sandu would be a sign of which way the wind is blowing and a setback for Russian influence in the region.

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