Moldova: A Pivotal Election?

Moldova's presidential election, on October 30 and November 13, 2016, has occurred at a challenging time for this small state located between Romania and Ukraine. In the second round of the election, the Russian-leaning Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon won 52% of the vote and his competitor, former Minister of Education (and former World Bank economist) Maia Sandu, received 48%.

This is the first time since 1996 that Moldova's president was elected by popular vote. Dodon has pledged to unite the country's divided voters, but he has limited powers in Moldova's largely parliamentary system. It remains to be seen whether Dodon will strike an accord with Moldova's unpopular but nominally pro-Western government or will use the powers of his newly elected office to rebalance Moldova more squarely between Russia and the West.


Moldova faces an array of challenges related to its post-Soviet heritage and efforts to balance Western integration and good relations with Russia. Since independence in 1991, Moldova has coped with the secession of Transnistria, a Russian-backed territory with some 15% of the country's population and a substantial but faltering industrial base. Moldova also confronts high rates of out-migration and recurring Russian bans against wine and other agricultural imports.

In recent years, Moldova has suffered from a protracted crisis of governance. From 2001 to 2009, the country was run by a reformed Communist Party. In a contentious election, pro-Western forces then prevailed, but infighting, corruption, and popular protest gradually weakened their authority. Since 2013, four pro-Western ruling coalitions collapsed in succession, the last time as fallout from a massive bank fraud involving the alleged disappearance of $1 billion, equivalent to more than 12% of Moldova's 2014 gross domestic product. The scandal resulted in the imprisonment of Vlad Filat, a former prime minister once popular in the West who presided over the initial pro-Western coalition from 2009 to 2013.

The government that came to power in January 2016 also claims a pro-Western mantle, but its many opponents believe it primarily represents the interests of unpopular local oligarch (and longtime Filat rival) Vladimir Plahotniuc. Although Filat is the only senior official to have been sentenced for the bank fraud, his supporters view his imprisonment as politically motivated and as the culmination of his feud with Plahotniuc.

Public confidence in Moldova's governing institutions was at historic lows before the election. Polls commissioned by the U.S. International Republican Institute indicated that some 80% of Moldovans believed the country was heading in the wrong direction and were dissatisfied with its democratic development. Almost 90% thought corruption was a major problem.

Presidential Election

The presidential election is an indirect consequence of the bank scandal. Anticorruption protests in January 2016 called for reforms, including direct presidential elections. Moldova's parliament had elected the president since 2001, but in March 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that the establishment of indirect elections had violated procedures. Some Moldovan observers considered the new decision to be questionable on procedural grounds but recognized that it accommodated a key demand of the opposition.

Moldovans may be united in their assessment of the country's current state, but they have been divided with regard to the solution. Broadly speaking, two distinct constituencies have emerged. As reflected in the election, the more conservative, Russian-leaning constituency dominates; its candidate was Dodon, who broke with the Communists in 2011. Dodon's Socialists narrowly won Moldova's 2014 parliamentary elections, but pro-Western parties collectively won more seats to retain power. Dodon consistently campaigned on a pro-Russian platform, including holding a referendum to withdraw from Moldova's Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). Dodon also campaigned against "European" values and cited Russian President Vladimir Putin as a role model.

Maia Sandu, founder of the new Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), represented a more liberal, Western-leaning constituency. Initially, candidates from several pro-Western parties planned to compete, risking fragmentation of their vote. Ultimately, two candidates withdrew to publicly back Sandu: protest leader Andrei Nastase and, unexpectedly, former Speaker of Parliament Marian Lupu, who represented the current government but withdrew days before the first-round election. Sandu publicly rejected Lupu's endorsement, due to Sandu's suspicion that the government preferred Dodon's victory and was actually seeking to tarnish her reputation. Although Sandu came in second nationwide, she won Chisinau, Moldova's capital, with 61% of the vote.

As president, Dodon will have limited powers and will need to govern in tandem with the current government, at least for now. Dodon does not have the ability to singlehandedly scrap the EU Association Agreement, and Prime Minister Pavel Filip has said that Moldova's integration with the West "cannot be reversed." However, in one of his first postelection promises, Dodon said he would do all he can to achieve early parliamentary elections that would bring down the government.

Issues for Congress

Together with Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova has been one of three post-Soviet states most committed to Western integration. This is reflected through Moldova's EU Association Agreement, which includes free trade provisions, and a visa-free agreement. Moldova has neutral status and does not seek membership in NATO. However, it enjoys close cooperation with NATO, which launched a Defense and Related Security Capacity Building package for Moldova in June 2015.

Congress has been supportive of Moldova's Western trajectory. U.S. foreign assistance to Moldova has exceeded $1.4 billion since 1992. In 2014, Congress welcomed the establishment of a U.S.-Moldovan Strategic Dialogue, encouraged increased assistance, and called for greater security and intelligence cooperation (S.Res. 500, H.Res. 562). Congress also passed legislation to provide a "surge" in U.S. international broadcast programming in Moldova (as well as in Ukraine and Georgia) "to counter misinformation from Russian-supported news outlets" (P.L. 113-96, P.L. 113-272). In FY2015, Moldova received $11.25 million in Foreign Military Financing funds through the European Reassurance Initiative.

Given Moldova's crisis of governance and the rise of a pro-Russian president, some may wonder about the future of Moldova's pro-Western agenda. These recent developments suggest that Moldova's engagement with the West is still fragile. Shoring up the country's determination and ability to stay the course may require some new thinking.