Maia Sandu’s victory in the second round of Moldova’s presidential elections has been widely celebrated in Western media as a “defeat for another ‘Trumpian’ populist”, a “blow to the Kremlin”, a triumph for women, and an endorsement of democracy, of a pro-EU foreign policy, and for the winning candidate’s anti-corruption agenda. It represents a reversal of Sandu’s fortunes from four years ago when she was defeated by Dodon and from the fall of her short-lived coalition government a year ago. With few irregularities reported by the OSCE ODIHR observer mission and Putin’s acknowledgement of Sandu’s victory, all the signs point to an orderly transition of power between Dodon and Sandu.
But will it matter, and if so in what way? On the one hand, one could argue that there now appears to be a solid majority for a pro-European, pro-Western course in Moldova, one that will involve a new anti-corruption drive, and one that may pave the way for a genuinely balanced foreign policy charting a more stable course for Europe’s poorest country which has been torn between Russia and the West for the better part of the past three decades.
Such a view clearly has some merit. Sandu won the second round with almost 58% of the vote compared to Dodon’s 42%, according to preliminary results published by the country’s Central Electoral Commission. Sandu vowed to strengthen ties with the EU, ran on an outspoken anti-corruption platform, and acknowledged the need for constructive dialogue with Russia. If she were able to live up to these commitments, the long-term benefits for Moldova would be obvious. The EU is the country’s largest donor and most important trade partner. Corruption has been endemic and systemic, illustrated not only by the ‘theft of the century’ but also more widely reflected in a generally weak commitment to the rule of law. Russia remains an important player in and for Moldova, not least because of its role in the Transnistrian conflict settlement process.
On the other hand, Sandu will face an uphill battle in implementing her agenda. Constitutionally, Moldova is a parliamentary republic where most power is vested in a government which requires a parliamentary majority to be elected. While Sandu may be able to call early parliamentary elections, a stable coalition government supporting her agenda is far from certain. Sandu only won 36% in the first round of the presidential elections. The Moldovan party system is heavily fragmented, especially in the centre-right spectrum. Moreover, with much of Moldovan politics being personality-driven, animosity and sometimes outright hostility between party leaders will make any coalition difficult to negotiate, requiring compromises, and unlikely to last a full parliamentary term.
Strengthening ties with the EU should be in the mutual interest of both Moldova and the EU, but expectations of what exactly that entails may not exactly be the same. While everything in Sandu’s track record suggests that her commitment to reform is genuine, as opposed to mostly self-styled pro-European parties and politicians in the past, she may find it difficult to deliver on EU expectations—partly because of the deep-seated structural nature of many of Moldova’s problems, partly because of a divergence between EU demands for quick root-and-branch reforms and Moldovan needs for rapid and substantial support for, and patience with, such a comprehensive reform process.
Managing relations with Russia will be equally important, and perhaps more difficult. While Sandu won almost one-and-a-half times as many votes as Dodon (943,006 to 690,615), there remains a sizeable part of the Moldovan electorate that was more attracted by Dodon’s vision of foreign policy than Sandu’s. Moreover, the margin of Sandu’s victory among people living in Moldova is much smaller, below 30,000 votes. This part of the electorate, and by extension, their current and future parliamentary representatives, will need to be brought on board if Sandu is to succeed. She herself has acknowledged as much when she pledged to unite the country.
Striking the right balance between strengthening ties with the EU and establishing and maintaining a constructive relationship with Russia will also be important in relation to the protracted conflict over Transnistria. While practically no closer to a settlement than it was at the time when Russia mediated a ceasefire agreement in 1992, the conflict has reached a stable status quo. The 5+2 settlement process, including its associated 3+2, 1+1, and Working Group formats, has made relatively limited progress over the past two years but remains the only viable format for negotiations.
With the EU and Russia both, at least rhetorically, committed to progress on a settlement but with no clear articulation on what such a settlement should entail, Sandu will find herself between several rocks and hard places. She and her team will have to formulate a clear vision of a future settlement that will have bipartisan support across the political spectrum in Moldova, will be acceptable to Transnistria, and will be backed, or at least not be undermined, by external stakeholders. Given how difficult this will be to achieve, there needs to be a credible Plan B of how to maintain the current stable status quo in ways that do not preclude the possibility of a future settlement that preserves a viable Moldovan state.
So, what is next for Moldova? Sandu’s election as Moldovan president clearly represents an opportunity for Moldova, but one that is neither cost- nor consequence-free. Her election alone does not do away with the country’s divisions and a geopolitical environment that has, in significant part, fostered them. Nor does her victory alone resolve the many deep and entrenched structural problems that Moldova has faced for many years and that have inhibited its social, economic, and political development.
Overcoming these problems is, ultimately, a task that only Moldovans can accomplish, but they cannot do it alone. Merely rejoicing in the defeat of Dodon is not a viable strategy for Moldova’s Western partners. Sandu needs concrete support to deliver on her promises. Such support needs to address the problems that Moldova has been facing at home for a long time, as well as the geopolitical context in which they have been allowed to fester and grow.
The ultimate test for Sandu will be whether she can sustainably improve the lives of all Moldovans, whether they have voted for her on 15 November or not. For different reasons, all of her predecessors have failed in this regard, but if Sandu manages to become the president of a country rather than of an interest group within it, she may yet succeed.