It is a divided country facing a bitter election campaign against a backdrop of fake news, allegations of corruption and Russian meddling in the political process.
But this is not the United States, it is Moldova, a country of 3.5 million people sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and - like much of eastern Europe and the Balkans - two spheres of influence, Brussels on the one hand and Moscow on the other.
On November 1, Moldovans will vote on who they want to be their next president. Among the candidates is President Igor Dodon, seeking a second term in office, and rival Maia Sandu, a pro-European former prime minister who only lost to Dodon in 2016 by around 70,000 votes.
Over the past few weeks, Euronews has spoken to Sandu about her hopes for Moldova. Dodon declined an interview but spoke to us in February in Chisinau. Meanwhile, we have looked at allegations of Russian meddling and the prospects for Dodon in the upcoming poll.
And here, we outline what you need to know about the November 1 poll, a critical and divisive battle not just between two candidates but between two very different visions for Moldova.
Who is running?
The election is being presented as a two-horse race, but like a lot of European states, presidential elections in Moldova are fought over two rounds.
A total of 12 candidates will appear on ballot papers come November 1, ten of them for political parties and two as independents. The most recent polling has Dodon on 20% and Sandu on 18%, with the other candidates all taking between 7% and 1% of the vote.
But that headline figure could actually mask a better result for Sandu, as she is being challenged in the first round by a number of pro-European candidates. If she goes to the second round, those voters will likely shift to her rather than to Dodon.
Dodon, meanwhile, has only one ideological rival in the first round, Renato Usatîi, who is a pro-Russian populist leader. He is polling relatively well, at around 7%, and those voters are likely to jump into the Dodon camp if, as expected, the president makes it to the second round.
What are the major issues?
Sandu and Dodon have very different visions for the future of Moldova and who her allies should be.
Dodon’s base is amongst Moldova’s Russian-speaking minority, as well as with Moldovan nationalists, and is close to Moscow. Sandu attracts more liberal, Western-facing Moldovans who speak Romanian and would like to see the country join the European Union.
Sandu is also popular with the between 1.2 and 2 million Moldovans who live overseas, many of them working in the EU and driven out by poverty, corruption and a dire lack of prospects in their home nation. A massive 81% of overseas voters in 2018 voted for Sandu.
But this time around, say analysts, the Russia vs. Europe dynamic that has arguably defined every election in Moldova for two decades has been overshadowed by COVID-19 and the devastating economic fallout of the measures designed to restrict it.
“The election campaign is similar to that fought by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, namely: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’,” said Radu Magdin, CEO of Smartlink Communications in Bucharest.
COVID-19 has been “a game-changer,” he said, “because what we are seeing in the polls as well as from speaking to Moldovans is concern about the economic consequences of the virus.”
And when it comes to the economy, most Moldovans see the best prospects with Europe rather than with Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union. Since Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, 70% of Moldovan exports have gone to European markets.
What’s the background?
Moldovan politics has see-sawed between two visions, Russia and the West, for at least two decades, ruled by the Communist Party between 2000 and 2009 and then by coalitions of pro-European parties until 2019, headed on three occasions by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.
In 2019, Plahotniuc was accused of corruption, ousted from power and fled Moldova. In the vacuum, Moldova was ruled by a grand coalition that featured both Dodon and Sandu.
But that coalition was short-lived, and Dodon and his party dropped out, governing alongside the remnants of Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party (PDM) since October 2019.
Plahotniuc’s shadow still hovers over Moldovan politics, even as the man himself is holed up in the US fighting extradition on fraud charges. It can be both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, Plahotniuc’s allies and friends in Moldova remain an important political force, on the other association with corruption plays badly with the country’s voting public, particularly the poor.
What are the predictions?
It is going to be close. Dodon himself predicts that between 100,000 and 120,000 votes could win it for him. Many of these votes could come from two groups currently not in Moldova, Moldovans living in Russia and - more controversially - in the breakaway region of Transnistria.
Moldova’s election commission, the CEC, recently announced that 17 polling stations would be opened inside Russia to enable Moldovans living there to vote, significantly more than the eight that were in operation during the last election in 2016.
A total of 60,029 Moldovans have registered to vote abroad, the CEC said, with 6,202 from Russia - that is 11 times the number that voted in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
In February 2019, 37,000 voters were bussed in from Transnistria, a breakaway region that has a sizable Russian military presence, to support pro-Kremlin parties, including Dodon’s. Sandu told Euronews earlier this month that she expects similar tactics to be employed this year.
“Dodon organised and bought votes in the Transnistrian region - this is the breakaway region - and we had plenty of evidence in the press about the fact that people were organised and transported and they were paid for votes,” she said.
At the same time, those overseas voters that supported Sandu in droves in 2016 may find it harder to vote in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions in countries like the UK and France.
“This is bad news for Sandu,” Magdin told Euronews.
What about the comparisons to Belarus?
For some of his opponents, Dodon is compared to Alexander Lukashenko, whose win in the recent elections in Belarus was mired by massive vote-rigging and who has shown his willingness to use force to retain power even in the face of massive popular protest.
Sandu used Belarus as a warning to Dodon in an interview with Euronews earlier this month, arguing that the weeks of protest there following Lukashenko’s win proved that there was “zero tolerance for the fraud of the popular will”.
But Belarus is also used by Dodon and his supporters, who have warned that the US and the EU will use the election to organise a revolution on the stress of Moldova and seize power for the opposition, much as Lukashenko sees the Belarus protests as orchestrated abroad.
Voting for Dodon, they say, will ensure that these outside influences - including, of course, the perennial bogey man of the authoritarian right, billionaire philanthropist George Soros - will fail in their efforts to win Moldova for the West.
What about fake news?
Moldova’s media scene is dominated by pro-Russian media, which primarily supports Dodon. But like in other countries it is the unregulated media, such as social media, that was used to influence voters in 2016 and is again being used in 2020.
In 2016, Sandu was targeted by unsubstantiated claims that she had struck a deal with Angela Merkel to allow thousands of migrants into Moldova. This year, rumours have circulated that she is in cahoots with George Soros.
Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this month that Dodon’s party had “directly copied the Kremlin’s official tactics” and “develop[ed] a complex ecosystem of trolls and fake news outlets.”
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