Moldova held snap legislative elections July 11. After a months-long wrangle between Maia Sandu, the pro-Western president elected in November, and the pro-Russian majority in the legislature, new elections were called when the Parliament failed to name a new prime minister.
For voters, corruption ultimately proved the more salient political issue, producing a substantial shift in electoral preferences. The anti-corruption campaign has now supplanted the geopolitical concerns pressed by pro-Russian parties. As a result, Sandu’s party claimed the largest vote gain in the history of the country. The large PAS majority will help safeguard Sandu’s reformist agenda, but much still depends on gaining international support and overcoming domestic institutional barriers.
Why corruption emerged as the top concern
A persistent clash between pro-Russian and pro-Western political blocs has shaped the post-Soviet political history of Moldova. This clash prompted the 1992 secessionist war and has continued to spill over into identity politics. Yet in recent years, concerns about internal corruption began to overshadow geopolitics as the driver of Moldova’s domestic politics.
Moldova is Europe’s least-developed country, in large part because of systemic corruption and “state capture” — when leaders use public institutions and policymaking processes to enrich themselves. In 2019, “super-oligarch” Vlad Plahotniuc, who many Moldovans believe helped siphon off millions of dollars from government coffers, was forced to flee the country after a joint effort by the United States, Russia and the European Union. In 2014, a bank fraud removed a staggering $1 billion from the country’s banking system, the equivalent of 12 percent of Moldova’s gross domestic product.
These acts of corruption have sparked public discontent, and Sandu’s party and its allies have capitalized on it. Sandu’s unique appeal as a technocrat with a spotless reputation, her party’s profile as a genuinely new political force, and tactical mistakes by the Socialists have all contributed to the exceptionally high levels of popularity enjoyed by the PAS.
The PAS has cited the lack of corruption reforms in the past decade to portray Moldova’s political class as inherently corrupt. These claims helped justify substantial efforts to obtain Western foreign aid, including assistance managing the coronavirus pandemic.
The Socialists and their Communist Party allies, in turn, pointed to these efforts as evidence that a win for Sandu’s party would mean that Moldova would lose its sovereignty and become subservient to the West. They accused Sandu of “selling” the country to Western powers. Russia, they argued, is the only trustworthy partner for Moldova.
The Socialist party’s narrative was cultural as well as geopolitical, adopting Russian tropes about “decadent” Western values. This year’s electoral campaign touched on abortion, the “traditional family” and LGBT rights — all controversial topics in Moldova’s deeply conservative society.
Sandu faced an uphill battle for snap elections
Since her election last year as the country’s first female president, Sandu had pushed for snap elections to gain a parliamentary majority to back her reformist agenda. In Moldova’s parliamentary regime, the president has limited powers in the absence of a supportive majority in the legislature.
Under Moldova’s constitution, the president can dissolve the legislature only if it fails to name a new cabinet within 45 days, after at least two consecutive rejected proposals. Sandu’s strategy was to propose two prime minister options that the Socialist majority in the Moldovan Parliament would find objectionable, guaranteeing that the legislature would fail to form a cabinet.
Two elements were essential for this strategy to work. First, Moldova’s Constitutional Court remained resistant to pressure from the Socialist party, which sought to use the court to block Sandu’s efforts. Here’s an example: In May 2020, the court ruled that a large and controversial Russian loan approved by the Socialist legislative majority was unconstitutional.
Second, Sandu’s ability to mobilize both domestic and international support for snap elections proved a critical factor. In the end, sustained pressure from the United States and other international partners that supported Sandu’s strategy — along with strong popular support at home — ensured that snap elections would take place.
What comes next?
Sandu’s landslide victory creates an opportunity for systemic reforms in Moldova, with substantial assistance from international partners. Institutional reform — assessing and modernizing judicial procedures and the public bureaucracy — fighting corruption and boosting economic development are the key issues that will dominate Moldova’s politics.
With the large PAS majority in Parliament, Sandu is now able to put her political agenda into practice by starting an anti-corruption campaign, attracting international investment in the country and reforming government institutions.
But Sandu’s success depends on substantial international assistance. Western partners, especially the European Union and the United States, but also Romania, would need to support Moldova. This means direct infusions of capital to fund structural reforms, as well as foreign direct investment and technical assistance. If Sandu is successful in implementing her agenda, support from the E.U. and the United States could help lock in a pro-Western direction for Moldova.
Marius Ghincea is a doctoral candidate at the European University Institute in Florence. His research agenda focuses on identity and foreign policy, global ordering projects and the European security architecture.
Vlad Iaviță is a London-based freelance journalist. He is a former researcher at the GlobalFocus Centre in Bucharest, with research interests spanning European Union neighborhood policy, hybrid threats and democratization.