Growing Populism Trumps Geopolitical Concerns in Moldova’s Parliamentary Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 26


On Sunday, February 24, the citizens of the Republic of Moldova voted for a new parliament (, February 24). Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assessed the vote as “competitive,” its monitoring mission found that the campaign was nonetheless “tainted by allegations of pressure on public employees, strong indications of vote buying and the misuse of state resources” (, February 25). A number of local observers and electoral contenders were much less measured in their criticism, describing these elections as being the most “undemocratic” (, February 20) and the “most dirty in the history of the country” (, February 24;, February 23). That last phrase has been uttered repeatedly for at least the last three electoral cycles.

Last weekend’s parliamentary elections sent a few important, though non-obvious signals to Moldova’s Western partners, including the European Union and the United States. One of these signals is that the role of the geopolitical West-East divide in the Republic of Moldova is increasingly exaggerated. Many local actors, but also most Western pundits, were inclined to portray elections in Moldova as an epochal clash between Western liberal democracy on one hand and the authoritarian, aggressive Russia on the other. Accordingly, the electoral contenders conveniently acquired simplified, though seriously misleading labels: pro-Western or pro-European versus pro-Russian (IPN, January 28, 2019; Daily Sabah, February 25, 2019;, October 18, 2018;, August 2018).

Some alternatives to geopolitical explanations claimed that widespread corruption is the key issue guiding elections in Moldova, along with poverty (, February 22, 2019). However, the corruption explanation is also misleading. Already in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Moldovan electorate displayed a peculiar behavior—it did not rush to penalize corrupt politicians. Instead, it voted for them, trying to join the corruption networks in a rent-seeking symbiotic adaptation, thus aiming “to compensate for the considerable inefficiencies of a rent-seeking political system overburdened by bureaucracy” (Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 8, 2014).

That situation has greatly deteriorated since then into a somewhat “primitive” (RFE/RL, February 25, 2019) political realm: citizens are targeted for competitive predation by a largely unchecked state bureaucracy backed by questionably attained private money. A significant portion of the Moldovan population (reportedly over 20 percent), including its most entrepreneurial citizens, have already chosen to vote with their feet, leaving the country (, accessed February 26, 2019; Ziarul de Gardă, May 10, 2018;, June 19, 2018). The remaining Moldovan residents have had to adapt and opted to try to rationalize this controlled predation.

Suggestively, Ilan Șor, the Moldovan businessman who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for his role in the $1 billion theft from the Moldovan banking system in 2014 (, June 11, 2018), was allowed to campaign and ended up being elected to the Moldovan parliament. Moreover, the newly created party that he leads, Partidul Șor, received seven seats in the new legislature (, February 25, 2019). Șor became vastly popular in Orhei, a town in central Moldova, where he had earlier been elected mayor and invested money to improve the local infrastructure. He also opened dozens of so-called “social markets” across the country, which sell groceries for slightly reduced prices and are popular among the growing class of pensioners (, January 13, 2018). Many citizens that voted for Șor indicated that all politicians are thieves, but in contrast to them, “Șor at least is sharing with the people” (, February 23, 2018). He is also famous for promising his voters that they will live as if they were in Monaco (, February 25, 2019).

This same patronage-style model was aptly utilized in these elections by the leader of the Democratic Party, the businessman and politician Vlad Plahotniuc. His strategy included exploiting control over local administrations in the regions, putting on concerts and granting gifts to voters (, January 10). Several years ago, Plahotniuc was one of the least popular politicians in Moldova, following a series of corruption scandals. But this Sunday, he won over 72 percent of the vote in his home district. His party also obtained a relatively impressive result, expected to receive some 30 seats in the 101-large legislature. This is just slightly behind the leading Socialist Party, which, according to preliminary counts, is expected to take 35 seats. Given that Șor’s party is a satellite of the Democratic Party, Plahotniuc can expect to gain direct control over 37 votes in the parliament. Another expected 26 seats were obtained by the ACUM electoral bloc (, February 25), which was composed of the extra-parliamentary opposition to the Democratic Party. Observers tend to describe ACUM as genuinely concerned with advancing democratic reforms, though this may only accurately describe a segment of that group.

The role of geopolitics seemed to have been significantly reduced in this latest electoral campaign compared to previous years. Instead, Moldova is setting the trend of populist development in Central and Eastern Europe and progressively transforming into a plutocratic state. As additional evidence, there has been unprecedented voting by inhabitants of separatist Transnistrian region, controlled by Russia. Over 37,000 people from the region voted in Sunday’s elections, predominantly for the Socialist Party (51 percent), Democratic Party (15 percent), Communist Party (10 percent) and Partidul Șor (7 percent). They were transported in an organized fashion to the polling stations on the territory controlled by the Moldovan authorities and were allegedly paid some $20 for casting a ballot (, February 24;, February 25).

From an electoral point of view, the strategic impact of the Transnistrian vote has been minimal. But politically, it was highly symbolic and of key importance. It suggests that Moldovan authorities generally, and the Democratic Party in particular, do not perceive Russian influence as a critical threat. The country’s political leadership is seemingly comfortable exploiting pragmatically instrumentalized deals with Russia in order to consolidate power domestically.