On December 13, Moldova’s Constitutional Court validated the election of Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon as head of state, one full month after the November 13 presidential election runoff. The outspokenly pro-Russia candidate Dodon won by an unexpectedly narrow margin, 52 percent versus 48 percent, against the pro-Western, little-known candidate Maia Sandu (see EDM, November 14). The country’s de facto ruler, billionaire Vladimir Plahotniuc, feels seriously threatened by the uncompromising Sandu, but not by Dodon. Therefore Plahotniuc used his media power to ensure Dodon’s victory by attacking Sandu full-blast (see below).
During the one-month presidential interregnum, Plahotniuc has used the parliamentary majority under his control (in his unconstitutional capacity as “coordinator of the parliamentary majority”) to pass a series of laws in rapid succession that reinforce his grip on state institutions.
Sandu and her ally, Andrei Nastase, who gave up his own candidacy in order to support Sandu, are the leaders of two barely nascent parties: the Solidarity Action Party and the Dignity and Truth Party, respectively. Both are, essentially, non-governmental organization (NGO)–type groups, staffed by a small number of enthusiastic dilettantes, with no prior experience in electoral campaigns. They did make mistakes, unavoidable as well as avoidable ones. They had no budget for television spots or billboards. Created exactly one year ago, these parties have not a single village mayor or city council member, and no capacity for patronage. They campaigned on social media and by driving town to town, village to village (the Socialist Party is also effective with this campaign style). Sandu’s and Nastase’s parties had no professional campaign consultant, except one part-time, loaned to the Solidarity Action Party by the European People’s Party (Christian-Democrats’ umbrella club in Brussels). The Jurnal TV channel, affiliated with the Dignity and Truth Party, backed the campaign of Sandu and Nastase, but this channel does not cover the entire country.
Arrayed against them stood Plahotniuc’s media holding, which includes six television channels (four of them with countrywide coverage) and two radio channels, all within the General Media Group (GMC), fully owned by him. This organization has also spawned a network of websites, bloggers and trolls that by now pervade Moldovan media. Dodon’s Socialist Party controls two television channels, allocated to its front companies some months ago, in return for the Socialist Party’s vote in parliament to prolong GMC’s media ownership until 2022.
Those outlets in combination set up a system of black propaganda and fake news. In most cases, the Socialists generated the stories, while GMC’s channels used their much larger power to disseminate such stories. The fabrications included: Maia Sandu has promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel to host 30,000 Syrians in Moldova; and Syrian students already in Moldova welcomed that prospect. Another fake story was that Sandu had accepted funding from the tycoon Ilan Shor, a financial operator under Plahotniuc’s thumb. Made-up news claimed that she caused the suicide of 400 high school students, who failed their graduation exam when Sandu, then education minister, ordered video cameras installed in the exam rooms to prevent cheating. The invented stories continued with: Sandu will close schools and churches. Sandu is unfit as a woman to be president. Sandu has been endorsed by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community and may even be one of them. Some Orthodox Church clerics incriminated Sandu on similar considerations, duly broadcast.
Moldovan and foreign commentators tend to conclude that Moldovan society must be exceedingly backward for such attacks to gain traction. This conclusion has merely a limited validity. In fact, Dodon won only narrowly. His voters were guided by substantive considerations such as Russophilia and deep disenchantment with Moldova’s “pro-Europe” kleptocrats—other than black propaganda. But that type of propaganda apparently influenced just enough voters to lift Dodon over the 50 percent mark in the runoff. In this sense, Dodon literally owes his victory to Plahotniuc.
The most relevant aspect of that abuse is not its effectiveness, but the very fact that it was resorted to, and in such systematic fashion, by the Plahotniuc-Dodon tandem. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights missed this entirely in its morning-after-election report (Osce.org, November 14). GMC’s media holding had targeted Nastase with their first wave of fabrications before he had desisted from the race in Sandu’s favor. When he did, GMC and the Socialists turned their guns on Sandu.
Sandu and Nastase are convinced pro-Westerners, but could not and did not base this campaign on pro-Western slogans. After seven years of nominally pro-European governance aggravating the country’s poverty and dysfunction—which set the stage for Plahotniuc’s state capture—it was impossible to win Moldovan elections under a pro-Europe mantle again. This has generated a pervasive protest mood in Moldova, with all “pro-Europe” parliamentary parties rated in the low single digits, and the candidates of those parties scoring between 2 percent and 3 percent in the first round of this presidential election.
For some of those reasons (and some other ones), a Moldovan electoral campaign based on “standing up to Russia” would guarantee a defeat. Conversely, among countries formerly occupied by Soviet Russia, only in Moldova is a declaratory pro-Russia electoral campaign not only conceivable, but also actually capable of bringing success (the Communist Party in 2001, Dodon’s Socialist Party in 2014, Dodon in the presidential election just held with Plahotniuc’s media help). Moldova has clearly surpassed, for example, Belarus or Armenia in this regard.
For his part and on his own account, Plahotniuc has triggered an unprecedented “anti-oligarch” backlash, bringing upon himself the worst “negative ratings” (the difference between approval and disapproval ratings), consistently at minus 90 percent in public opinion polls.
Given such a political landscape, it was inevitable for Sandu and her ally Nastase to suspend, not the pro-Europe policy agenda, but the “pro-Europe” electoral brand, which have become two different things in this country. Sandu and Nastase declined to position themselves as a “pro-Western” force in an anti-Russia “geopolitical campaign” (by local parlance), or to conduct an “identity-based campaign” (local parlance implying Romanianism versus Moldovanism), or to run as a “right-wing” force against the presumed “left-wing” Dodon (who actually veered with his party toward Vladimir Putin–style “conservatism” in this campaign).
Sandu would not even have reached the runoff, if her and Nastase’s teams had adopted those recommendations. Instead, they built their campaign on combating high-level corruption, freeing state institutions from Plahotniuc’s political control (starting with law enforcement and regulatory agencies), and working to put the derailed European Union–Moldova Association and Free Trade agreements back on track. While steering clear of anti-Russia rhetoric, they never attempted to curry Russia’s favors for Moldova—e.g., reopening access to Russia’s market for Moldovan produce, which the government and Dodon seem desperate to achieve, since Moldova failed to take advantage of the free trade agreement with the EU.
Looking beyond this presidential election, Sandu’s and Nastase’s teams are committed to building their parties—now in their infancy—ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections. But their currently existing resources are almost nil. Moldova’s Western partners need to reassess whether they would continue placing their stakes on Plahotniuc, after the presumed guarantor of stability facilitated the pro-Russia candidate’s rise to the presidency.