What Can Improve Maia Sandu and the Ruling Party’s Rating in 2023?

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Anton Shvec
The incumbent authorities are rapidly losing domestic support, although the political system remains quite stable. Will the president, the government and the PAS party be able to reverse the negative trend this year?
2023 promises to be the second consecutive year without regular or snap national (parliamentary or presidential) elections.  The country hasn’t witnessed such a political “calm” for quite a long time. In fact, the current regime, non-coalitional for the first time in many years, has a unique carte blanche to carry out its program and move the state “towards a brighter future”. Another significant factor is the unconditional external aid from the West, not only diplomatic or informational, but also financial and organizational. Yet, the authorities’ critical mistakes in economic and energy management and in personnel policy, along with their refusal to have a trust-based dialogue with the public and to heed all opinions, seem to undermine the ruling regime. Numerous cases of arbitrariness and illegal political actions (e.g., stolen elections in Balti, arrests of opposition activists, laws passed without popular support, shutdown of media with alternative views) lead to public disappointment and increased protest moods. Slow and politicized reforms, inadequate appointments and rhetoric that does not mirror sentiments of a significant part of society, corruption and diplomatic tourism of the country’s top leadership breed dissatisfaction and distrust among the people. The ratings of the president, the government, and the ruling party have been in steady decline for many months. Polling services unaffiliated with the opposition parties confirm that. The Public Opinion Barometer and IMAS even state that the president has lost the leading positions in the approval ratings. Even the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), which still ranks them at the top, admits a huge drop in the level of support over the past year and a half. Criticism in the pro-government media, including those funded by Western donors, is an indirect sign that the incumbent authorities’ position is weakening. Also, it can be partly explained by attempts to satisfy public demand after the closure of TV channels and blocking of Internet resources associated with opposition parties or those with pro-Russian (as authorities believe) content. The authorities cannot but be concerned about the rather paradoxical rating growth of some opposition politicians, first of all, Ilan Sor and Chisinau mayor Ion Ceban, and emergence of Romania- and U.S.-backed would-be electoral competitors on the right wing. The next presidential election is not on the horizon, but reversing these dangerous trends is becoming an increasingly urgent task for the government and the president. Opposition protests also create certain difficulties for the regime, since they, at the very least, adversely affect the ratings and form an unflattering picture of low popular support. Despite the vacation period of the opponents, the reasons for discontent are objective, and the substantial sociopolitical basis for rallies persists. Of course, the protests do not pose a real threat to the government and will not produce revolutionary change, as they have no external legitimacy. Western countries support Maia Sandu and her team, even impose sanctions against some representatives of Moldova, making life easier and repressive arsenal of power wider. In turn, Russia, with its certain pressure on Chisinau in the energy sector, has never supported coups d'état in the CIS zone as a method of political action. So the government can feel quite confident in terms of retaining power and the inability of society or the opposition to significantly adjust the country’s domestic and foreign policy course. However, this increases not only controllability, but also responsibility: any dissatisfaction with the worsening socio-economic situation is directed exclusively against the current leadership – the president, the government and the parliament. To improve the plummeting rating and approach the 2024 and 2025 elections fully armed, the regime needs concrete, measurable results and their positive assessment by society. Among the major challenges are: 1. Improved economic environment and welfare of the population Forecasts show that Moldova after the 2022 recession will experience an approximately 1.5% economic growth. At the same time, despite donor financial injections, the budget deficit will worsen, and will exceed 6%. This optimistic projection does not take into account numerous risks, primarily in the field of security and energy; moreover, such a growth rate will hardly satisfy the electorate. 2. Curbing Inflation According to the national bureau of statistics, last year was an inflationary disaster for the country, with an average price increase of over 30% over the year. In particular, utilities, electricity, food and fuel soared (by 95%, 168%, almost 32% and about 36% respectively). Minimum wage increases in some sectors of the economy and government compensation of utility rates could not save the most disadvantaged segments of the population from impoverishment. The government expects an inflation rate of 15.7% for the coming year, which significantly exceeds, for example, the intention to index pensions and benefits. Thus, even according to the government’s plans, public real income will continue to decline this year. 3. Greater export opportunities for domestic enterprises The geography of diplomatic contacts between Moldova’s leadership and the MFAEI is vast, but political tourism is not converted into broader, lucrative trade and economic ties of the state. On the contrary, the talks about terminating our country’s membership in the CIS, and constantly deteriorating relations with Moscow cut off business from a number of promising markets, with no clear vision of where to re-orientate. 4. Enhanced Security This question is controversial and has at least two answers – security can be ensured by consolidating the constitutional principle of neutrality or by reinforcing the national army. As a matter of principle, the political elite has chosen the second one. Igor Grosu and Maia Sandu quite openly question the inviolability of Moldovan neutrality. The army’s financing has been increased, international support is attracted, in the form of money, equipment and armaments, and international military exercises are constantly underway. However, no investment will allow us to make a rapid qualitative breakthrough (recently published international surveys ranked our army third from the bottom in the world list) and to become able to self-defense even if the Transdniestrian conflict is internationalized. This list of tasks is obviously not exhaustive, but without success in these sectors, a further decline in the ratings and electoral prospects of the authorities is inevitable. There comes a time when the government, the president and the parliament must roll up their sleeves and work on economic, security and social well-being issues. Should the regime again choose to focus on geopolitics, slogans, inadequate reshuffling of personnel, and intra-corporate struggles, the future of the current elite will be seriously questioned.