Presidential Elections-2024: Preliminary Balance of Forces

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Sergiu CEBAN
While the presidential elections are still far away, many signs indicate that the headquarters of all potential candidates have already started preparations for a protracted election campaign
In the coming months, political observers will mainly focus on preparations for local elections. Many consider them as the main warm-up before the decisive electoral struggle next autumn - the presidential elections. Undoubtedly, the local elections outcome will reveal the key trends in Moldovan political life and will allow the main figures to set up their electoral programs and join the race for the position of the head of state. The main trend that the ruling party has failed to reverse over the past six months is the rapid loss of ratings and support from both the citizens and pro-European opinion leaders. Thus, it is almost certain that PAS is rapidly heading towards failure in the local elections. Against the backdrop various opinions are voiced about a plan to postpone local elections to a later date, up to holding them in parallel with the presidential elections, in a possibly more favorable geopolitical context. To some people, speculations about the rivalry for the post of the country’s leader may seem very premature, but there are many signs that the election headquarters of all potential candidates have already started preparations for a protracted presidential campaign. Obviously, the situation will become clear after the political figures are tested in local elections. On the other hand, the main group of contenders is already well known which allows to draw an approximate balance of forces. Maia Sandu remains the main candidate for the presidential post. A poor result for PAS in the autumn elections will of course have a negative impact on her rating, and may affect the outcome of the 2024 presidential elections. But despite the ruling party’s results, Sandu, one way or another, will be forced into the presidential race to help her formation gain a foothold in the new parliament following the 2025 elections. Maia Sandu’s refusal to get involved in a knowingly losing campaign would instantly mean recognizing the defeat of the ruling party with the subsequent demise of the latter. The biggest challenge for Maia Sandu’s team and electoral headquarters is that while in 2020 the current head of state went to the polls on a wave of positive socio-political expectations, now she will face a storm of criticism for all the failures of PAS and the government. After all, even in spite of the reduced presidential powers, the current regime is personally associated with Sandu. The final decision to (or not to) participate will likely depend on how the relations with the European Union will develop. That is, whether Brussels decides to open accession negotiations with our country. Such a development could be a solid reason for another four-year mandate for Sandu. If the circumstances are different and the issue of EU accession is frozen, the participation of the current president in the elections may be deprived of political expediency. There is an opinion that the height of Maia Sandu’s rating is not so much related to her personal successes as to the lack of worthy opponents in the pro-European wing. If we talk about an alternative pro-European candidate, then, despite all the nuances, the most suitable person for this role is Vlad Filat, who is actively criticizing the authorities, exploring the Unionist trend and, likely, preparing to challenge his former team member. With each passing month, the ex-premier’s lust for political rehabilitation becomes more and more noticeable, while image-makers successfully dress him up as an experienced and highly motivated politician, under whom Moldova made a qualitative pro-European breakthrough. Renato Usatii also announced his presidential ambitions recently. At the last election in 2020, he took a confident third place, so it is likely that the former mayor of Balti has intentions to build on his success. By all indications, a group of experienced political experts already works with him, developing his election program, organically fitting it into Usatii’s flashy image. According to his statements, the voter will be offered a rather radical populist agenda with a complete reset of the political system and the country itself. Most likely, the former mayor of Balti is probing the electoral soil and offering himself to solvent financial groups that consider the possibility of a promising investment to secure certain positions in Moldovan politics. We cannot rule out the involvement of the current mayor of Chisinau, Ion Ceban, who is still perceived as a “dark horse”, in the future presidential campaign. Despite launching his own political project, Ceban tries to disguise his ambitions so that the people from Chisinau do not think that the mayor uses the capital as a springboard to the Moldovan Olympus. Therefore, to begin with, the mayor’s team is focused on winning in the capital, where a fierce struggle with the ruling party candidate is expected. The Socialist leader Igor Dodon has also started to voice his electoral intentions, in order not to fade into oblivion and lose everything twice. It is expected that he will make the final decision on his possible candidacy based on the opinion of people. Of course, the ex-president wants to go to the polls, as in the old days, with the support from Moscow expecting that his Russian comrades will not decide on a new candidate and will have to choose him as a “proven option”. Kremlin strategists, obviously, have repeatedly demonstrated their “unique ability” to make the dumbest decisions and force themselves to a dead end. However, this time there is a feeling that Moscow will under no circumstances bet on the systematic loser Dodon, who in recent years has managed to lose presidential, parliamentary and then Gagauz elections. Most likely, Moscow is in active search of a new figure who could offer the Moldovan electorate an attractive alternative program. The ex-bashkan of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, is also considered to be among main contenders for the presidential position, and it is on her that Moscow could place its main bet. So far Vlah has not announced her claims for the post of the president, but she obviously has plans to enter the major league. For this purpose, the former head of Gagauzia prepares to launch her own party, which will likely take part in local elections. Perhaps, during the election campaign and after the local elections, it will become clearer what exactly Irina Vlah will offer to the Moldovan electorate, what her views and benchmarks are, who is in her team, from which it will be possible to judge what components her presidential program could consist of. Although the powers of the first person of state are limited, there is a strong stereotype in the political life of the country that this position has an important symbolic significance. For this, various forces, including those in foreign capitals, prioritize next year’s presidential elections. According to experts, Maia Sandu’s defeat will lead not so much to the loss of the ruling party’s powers as to the moral and political defeat of the pro-European regime in Moldova, which will inevitably affect the results of subsequent parliamentary elections. We cannot rule out that in order to prevent Sandu from being ousted and to fasten her with a “seatbelt” in the presidential chair, PAS may, among other things, amend the Constitution and return the procedure of electing the head of state in the parliament. But what if this decision become a sign of political decline and impending demise of the current ruling party?