Amidst the PAS defeat in the local elections and a marked decline in Sandu’s personal rating, the looming presidential race is becoming an unpredictable event for her that will surely require resorting to increasingly risky ways to retain power
The second round of local elections once again captured an overall unsuccessful result for the ruling party. It failed to win in any municipality: its candidate Dionisie Ternovschi, who was leading in the first round in Ungheni (the most important settlement on the border with Romania), ended up with only 42% of the votes, losing to the independent Vitalie Vrabie, who was supported by all opposition forces. PAS also lost in 4 out of 6 district centers, and won in only 5 of them in total, far behind, for instance, Socialists.
PAS continues to manipulate the figures, paying attention only to the indicators that are convenient for itself, hiding the sad overall picture. Thus, Speaker Igor Grosu thanked for the support of 310 primars, 360 district councilors and more than 3 thousand local councilors from the PAS party (which was ensured largely due to administrative resources, minor violations of the electoral code and poaching of opposing party members), admitting that there is a lot of work to be done and it is necessary to “move forward towards a European Moldova”. Meanwhile, the scarce local assets will be a significant problem for the regime, especially if the opposition consolidates and in case of external shocks.
A long-awaited electoral pause is coming after the local elections, which, however, does not cancel serious tests for the current authorities in the short term. In just a few weeks, in December, the Council of the European Union will vote on the European Commission’s report and the launch of negotiations on Moldova’s EU membership. While in November Chisinau received a number of encouraging signals from various Western emissaries who frequently visited the capital, the media systematically published critical notes about Kyiv. The synchronization will be unambiguous, as has been repeatedly stated by representatives of our leadership, including the speaker of parliament, Igor Grosu. It is difficult to predict what will outweigh - Ukrainian problems or absolute Moldovan loyalty.
Besides, the country faces a traditionally difficult winter period, which we enter prepared only theoretically. Of course, a long-term contract has been signed for the purchase of electricity from the left bank of the Dniester, there are substantial reserves of natural gas in Ukrainian and Romanian storage facilities and access to the European Union’s gas and energy infrastructure, firewood has been prepared, tariffs for public utilities have been established and the mechanism for providing compensation to the population has been tested.
However, there is no absolute certainty as for the absence of possible risks. For example, we cannot rule out new Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. In addition, there is an obvious crisis in relations with PJSC Gazprom over the historical debt for natural gas supplies to the right bank (Moscow expectedly does not recognize the results of the external audit). There is also a controversy with Tiraspol, which controls the execution of the electricity supply contract. It continues to complain about the restriction of its industrial products’ exports and the government’s plans to charge environmental fees to businesses on the left bank of the Dniester, accusing Chisinau of economic blockade. All of this, even single, could seriously adjust the government’s plans.
The aggravation of the socio-economic crisis during the winter period or delays in the start of EU accession negotiations amidst joining the anti-Russian sanctions packages and severing ties with the CIS could become a huge problem for the regime and negatively affect Maia Sandu’s re-election prospects. The implementation of a highly dubious and clearly discriminatory threat to cut off funding to localities that do not support PAS and its vision of European integration will only undermine the president’s position at the regional level. Although, despite the anti-democratic and unconstitutional nature of such methods, there is no doubt that they may indeed be resorted to.
In general, the president approaches 2024 with much less electoral capital and trust rating than 4 years ago. On the other hand, there are no strong rivals among the prominent politicians today either. Support for Igor Dodon has collapsed after a series of criminal charges and collusion with a variety of political forces, including Maia Sandu’s party. The opposition is shattered and hardly ready to put forward a single compromise figure. Many might be satisfied with former Prime Minister Ion Chicu, but his political project did not perform well in the snap parliamentary and current local elections.
Meanwhile, the coming year may bring surprises in line with current trends. For instance, the emergence of new faces in Moldovan politics. On Sunday, the second round of elections in Argentina was won by Javier Milei, a ticktocker, populist and libertarian, who promises to abolish the national currency, dissolve the central bank and many ministries.
In neighboring Ukraine, the head of state is a former actor who, a year before the election, has not even considered running. Across the Prut, the “anti-establishment”, a party project of populist parliamentarian George Simion, once known for storming the border with Moldova and even being banned from entering the country, is gaining popularity. We also have well-known artists, sportsmen and public figures with impeccable apolitical reputation, who, if desired, can be “promoted” to the level of a competitive political figure within a year.
The emergence of a serious opponent, be it a unified opposition candidate or a new “savior of the republic”, will be a fatal problem for Maia Sandu, which will put her in a dilemma - how to simultaneously preserve power and the illusion of democracy in the country.
The incumbent president will probably have only two options. The first is to return parliamentary elections, as was the case during the Communist Party’s rule. The PAS parliamentary majority is sufficient both to implement the relevant legislative changes and to vote in favor of Maia Sandu’s candidacy. However, the president herself has repeatedly rejected this option, which played a cruel trick on PCRM and Vladimir Voronin.
The second option is the imposition of martial law. Moldova has been living in a state of emergency for 4 years already, which allows the authorities to implement numerous controversial and frankly anti-democratic decisions. For example, the experience of neighboring Ukraine, where Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite pressure from Western countries, cancelled the presidential election because according to the Ukrainian constitution it is illegal to hold it during hostilities. This will allow Zelenskyy to retain power and not to take risks in conditions of a significant drop in his personal rating (unless there is a coup d'état in Ukraine, which was initially discussed in the president’s office).
For such a scenario, Maia Sandu may not even launch a direct armed conflict on the Dniester. It would be enough to withdraw from the 1992 ceasefire agreement, declare that Moldova is at war with Russia and continue to demand that the peacekeeping mission be cancelled and that all troops and military equipment be withdrawn. Of course, the people, by voting in the local elections, clearly demonstrated their rejection of the current regime’s militaristic plans. But, after all, the population has never been asked by anyone in power.