Maia Sandu Is Making a Risky Bet

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The entire process of Moldova’s European integration is jeopardized because of the EU membership referendum which seeks only to re-elect Maia Sandu
Vladimir ROTARI, RTA: The presidential elections set for this autumn, as before, will be largely geopoliticized. The incumbent government itself, in a certain sense, has “set the trend” by announcing a plebiscite on joining the European Union to be held this year. Formally, this idea was devised and voiced by Maia Sandu, and judging by some public reactions and assessments, the initiative indeed has a local character, or comes from the president’s foreign advisers among her entourage. According to the plan, the referendum on European integration probably looked like an almost win-win stake in light of the following factors: - The rapprochement with the EU is on an upward trend due to a series of high-profile political visits and, especially, events, such as: obtaining the candidate status, a big rally in Chisinau, the holding of the European Political Community Summit, the European Commission’s decision to start negotiations and their instant launch just over a week ago; - The referendum agenda is positive because it implies voting for rather than against something. In this case, it is psychologically easier for a person to tick the ballot paper; - The approval rating for EU accession, despite significant fluctuations, does not fall below 50%, which, combined with diaspora votes, guarantees a favorable outcome. We have to note that the presidency did not really have many options that could potentially serve as the headliner of Maia Sandu’s election campaign. The top issues that are of concern to our citizens today are rising prices and poverty, followed by uncertainty about the future, the war in Ukraine, corruption, the gas crisis, and unemployment. We cannot expect rapid progress on either of them within one year, both due to the objective inability to influence the decision, as in the case of the Ukrainian conflict, or due to the lack of internal resources. Simply making promises as in 2020 won’t work as well, since Sandu enters the race already in office. Against this background, European integration looks like a logical solution when a backbone theme is needed in the PR strategy for re-electing the president. However, the idea of popular vote, no matter how nice it looks in theory, seems to be very controversial and frankly risky. Firstly, as our experts assumed, the referendum is conceived as a constitutional one - that is, based on its results there are plans to introduce the provision on Moldova’s European path directly into the basic law. This is not a know-how, as the course towards full membership in the EU and NATO is enshrined, for example, in the Ukrainian constitution. This happened in 2019 and also for electoral reasons. This ambition imposes higher obligations on the results of the referendum, first of all, in terms of turnout. After all, if, say, 60% of voters are in favor of the EU with a turnout of 40%, it will mean that the most important decision on the future of the country will be taken by less than a quarter of the population, which will provide ground to doubts its legitimacy. Realizing this bottleneck, the authorities took a step detrimental to their image by combining the date of the referendum with the presidential election. Why detrimental? Because the well-known Vladimir Plahotniuc had already done so, for which he was criticized, including by representatives of the current regime. Besides, the electoral legislation had to be modified once again, which is not recommended in an election year as per modern democratic practices. The PACE has already voiced its mild criticism about synchronizing two elections on the same day. However, the goal of a higher turnout, which Maia Sandu herself honestly admitted, apparently outweighs the accompanying political damage in the eyes of the presidential team. Secondly, it is too obvious that the referendum is electoral in nature, which in the long run may lead to a complete association of voting in favor of the EU with voting in favor of Sandu. And in this case, the factor of popular approval of the incumbent president may at some point become more crucial than the level of support for European integration with rather unpredictable consequences. We can see how the opposition is already trying to play out this scenario, calling the referendum a fraud and a political manoeuvre that has nothing to do with the real process of European integration. Nevertheless, the authorities do not deviate from the chosen strategy of correlating Sandu and EU accession, which is proved by the fact that the presidency discussed the referendum with the leaders of political parties. Thirdly, the excess of geopolitics in this particular election is disadvantageous шт the sense that such an approach is absolutely inconsistent with what the population expects. Two years have passed since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine and the acute phase of the West-Russia confrontation. Because of the clip nature of the media sphere and its main consumers, even such a global topic cannot keep the focus the audience’s attention for a long time, especially when the latter is experiencing tangible financial and domestic difficulties trying to deal more with the growing domestic problems. This naturally works to discredit the process of European integration itself, as the authorities who promote it cannot ensure better life quality for the population. This creates context for alternative concepts on the country’s political market. First of all, of particular interest is the activity of Ilan Sor, one of the main opponents of the authorities, who recently not only held several meetings with mid-level Russian figures, but also announced the creation of an NGO that will popularize the EAEU in the Moldovan information space. Although this activity does not seem to be particularly promising, it may nevertheless further shake the position of “European integration in the PAS’s version”, which implies cutting ties with the east. Especially since Sor, unlike Maia Sandu, will be able to promise not prosperity in some distant future, but quite tangible and attractive things right now – reduction of gas purchase prices, normalization of trade, attraction of investments. So far, the opposition has no unified opinion on the referendum, which works in authorities’ favor. Some believe that the optimal tactic is to boycott the referendum, while others consider participation in it and protest voting. It can be expected that some of the nominal opponents of the ruling regime will eventually come to a secret agreement with it and, at least, will not interfere with the referendum, and at most – will provide as much assistance as possible in its success. But in case of unfavorable development of events, a coordinated reaction inspired by the chance to “drown” Maia Sandu and her idea, at the same time dealing a fatal blow to the PAS itself in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2025, cannot be ruled out. And then, due to the president’s political ambitions, the whole process of European integration may be affected, because, if not supported by the population, the further course of the republic’s development may be questioned. Perhaps that is why the EU itself, as we can judge, is not too inspired by the idea of the Moldovan president and is gently trying to downplay it in order to mitigate the possible damage. At least, this is how we can construe the statements of the head of the EU delegation to Moldova, Janis Mazeiks, that a second referendum may be required after the end of negotiations with Brussels.