Will Sandu Face an Unexpected Opponent?

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Sergiu CEBAN
At first glance, the preparatory stage of the presidential election is moving towards a third battle between Sandu and Dodon. However, it is too early to talk about key candidates - there is still room for electoral surprises and extraordinary scenarios
Preparations for the autumn presidential election are in full swing. At the same time, unlike the main candidate, the incumbent head of state, her potential rivals are still only looking for the right moment to enter the electoral path. The lack of any certainty on the opposition flank suggests that there is still some fuss over the nomination of a single candidate, but the chances of finding a compromise are vanishing from day to day. The overall situation in the country, the economy and domestic politics is rather grave. By the end of Sandu’s first term, European investors are gradually leaving Moldova, major enterprises are shutting down by turns, and the ruling party is blocking undesirable media outlets one by one. The endless sequence of scandals each time draws in new faces. This time the so-called “European Viking”, a member of the Pre-Vetting Commission Herman von Hebel, responsible for checking the integrity and ethics of Moldovan judges and prosecutors, fell under the barrage of criticism. As it turned out, the Dutch lawyer was himself involved in several high-profile cases of financial damage. The authorities’ struggle with their main opponents, namely the cancelled Sor party, continues to fail and risks to turn into big problems ahead of the presidential race. For example, the day before the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the amendments to the Election Code made by the PAS, which prohibited members of the banned Sor party from running for office. This is not just another tactical victory for Sor, but also a factor for the Kremlin’s increased interest in him. While the opposition camp is deep in thought, Maia Sandu is trying to outrun and follow the set plan of her electoral campaign. The head of state is increasingly meeting with a carefully prepared public, as well as visiting places where she could not be seen before, for instance, in an Orthodox church. A look at the latest opinion polls shows it is not so much Sandu’s status as the main favorite that draws attention, but rather the fact that 59% of respondents believe that it would be better if another person took her place. An equally important indicator of citizens’ political preferences is the 45% of respondents who are inclined to support a candidate with a balanced foreign policy course. Thus, our society is showing a demand to reduce confrontational attitudes in relations with the East, primarily Russia. Maia Sandu’s current political programme and electoral profile, to put it mildly, do not fit into such voter expectations. Reports by the Russian media about the high disapproval rating of Maia Sandu in comparison with other Moldovan politicians did not go unnoticed either. This can be construed as a smooth inclusion of Russian media in the electoral race and targeted attacks on Sandu, as well as messages that the Kremlin sends to Chisinau. It is quite possible that Moscow tries to show that it is systematically “assessing” Sandu, while her entourage is either hiding some of the empirical data or providing her with unreliable information. Sandu’s electoral headquarters understands that it will not be possible to mobilize voters and the diaspora as in 2020. Moreover, various socio-political forces continue to band together in order to get involved in the parliamentary election campaign. In other words, the political spectrum is structuring and it is hardly possible to gather it under the banners of Maia Sandu, especially after the president and PAS have ignored everyone over the past years. Therefore, the president’s political technologists have no other choice but to try to guarantee Sandu’s victory with all kinds of tricks, postal voting and other electoral fraud. The only non-system politician who can upset plans is, of course, Renato Usatii. Having failed in his attempt to launch the chain of protests, the ex-mayor of Balti switched to plan “B” and decided to submit documents to the CEC with the aim of collecting signatures in favor of a consultative republican referendum on snap parliamentary elections. It is still difficult to understand whether Usatii is preparing a suitable background for the presidential or parliamentary campaign, but he is definitely eager to get into the first league of Moldovan politics. Igor Dodon’s actions were also quite expected, as he waited for the consultations on a single opposition candidate to reach an impasse. After that, he revved into gear and was elected PSRM Chair. Most likely, his next step will be to nominate himself as the main counter-candidate for Sandu. Realizing that his chances of winning are slim, Dodon most likely sees the very fact of participating in the presidential campaign as a way to return to active political life and, even amidst losing the second round, to lead the Socialists to the parliamentary elections. In general, under the current circumstances, even such a controversial figure as Dodon is in high demand among voters. And the fact that the Socialist leader is in no hurry to declare his principled views as the new president, including the foreign policy course of development, confirms his attempts to cover the widest possible spectrum of the electoral field. Despite the fact that the PSRM has lost almost every possible election in the last few years and that serious centrifugal processes and unrest have begun within the party, Igor Dodon’s return to the chairmanship marks his victory against internal dissent and attempts to change the face of the party in every sense. In principle, most of the prominent socialists with alternative views have already left the party and either joined Sor’s projects or went adrift. Experts are watching with particular interest the unfolding battle between Sor and the Socialists, who are trying to win Moscow’s favor. At first glance, PSRM seems to be no longer a favorite, and Sor’s emissaries more and more often appear in the Russian capital, where, to all appearances, all doors and roads are open to them. It is still too early to say who will win in this fascinating competition for the Kremlin’s favour, because the Russians have little choice, and it is not very promising to bet on one or the other. While real counter-candidates such as Ion Ceban continue to ponder whether to enter the presidential race or not, the speculation about the presidential prospects of Evghenia Gutul, which seemed frivolous a few months ago, may become a real story already today. The political popularity of the incumbent bashkan has noticeably increased, and the recent exchange of visits with Vladimir Voronin, who still retains a certain authority among voters, may indicate attempts to test the leader of Gagauzia as one of the alternative candidates. This hypothesis is confirmed, among other things, by the statements of experts close to the Kremlin who have voiced the idea of the bashkan’s participation in the presidential election. After the first three months of the year, it is still unclear how and between whom exactly the main struggle for the presidency will unfold. At first glance, everything seems to be going by inertia to end with a third consecutive face-off between Sandu and Dodon. However, it is too early to talk about the key candidates, as there is still room for electoral surprises and extraordinary scenarios.