Vulnerabilities of the Regime in the Fall Elections and Referendum

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Sergiu CEBAN
Maia Sandu and the ruling party have a strict plan for the presidential election and the constitutional referendum on EU accession. But the final stage of the electoral race may go awry, especially if Moscow has its say
With a little more than three months left until the presidential elections, experts are still pondering what the main forces are bracing for before the most strenuous final phase of the race, due to start by the end of summer. Choosing a new president and the constitutional referendum will cost the budget 310 million lei, although initially the expenditure part of the budget included only 250 million lei. The increase in the sum is not only because of holding the plebiscite on the same day as the elections but also due to the pilot law on postal voting for our citizens abroad in six countries. Despite the short period of time left till October 20, it is still difficult to state unambiguously what the main struggle will be like and who the main rivals will be. We do not want to accuse anyone of bias, but still some analysts are obviously very hasty in claiming that the main balance of forces is already clear. This suggests certain hypotheses regarding the voting results. Each of the electoral contestants naturally has their own goals, and most of them are not even linked to the hope of getting the presidential seat. Some follow the call of their principles and are running to give society a chance for an adequate alternative, others are trying to avoid political oblivion out of selfish motives. The rest are simply preparing for next summer’s parliamentary elections, using the presidential campaign to consolidate their positions and recognition on a national scale. That is why the list of potential nominees as of today already includes almost two dozen people and looks as motley as possible. The “single opposition candidate” project, apparently, never gained momentum. Some argue that it is too imprudent to invest all in one person, as one might be excluded from the electoral process. However, this explanation looks more like a “political excuse” on the part of the main opposition leaders, who thereby leave the room for maneuver as wide as possible and keep open the possibility of participating in the elections until the very last. Against the background of a completely disorganized opposition, Maia Sandu still looks like the main favorite, who consistently follows her electoral plan. At first glance, the increased buzz about the European direction in the official policy, supported by a number of concrete achievements and decisions, only enhances Sandu’s chances and her position both on the internal and external perimeter. Nevertheless, there is no obvious confidence among her close supporters. As her advisers admit, a first-round victory is highly unlikely, so the upcoming elections promise to be particularly challenging. The plans to create local anti-terrorist councils throughout the republic can be considered an additional indicator that the authorities are preparing for the most extraordinary electoral scenarios. Even postponement of elections is not excluded, if the referendum and Maia Sandu’s re-election are objectively jeopardized. Alas, but such a conditional “Ukrainian version of postponement” is considered by close political technologists as quite probable, including the option of simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections next year. The most unpleasant thing for the team of the president, which plays first and holds the initiative, are unexpected surprises ahead of the elections and sudden turns of the already defined storyline influenced from outside. Thus, despite Ceban’s public renunciation of his presidential ambitions this fall, some top officials in the ruling regime see this as a shrewd strategic move to minimize the authorities’ pressure. Therefore, they leave a certain degree of probability that the capital’s mayor may unexpectedly succeed and seriously confuse the cards. The main counter-candidate in the structured picture of the electoral process according to PAS is, of course, Igor Dodon. According to the general expert opinion, he is still trying to stay away from active internal political battles and is careful in choosing words to criticize his main opponent. In return, the Socialist leader and his entourage are content with apparent immunity from any political, administrative, power and informational pressure. In all probability, Dodon is driven to the elections also by one of the interested groups in the Kremlin sending him to various international events, for example, in China. There they even organized his handshake with Xi Jinping. Thus, the PSRM leader is being promoted as a solid candidate who is in contact with global political figures. It is not clear, however, why the Russian president is shunning meetings with a figure of such magnitude. In any case, no matter who in China greets Dodon, all this plays into Sandu’s hands and helps her team generate geopolitical narratives that Dodon is not about the EU and the West at all, but about China, Russia and Asia. In addition, there is also a sense of uncertainty within the PSRM team, mainly due to the lack of unambiguity in Moscow’s position. Most likely, Igor Dodon is afraid that at some point a call may come from the Russian capital with a strict instruction to step aside in order to give way to a conditional ‘dark horse’. The very fact that the Socialist leader has been taken out of the electoral game may significantly undermine the plans of Sandu’s electoral headquarters, which will be forced to frantically model various scenarios and try to predict the most favorable one for itself. In a certain sense, such a calculation may have a much greater effect, since it is not so much a single candidate as the excitement and unpredictability on the eve of elections that can seriously unbalance the ruling regime. Confirmation that there are no centralized decisions about Dodon in Moscow is the position of Ilan Shor and his political projects. Given the popularity of the forces that make up the Victory bloc in a number of regions of the country, it is obvious that no opposition candidate can win the elections without the support of this political bloc. It is expected that the next, third in a row Victory congress is being prepared for August or September in the Russian capital, and only then the main stake of Moscow will apparently become clear. Meanwhile, one should acknowledge that Maia Sandu is not the embodiment of some universal evil for the majority of political leaders in Moldova. Moreover, some opposition individuals have an irresistible desire to put Sandu in the position of a helpless pro-Western president who cannot rely on a loyal parliamentary majority. Therefore, most Moldovan politicians are targeting the parliamentary elections without expecting any significant success in the fall electoral cycle. Perhaps, the uncertainty and hesitation observed in the presidency are also related to the fact that everyone was so carried away by Maia Sandu’s tutelage that they lost their vigilance and followed the wrong path. For all the symbolism of her victory/loss, the real goal is Moldova’s geopolitical status and the country’s strategic vector. The failure of a pro-European plebiscite will have a much more serious resonance than the loss of the incumbent president. Therefore, the appearance of the referendum was simply a gift for Moscow, which it will invest most of its forces in and, if necessary, will even play along with the PAS regime by offering Igor Dodon for another sacrifice. It is much more important for Moscow to minimize the legitimacy of the referendum by demonstrating low support for the pro-European course in various regions of the country, and, for example, the non-participation of citizens from the left bank as a factor of Moldova’s possible disintegration. All these indicators will certainly be used by Russia in its dialog with the West in the run-up to the big negotiations on the geopolitical fate of the Moldova-Ukraine post-Soviet region.