Although most people cannot point out Moldova on a map, scores of political analysts view the Eastern European nation as a center of geopolitical struggle between the US and Russia.
On February 24th, Moldova held its parliament elections, delivering a hung parliament where no party has a clear majority. The electoral committee reported that the pro-Russia Socialist Party–led by Moldovan President Igor Dodon–won with 31.1% of the votes. 8% of votes went to the similarly pro-Russia party of Ilan Shor, who was convicted for stealing over $1 billion for Moldovan banks and forcing the government to cover the losses. The remaining majority of votes supported pro-Western parties: the anti-corruption party ACOM received 26.8% of the votes, while the incumbent Democratic party (DPM) won 23.6%.
These results are complicated by Moldova’s new electoral system, which critics claim is designed to help Moldova’s two historic parties–the Socialists and the DPM–maintain power. Facing low approval ratings in 2018, the DPM initiated an aggressive campaign to change the electoral system from proportional to majoritarian. This means that instead of making an electorate that accurately reflects the vote of the people, Moldova’s electoral system is based on single-member districts that benefit the struggling ruling parties. In practice, the new electoral system ensures the DPM maintains its majority status in the legislature though it only won 23.6% of the popular vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that, although this controversial system caused difficulties and confusion amongst voters, most aspects of the election were treated professionally. ACOM leader Maia Sandu disagreed with this statement, describing the election as “the most undemocratic in history of Moldova”, a biased but perhaps realistic assessment of Moldova’s tumultuous elections.
Indeed, the election campaign itself was so dirty it makes the 2016 US presidential election seem tame in comparison. On February 21st, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, the leaders of ACOM, claimed that the current authorities attempted to poison them. A spokesperson for the DPM vehemently denied these claims, yet additional controversies that preceded these allegations of attempted murder cast doubt on the DPM’s veracity. On February 14th, Facebook removed 168 accounts and 28 pages established by DPM government employees to mislead voters. Page administers and account owners posted about local news and controversial political decisions, such as mandatory Russian or English language education and reunification with Romania. These accounts also shared manipulated photos, some going as far as to impersonate a local fact checking organization. Some accounts gained massive followings of as many as 54,000 people. Although Facebook dismantled these accounts before the actual elections took place, the DPM’s manipulation and control of media sources undoubtedly had a detrimental impact on the range of viewpoints presented to voters.
Allegations of electoral fraud by the Socialist party further complicate results. Both ACOM and DPM have accused the Socialist party of bribing voters, and monitors have condemned “strong indications of voter buying” in the parliamentary election. The OSCE reported additional “pressure on state employees” and “misuse of state resources” throughout the country. Allegations are centered around the breakaway Transnistria region–which has no poll stations–where local media reported that voters were bussed to other areas to cast their ballots. This is particularly damning evidence against the Socialist party, who finds strong support in the traditionally pro-Russian Transnistria region.
The outrageous allegations underscore Moldovan politicians skillfully amplify the role their country plays in this rivalry, with each side promising that a victory for themselves will secure a geopolitical advantage for their preferred patron. The DPM in particular has gone to great lengths to portray themselves as the barrier between Moldova and Russia, encouraging Western leaders to overlook their corruption and bad governance for the sake of broader geopolitical goals.
By supporting unprincipled politicians and backing corrupt political parties, however, the US and Western forces ultimately undermine their geopolitical goals. Indeed, recent polls show that only 2% of Moldovans prioritize moving closer to either the EU or Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, while 49% believe corruption is the most important issue. Aligning Western interests with a party as corrupt as the DPM devalues pro-Western rhetoric and empowers pro-Russia groups like the Socialist party. Moldovans’ growing unease with traditionally pro-Western groups is evident in the lastest election, when DPM significantly lagged behind the other major political groups. Other signs of disillusionment are evident by examining the voter turnout, a measly 49% –the lowest since Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The West, however, is starting to chafe against traditional patterns of support: last June, the EU withheld a $100 million aid package to the DPM-led government after the Moldovan courts annulled the results of Chisinau’s mayoral election after Andrei Nastase, a leader in ACUM, proved victorious. In June, the European Parliament condemned Moldova’s rampant corruption, describing the country as “controlled by oligarchic interests” — a thinly veiled jab at DPM’s leader, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.
Perhaps by taking additional measures to ensure voter integrity and support anti-corruption parties like ACUM, the US and its allies can maintain their geopolitical advantage while delivering the goals of the Moldovan people.