On October 30, 2016, for the first time in 20 years, Moldovans went to the polls to elect their president directly. Before the March 2016 Constitutional Court ruling, which reintroduced direct elections, it was the national legislature that elected the head of state, provided that a 61 vote majority could be reached in a Parliament of 101 members. Unsurprisingly, the three fifths majority was hard to achieve in an increasingly divided and partisan political climate. This situation was, in turn, a result of a proportional electoral system typical to a nascent post-Soviet electoral democracy plagued by paternalism, corruption, and parochial political culture. In light of hasty constitutional change, viewed by many as an attempt by the government to defuse the opposition protest movement sparked by the infamous billion dollar scandal, the campaign season was very short. Of the 24 candidates who ventured into the race, only twelve were able to collect enough signatures of support in order to be registered by the Central Election Commission. Of those twelve, only nine made it to election day. Two candidates withdrew, and the third one was excluded by a court ruling on charges of breaking campaign finance laws.
Still, according to polls, only four candidates had an actual chance of winning: Igor Dodon, Maia Sandu, Andrei Nastase, and establishment candidate Marian Lupu. In a highly anticipated, yet nonetheless astonishing move, one of the leading candidates, Andrei Nastase—a civic protest leader turned politician, currently heading the center-right Dignity and Truth Party—withdrew in favor of Harvard-educated World Bank economist and former Education Minister Maia Sandu, leader of the center-right Action and Solidarity Party. Sandu (aged 44), arguably the most influential female politician in the country’s history, is running on a platform of integrity and social inclusion underpinned by a pro-Western foreign policy. She draws her support primarily from forward-looking, more educated younger urban voters.
However, an even more surprising withdrawal occurred just four days before the election as Chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, Marian Lupu, left the race endorsing Maia Sandu. Yet, unlike Nastase’s support, Sandu rejected Lupu’s endorsement and that of his fellow party member Vlad Plahoniuc, often regarded as Moldova’s oligarch-in-chief. According to polls, Plahotniuc is the most hated national politician, ubiquitously accused of having captured the Moldovan state. Thus, his endorsement was toxic for whoever was on the receiving end. The move clearly benefited Sandu’s opponent, Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who lost no time in labeling Sandu as not only Washington’s candidate, but also Plahotniuc’s puppet. However, evidence suggests that Plahotniuc’s support for Sandu was only declarative since the media empire he owns and the Democratic Party he controls remains neutral at best, if not actually covertly supporting Dodon. Despite being a leftist, frontrunner Igor Dodon, is hardly progressive when it comes to social issues. He promotes religious conservatism, having received Russian Patriarch Krill’s personal blessing as well as the support of Moldova’s Orthodox Church. Dodon (aged 41) has campaigned on a platform of family values, social equity, and a pro-Russian foreign policy. He relies mostly on the nostalgia of the older generation and the anxieties of the Russian speaking ethnic minorities.