What we learned from Moldova’s local elections

November 27, 2023
Photo credit: Dan Morar / Shutterstock.com
Moldova held local elections on 5 and 19 November. Clara Volintiru and Laurențiu Pleșca assess what the results of the elections told us about the country’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

On 5 and 19 November, Moldova held local elections – the first in a series of elections to be held in quick succession. The local elections will be followed by a presidential election in 2024 and parliamentary elections in 2025.

Each of these elections will shape Moldova’s future relationship with the European Union. Their importance was underlined by the European Commission’s announcement on 8 November, just a few days after the first round of the local elections, that it recommends EU accession negotiations with Moldova should now begin.

Hybrid threats

The stakes were high during the local elections. Russia is aiming to block Moldova’s European path and pro-Russian politicians at the local level make for powerful allies. Prior to the vote, Moldovan authorities accused Russia of attempting to influence the elections through illegal campaign financing, vote buying and disinformation.

The allegations centred on pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor, who lives in exile after being convicted of fraud. Earlier this year, Shor’s political party was banned by the country’s Constitutional Court, but groups linked to Shor were alleged to have received funding from Russia in advance of the local elections.

Senior Moldovan politicians have also accused Russia of trying to foster instability in the country through cyberattacks, sponsored protests and bomb threats. These actions aim not only to undermine the country’s European orientation but also to discredit elections and other democratic processes in Moldova. They also underline the importance of the current electoral cycle for Moldova’s European aspirations.

The vote ultimately saw widespread support for candidates aligned with Moldova’s pro-European President, Maia Sandu. However, Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity failed to secure a mayor in any of the country’s major cities. In Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, incumbent mayor Ion Ceban was re-elected ahead of the Party of Action and Solidarity candidate.

Ceban is now shaping up as a potential contender for the 2024 presidential elections. Ahead of the local elections, he founded a new centrist party, the National Alternative Movement (MAN). This party now controls the capital’s city council and draws support from both the left and right, as well as from pro-Russian and pro-European voters.

Elsewhere, the pro-Russian opposition excelled in the cities of Balti and Orhei, as well as in Chisinau. These results do not constitute a major threat to Sandu, as her Party of Action and Solidarity has its electoral base in the large Moldovan diaspora, which tends to exhibit low turnout rates at local elections. However, they nevertheless demonstrate the sharp socio-political divisions that exist between those who have left Moldova and those who remain within the country.

Future challenges

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be pivotal moments for Moldova’s democratic future and Sandu’s political commitment to achieve EU membership by 2030. Russia’s alleged interference in the local elections is a forewarning of the challenges that might intensify in these electoral contests.

Moldova’s ability to conduct free, fair and transparent elections while preventing external interference will be crucial in this respect. Bolstering the integrity of Moldova’s electoral processes should be a key priority. Strengthening the institutions responsible for oversight, ensuring transparency in campaign financing and enhancing mechanisms to counter disinformation campaigns are critical steps for securing electoral integrity.

The lessons learned from the local elections should serve as a call to action, underscored by the need for continued international support and collaboration to fortify Moldova's democratic institutions. This assistance not only safeguards the integrity of the country’s electoral processes but also reinforces Moldova’s resilience to external pressures, securing its path towards a European future.

The path to EU accession

In its 8 November announcement, the European Commission also recommended the EU should start accession negotiations with Ukraine. For the negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine to be successful, both countries will need to continue their progress toward democracy, the rule of law and better quality of governance. This will require technical assistance programmes in addition to financial aid.

There are several important milestones in this respect. Both countries will need to show significant progress on rule of law reforms, especially when it comes to countering corruption and ensuring the transparent and efficient use of public resources. A recurring request from international partners in Moldova is for the country to pursue judicial reforms, while accountability mechanisms in Ukraine have been identified as an area for improvement.

Both countries would also benefit from upholding territorial reforms, empowering local governments and local communities. This will require developing an architecture of opportunities at the local level rather than the clientelistic system of central transfers that is often found elsewhere, including in neighbouring EU member states.

Finally, free and fair elections will be needed to showcase the strength of both countries’ democratic processes. While Ukraine is currently at war with Russia, Moldova must also wage a battle on multiple fronts to counter Russian propaganda, without furthering social and cultural cleavages. The local elections on 5 and 19 November were merely the first step in what promises to be a crucial period for Moldova’s future.

This piece was originally published on the London School of Economics' European Politics and Policy Program blog and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.