The electoral competition for the position of the President of the Republic of Moldova is expected to be quite close. The results of the polls conducted recently show that the difference between the candidates with the highest chances of winning the election, Maia Sandu and Igor Dodon, will amount to several tens of thousands of votes or a margin of 3-4%. In this context, there is a major probability that the situation from 2016 will be repeated, when the difference between the first two candidates was about 67,000 thousand votes.
The difference between the first two candidates could be closely linked to two factors: 1) conjuncture alliances that could occur before or after the first round of presidential elections and 2) systemic issues that affected the last elections in the Republic of Moldova, such as spreading fakd news and misinformation in the online space, the organized transportation of voters from the Transnistrian region and the poor organization of the voting process abroad. Although these issues are not new to the Chisinau authorities, few actions have been taken in the last four years to limit their influence on the electoral process. The lack of political will and the hidden interests of some political parties have kept these issues on the public agenda, impact of which can be decisive in the equation of the presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova.
Spreading false news and misinformation in the online space
The spread of misinformation and fake content in the online space particularly affects the electoral preferences of undecided voters, who can be easily manipulated to choose one camp or another, depending on the information distributed in the online space. Although in recent years there has been a growing trend of disinformation campaigns, initiated and coordinated in order to defame certain policy makers, placing this content on various online platforms does not entail punishing the actors involved. Moreover, the current legislative framework and the institutions that should oversee the information space sometimes overlook the complicity of televisions, radio stations and websites owned by members of political parties, which distribute false information, including during electoral campaigns.
Another important aspect is the lack of legislative regulations, which would oblige electoral contestants and political parties to comply with certain rules related to online posts published and distributed during the election campaign. Although they undertake to comply with certain rules of conduct, there are no punitive measures against possible violations and no control body that would monitor the content posted by electoral contestants and political parties on social networks. For example, at the last parliamentary elections in February 2019, there were cases in which some contenders for the MP chairs distributed false news about their opponents, without being subject to fines or suspension from the elections.
The problems attested in the period preceding the electoral campaign, presented by the press associations, as well as those during the electoral campaign, are able to affect the formation of voting options through denigrating the images of some electoral contestants. This could be even more obvious on the eve of the second ballot, when there are all the premises that the media institutions controlled by Igor Dodon, but also other politicians, will amplify their actions of discrediting Maia Sandu. As in 2016, there is a real danger that some politically affiliated televisions will intentionally take over fake news distributed by some online portals, which will only lead to modest fines under the currently permissive legislation. Without the adoption of legislative mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the activity of media portals, misinformation in the online space will continue to serve the petty interests of certain electoral contestants.
Organized transportation of voters from the Transnistrian region
The practice of the last presidential and parliamentary elections has shown us that the organized transportation of voters from the Transnistrian region to the polls becomes a tradition for the Republic of Moldova. Both the Socialists in 2016 and the Democrats in 2019 did not shy away from using the conjunctural relations with the separatist regime in Tiraspol to obtain tens of thousands of additional votes in the elections. Although the issue in question has been reported by several national and international observers, the Central Electoral Commission and the Parliament have failed to come up with conclusive proposals on stopping mass corruption of voters by political parties.
For the presidential elections of November 1st, 2020, CEC decided to open 42 polling stations for voters on the left bank of the Dniester, Bender municipality and some localities in Causeni district. Although the unrecognized administration in Tiraspol has extended the regime of self-isolation of the inhabitants of the left bank of the Dniester until December 1st, this will not be an impediment for organizing the vote in favor of Igor Dodon's candidacy. Tiraspol's decision once again reveals the political rents hidden behind the official format of dialogue between the two banks of the Dniester.
Under the given conditions, the electoral authorities and law enforcement bodies of the Republic of Moldova should carefully monitor the conditions under which voters in the region are transported to the polls and document the cases of vote buying. Moreover, OSCE / ODIHR observers, the only ones who could have access to the left bank of the Dniester on polling day, should actively monitor and communicate about the process of organized voter transportation and come up with a relevant assessment and recommendations for our country.
The vote in the diaspora: what, where, how many?
The number of Moldovan citizens in the diaspora who will participate at these elections is one of the unknown variables, which could tip the balance in the second round of the presidential election in favor of candidate Maia Sandu. The 2016 presidential election demonstrated the massive ability to mobilize voters in the diaspora, with their numbers doubling in the second round of the elections. This situation could have been repeated this year, but the conditions dictated by the pandemic and the lack of response of the electoral authorities to the problems brought by COVID-19, could limit the participation of the diaspora in the vote.
For the current elections, CEC has established 139 polling stations abroad. However, the Decision on the establishment of polling stations for the diaspora expressly states that “there is a possibility that the agreement of the authorities to open polling stations may be restricted depending on the epidemiological situation, which may adversely affect the process of organizing elections". Given the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 at European level, there are risks related to the proper conduct of the voting process in the diaspora, which could lower the participation rate of Moldovan citizens. In this context, it still to be seen where and how many countries will allow the opening of polling stations according to the list announced by the CEC and what will be the proportion of voters participating at these elections.
Instead of conclusions
The differentiation criteria for the electoral contestants in the Republic of Moldova were not and are not arbitrary. In recent years, they have been controlled and used by ruling parties to ensure their best possible election score. This election confirms once again that there is no political will among the governing coalition to solve the key problems that repeatedly affect the organization of electoral processes in the Republic of Moldova. Moreover, both the current and previous parliamentary majorities have obtained obvious electoral benefits from maintaining the status quo.
If for the electoral contestants the stake of these elections is to obtain as many votes as possible, for the democracy in the Republic of Moldova the stake is to test the credibility of the electoral processes. In the absence of significant progress in improving the electoral legislation and regulations on the information space, there are all the prerequisites for the previous-mentioned problems to be repeated. The state of democracy and the sustainability of relations with external partners depend to a large extent on the fairness and transparency of electoral processes. Any slippage in this regard will affect the credibility of relevant institutions internally and externally.
This commentary was published in the project "We and Europe - Analysis of Moldovan-European relations through innovative media and analytical products", implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), in partnership with IPN and Radio Chisinau, with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The opinions presented in this commentary do not necessarily correspond with the position of the donor.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.