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Moldovan Mayoral Elections, Russian Interference and Moldova's Future Geopolitical Alignment

On November 5th and 19th, 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 determine Moldova's geopolitical and geostrategic alignment as they shape Moldova's future relationship with the EU and Russia. 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.

Last Sunday, a total of 313,776 voters came to the polling stations. The elections were recognized as valid in all 273 localities, including 11 cities where mayors were elected. Recognizing the elections as valid meant a participation rate of at least 20% of voters was necessary. The final turnout was 36.73%, almost 5% lower than in the first round, the Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairperson said in a press statement. 

President Maia Sandus's Party of Action and Solidarity received 225 mayoral positions in the first round and 66 in the second, meaning PAS improved its result compared to the 2019 local elections. 

Second place was taken by the pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM), which received 144 mandates – namely, 103 in the first round and 41 in the second. In the 2019 elections, PSRM candidates won in 206 localities. 

In the second round of elections for the Mayor of Balti, the candidate from the pro-European and Eurosceptic Partidul Nostru (Our Party), Alexander Petcov, won the game with 59.63% of the votes. Our Party candidates also won the second round in Riscani and Cantemir. In Riscani, Victor Bogatco became Mayor for the fourth time. In Comrat, pro-Russian independent candidate Sergei Anastasov won the second round of elections with 58.52% of votes; Anastasov has thus become Mayor of Comrat for a third time. He ran for Our Party the first time, the second time for the PSRM, and the third time as an independent candidate.

Russia has been accused of interfering in elections through a variety of tactics, among others, illegal campaign financing, vote buying and disinformation. The allegations are centred on pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor, who now lives in exile in Israel 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 allegedly received funding from Russia before 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 to undermine the country's European orientation and 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 - who was re-elected ahead of the Party of Action and Solidarity candidate - is now shaping up as a potential contender for the 2024 presidential elections. 

These results do not constitute a significant threat to Sandu, as her party has its electoral base in the large Moldovan diaspora, which tends to exhibit low turnout rates at local elections. However, they demonstrate the sharp socio-political divisions between those who have left Moldova and those who remain within the country.

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be pivotal 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. 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 safeguards the integrity of the country's electoral processes and reinforces Moldova's resilience to external pressures, securing its path towards a European future.

Image: Vladislav Culiomza/via REUTERS

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