Did Moldova Just Elect Its Own Donald Trump?
By Katie Toth
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: A highly qualified female presidential candidate — one widely considered open-minded on social issues — has lost a presidential election to a guy who curries favor with his anti-abortion, anti-LGBT supporters on the campaign trail. Now supporters of the losing candidate have begun protests in an attempt to rescind the appointment of the male President-elect.
By the way, we’re not talking about the United States. This just happened in Moldova.
The impoverished European country, with a population of about 3 million, held its final elections for the mostly-ceremonial role of president earlier this month. Igor Dodon, a former Communist Party member who finished his role as minister of the economy seven years ago and has since been a member of the opposition, won on a platform of cozying up to Russia and promises to shake up Moldova’s corruption-ridden establishment government.
Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist and respected former education minister with an anti-corruption platform, was his opponent. Sandu is one of the most influential women in Moldovan politics. She left the governing party of Moldova while it was wracked in scandal, then formed a party of her own.
Moldova is desperately in need of good governance. The country has long battled major challenges with sex trafficking and money laundering. Its economy depends heavily on remittances. One reviled oligarch is constantly suspected of having a hand in the country’s biggest scandals. One of the poorest nations in Europe, a fifth of its population lived below the poverty line as of 2013. Transnistria, a breakaway region bordering Ukraine and with the closest ties to the former Soviet Union, seceded from the country when Moldova left the Soviet Union in 1991.
It sounds outrageous to compare the U.S. presidential elections with those in a country whose entire population is smaller than that of Oklahoma. But the parallels are striking.
First, there was the fake news problem. According to Radu Marian, a graduate student who volunteered on Sandu’s campaign, his candidate was dodging conspiracy theories that she was a Freemason or a CIA plant. A fake news site spread the claim that if Sandu won, she would bring in 30,000 refugees from Syria to appease German Chancellor Angela Merkel, says Marian. “It was a big, big lie,” he tells the Establishment, one that was ultimately refuted by Merkel’s staff.
Secondly, there was the moment when Igor Dodon, the President-elect, publicly aligned himself with Donald Trump’s presidential win. “America will wear red! Trump’s victory is the victory of American citizens on liberal riots,” said Dodon, according to the Huffington Post. “The Americans have elected a president who is a proponent of strong conservative and Christian values, who advocates for friendly relations with Russia.”
“No one can argue that Mr. Trump has strong charisma and leadership qualities,” says Ion Ceban, a member of Dodon’s team, who spoke via an email sent from a spokesperson. “And some conservative values . . . are being shared between Dodon, Trump, and Putin.”
“Moldova has a deeply ingrained sexist culture, where the value of women is equated to their fertility, and their identity as a competent human being is validated only by a romantic relationship with a man,” says Polina Ceastuhina, a well-known gender activist in the country.
Some Moldovans say Dodon’s allies took advantage of that culture to attack Sandu — casting aspersions that she was a lesbian to scare off conservative voters.
One statement, from a bishop of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, said Sandu’s “attitude toward Christian morality . . . seems to diverge from normal principles.” Another attack from the Chairman of Moldova’s Communist Party said: “She is not married, though everybody knows the rules of the presidential protocol; appearance in public must be together with spouse . . . this is a betrayal of family values.”
Some say Dodon may not be as old-school as his campaign suggests — he’s a populist, again much in the mold of Trump. Mihai Popsoi, Associate Expert with the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova, who runs the website moldovanpolitics.com, believes Dodon is not as anti-gay or as misogynistic as he comes across. “But he needs to play the troll,” Popsoi says, “for political points . . . In a way, you have to play along.”
Ion Ceban, the Dodon supporter we spoke to, says his candidate never spoke about Sandu’s personal life, and that criticism of Dodon’s campaign comes from “a vast network of mass-media and NGOs that supported Sandu, [the] majority of which is sponsored from [the] West.”
The onslaught of comments eventually led Sandu to clap back. “I have never thought being a single woman is a shame,” she said to the weekly news outlet Ziarul de Garda. “Maybe it is a sin even to be a woman?”
Sandu supporter Marian links her defeat with her gender:
“If it had been a man, maybe — with a background as good as hers — I think the man would have won. It was really hard to find something big against her. She was known for her massive reforms in education. She had a really good background. She’s professional. She is by far the most sincere political figure we have.”
Fortunately, the president in Moldova has little practical power. More than being about economic policy or even relations with Europe and Russia, this was an anti-establishment race.
Moldovans are still outraged over a billion dollars that disappeared after a 2015 bank bailout, further tanking the nation’s economy. Sandu’s supporters say she fought for answers after the bailout, and detractors say she voted for it. So Dodon and Sandu each wanted to prove to the country that they were the one who really had integrity, really would prosecute those involved with the banking scandal, and really could challenge the status quo.
Dodon ultimately won against Sandu about 52.18% to 47.82%, with just over half of the country casting a vote.
The losing side says that was the fault of corrupt counting, biased media, and voter suppression, particularly of voters living outside Moldova, who tried to vote at the embassies but say there were not enough ballots. Sandu’s supporters protested Dodon’s win last week and say they’ll fight it in the country’s constitutional court.
Ceban, who is on Dodon’s team, denies the claims of Sandu’s supporters. He says evidence of fraud has not been submitted to the court. Many Moldovans who supported Dodon also live abroad in Moscow, where they too didn’t have enough ballots, according to Ceban. “Dodon’s campaign was clear, positive, and appealing to a majority of the population of Moldova.”
Analysts also acknowledge Sandu’s team made its own mistakes — mistakes that sound eerily Hillary Clinton-like.
Ceastuhina says Sandu’s team didn’t reach out to Russian-speakers with enough ads — perhaps seeing them as retrograde and closed-minded to her pro-Europe background (deplorable, even?) — until just before the final elections. “This did not allow enough time to reach the Russian-speaking community.”
And when Sandu was accused of being tied to the LGBT community in this conservative country, she had an opportunity to fight for the rights of the community. Instead, the candidate played defense. She also “failed to seize the moment to appeal to women overall regarding the daily discrimination that they face,” Ceastuhina says, “regardless of their political association.”
Dodon is probably here to stay, and likely won’t be as pro-Russian as he implied on the campaign trail. “I promise that I will be everyone’s president, of those who want to be in the EU and those who [want to be] close to Russia,” the President-elect said last week when he won.
“The election is over,” he added. “People have elected their president.”
Mihai Popsoi believes that despite what he considered the “trashy tactics” in this campaign, he doesn’t think Moldovan women will be turned off by political life. “It might be the opposite: Women might even be emboldened to step up.”
Unlike the U.S. election, where Clinton was considered a shoo-in before she faced a shocking loss, Sandu had been a long-shot candidate who got surprisingly good numbers. Radu Marian hopes that when the country’s next elections for parliament — which actually wields substantial power — come up in 2018, voters will remember how this race went down.
“Her campaign showed you can do good and honest politics in Moldova,” says Marian. “This is a sign of hope.”
Lead image: flickr.com/OSCE Parliamentary Assembly