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CHISINAU (Moldova), October 28 (SeeNews) - Moldova's next president will most likely be elected in a run-off between Socialist leader Igor Dodon and pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu in yet another demonstration of the voters' hesitation whether to opt for their country's European integration or stay with the more familiar Russian alternative, according to Moldovan political analyst Dionis Cenusa.
Moldova will hold its first direct presidential elections in 16 years on October 30 in which ten candidates will run but none of them is expected to win outright. A run-off will take place two weeks later if none of the candidates wins at least 51% of the vote.
The front runners before the second round will most likely be Maia Sandu and Igor Dodon, "if Sandu is not excluded or if Dodon is not helped to win the first round,” Cenusa told SeeNews in a recent emailed interview.
However, such manipulations are unlikely to occur, as a crucial decision regarding the country's desperate need for financing was postponed until after the first round, he added.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) board will meet on November 7 to discuss a $182.7 million (167.8 million euro) three-year funding arrangement with Moldova, although the meeting was initially expected to take place before October 30.
“Elections in a country where institutions are politicized and administrative and media resources are used disproportionately in favour of the candidate of those in power stand at the limit of fairness," said the analyst who is specialized in areas such as Moldova's European integration, EU-Russia relations and the EU's Eastern Partnership policy.
Marian Lupu, leader of the Democratic Party (PD), which is the senior partner in the government coalition, counted on massive media support during the election campaign. However, he withdrew from the race in favour of Maia Sandu on Wednesday.
In March, Moldova's Constitutional Court ruled that the president will be elected by popular vote. Since 2000, Moldova's president has been elected for a four-year term by a majority of 60% of the MPs in the 101-seat parliament.
According to Cenusa, the keys to success in the race are the availability of financial, administrative and media resources and distancing from the 2009-2016 pro-EU governments blamed for a major banking fraud in which about $1 billion mysteriously disappeared from three of the country's banks in 2014.
“In both cases, Maia Sandu is after Igor Dodon and before Marian Lupu,” Cenusa noted.
Marian Lupu ranked fourth in an October poll conducted by the Public Politics Institute (IPP), with a score of 7.5%, but withdrew from the race, saying that Maia Sandu stands a bigger chance to defeat Dodon, which ranked first with 27%.
Maia Sandu came in second with 9.3% support in the IPP poll and Andrei Nastase, the leader of center-right wing Dignity and Truth party (DA), which is not represented in parliament, ranked third with 8%. Nastase was the first to withdraw his candidacy in mid-October, saying he will support Maia Sandu.
A former minister of education, Maia Sandu is the designated candidate of pro-European and anti-oligarchic Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), DA and Liberal Democrats (PLDM).
Seen as a political newcomer, Maia Sandu needs time to consolidate her position in the domestic political landscape but she certainly has real chances to reach the second round of the elections, Cenusa opined.
Moldova's electoral commission, CEC
However, being the exponent of pro-European forces and a new face in politics does not mean that Sandu enters the race with a clean slate, as the banking fraud, often called 'the robbery of the century' plays into the hands of Eurosceptic and pro-Russian forces, he added.
“The frauds in the banking system created major problems for all forces associated with European integration, so not only PD, the Liberal Party (PL) and PLDM, which governed at the time when most of the crimes occurred, are affected."
Maia Sandu also takes image shots for being in favour of building closer ties with the European Union, which is criticized for having displayed high tolerance for governments now proven as ineffective and corrupt, led by parties which claimed to be pro-European.
“In reality, the only justified reproach to the EU is its romantic relationship with Chisinau and the fact that it was unable to anticipate the crises developing since 2013,” Cenusa said.
On the other hand, a pro-Russian president like Dodon will be able to consolidate the pro-Russian sentiment.
"In addition to pro-Russian rhetoric and behaviour in foreign policy, such a president has the opportunity to conduct consultative referendums which, although not legally binding, will confirm the diminishing of pro-European sympathies in society," Cenusa said.
The same IPP poll showed that 30.9% of Moldovans would vote for the integration of their country into the EU, while 44% would prefer joining the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Also, when asked about their feelings towards the EU, 14.5% said they feel dislike, 13.2% fear and 14.2% discontent. The IPP poll, for which 1,109 adults were interviewed, has a margin of error of +/-2.8%.
Unfortunately, populism is very strong in Moldova, just like in the rest of Europe and the EU's image has suffered blows from different directions, Cenusa said.
"Despite many achievements thanks to European aid, the frauds in the banking system, the idea of a captured state, and multiple political crises are responsible for the negative image transfer towards the EU", he added.
If Moldova elects a pro-Russian president like Igor Dodon, the pro-Russian opposition will strengthen, while pro-Europeans will continue to be outside of parliament, being able to put pressure on the government only through protests, the analyst said.
“Thus, the Socialists in Parliament will have a partner, who will allow them to repeal unwanted laws and seek consultative referendums on issues such as the Moldovan language, the country's neutrality status, the accession to the Eurasian Customs Union", said Cenusa, who is member of Chisinau-based Expert-Grup from Moldova, a leading think-tank and non-government organization specialized in economic and policy research.
The tiny landlocked ex-Soviet state of some 3 million people has strong historical and political ties with its western neighbour Romania, with more than 75% of the population speaking Romanian. However, some 10% of the population living predominantly in the internationally unrecognised separatist republic of Transnistria, which broke away from Moldova in the 1990s, speak Russian and identify themselves as Russians.
According to the IPP poll, only 15.6% of Moldovans would vote for a union with Romania, while 63.8% would vote against. However, another poll conducted in August by The Black Sea University Foundation showed that 28% of Moldovans want the union, and that their share could reach 50% if the following benefits were certain: avoiding Russian control, improved education and healthcare, impartial and fair justice and real fight against corruption. Some 1,500 adults were interviewed in that poll, which has a margin of error of +/-2%.
It is important to remember, Dionis Cenusa says, that not all citizens who have a pro-European vision are unionists.
While Maia Sandu has a reserved attitude towards unionist ideas, Igor Dodon rejects the idea outright and plans to turn Moldova into federation and to end the recently signed free trade agreement with the EU. Also, Dodon plans to unify Transnistria with Moldova and to end the conflict there.
Public Policies Institute of Moldova (IPP), October 2016 poll