The Party of the current president the Party of Action and Solidarity (Partidul Acțiune și Solidaritate) (PAS) won majority of the seats with 52.80% in the unicameral Parliament of Moldova as a result of early elections held on July 11, 2021. With this result the PAS, which is known to be as a liberal pro-European party, have defeated Russia-oriented and Eurosceptic political forces represented by the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS), which have received 27.17% of the votes [Alegeri.md, 2021]. The pro-European agenda of the current president Maia Sandu and the main pro-European party holding the majority in the legislative now opens prospects for reforms and political realignment of Moldova with its western partners.
Although this was a normal early parliamentary election in Moldova, it was quite unusual in some aspects. Firstly, the number of votes cast from abroad were exceptionally high in the election. Some 18.23% of the total vote cast or 262,103 votes counted during the election came from abroad [Electoral Commission of Moldova, 2020a]. Therefore, the role of external votes from citizens living in other countries, primarily in Europe, has been quite significant in determining the outcome of the election. Secondly, there has been a large difference between external and internal votes in terms of the distribution of votes by political parties. Although the PAS received a majority of the votes of Moldovans both inside and outside of the country, the vote margins differed a lot between them. Thus, for instance, the PAS gained 44.08% of the votes among the resident voters of Moldova, while the BECS was still the second most popular party with 32.47% of votes inside the country. On the other hand, the popularity of the pro-European PAS was strikingly high among external voters of Moldova. The PAS has secured 86.23% of the external vote cast whereas the BECS has managed to gain only 2.47% of the overseas votes [Electoral Commission of Moldova, 2020a]. We can say that the parliamentary election in Moldova has revealed the electoral significance of non-resident voters in small post-communist democracies and it has also shown how different the vote margins might be between external and internal votes.
This kind of electoral trends are nothing new for Moldova because similar voting patterns have played an important role in determining the outcome of Moldova’s presidential election of 2020, when extreme popularity of the President Maia Sandu among emigrant voters helped her to become president. In essence, Moldovan emigrants are gradually becoming an important element of the political life of Moldova and one of the key factors accelerating Moldova’s de facto European integration. It is also interesting to note that similar electoral shifts can be partially observed in other Post-Soviet and Post-Socialist countries that have recently embarked on democratic reforms and transformation. Besides Moldova, we consider second rounds of the recent presidential elections held in Ukraine, Georgia, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. The presidential elections are easier to analyze due to the small number of candidates and outcomes.
|Table 1. Distribution of internal and external votes in presidential elections in Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan|
|Total % of votes received by the winning candidate||57.72||73.22||59.52||72.02||79.84|
|Total % of votes received by the candidate with the second most votes||42.28||40.48||40.48||21.60||6.74|
|Votes for the winning candidate inside the country||50.99||73.09||59.63||67.71||79.17|
|External votes for the winning candidate||92.94||43.78||35.76||21.10||71.43|
|Votes for the candidate with the second most votes inside the country||49.01||24.28||40.37||20.32||6.69|
|External votes for the candidate with the second most votes||7.06||54.73||64.24||73.33||16.80|
|% of votes from abroad||16.04||0.32||0.34||0.46||0.84|
|% of population living abroad||Nearly 45%||13-16%||25-30%||Nearly 3.6%||Nearly 13%|
|Main country of residence of emigrant population||EU (45%)
|S. Korea (16%)
|Sources: Electoral Commission of Moldova (2020), Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine (2019), Electoral Administration of Georgia (2018), General Election Committee of Mongolia (2021) and Central Commission for Elections and Referenda of Kyrgyzstan (2021).|
The five countries also share other similarities besides having similar historical and political backgrounds. All five are small countries in terms of the population, except for Ukraine, and all of them are regional leaders in adopting democratic practices in governance compared to their neighbors. Most importantly, all five, except for Mongolia perhaps, have significant population shares in emigration that retain their original nationality and their electoral rights in the home country. Hence, the patterns of overseas voting in these five countries is a matter of political importance that might become one of the key factors in determining the political life of these countries in the future as they continue making progress in democratization.
The most catchy feature about the elections in these newly emerging democracies is how strikingly different are the vote distribution between internal and external votes. For instance, in 2020, the current president of Moldova was elected by receiving 57.72% of the vote cast. However, Maia Sandu would barely win the presidency in the second round of the election with a minimum margin if there were no external votes. She received 50.99% of the votes inside the country but among immigrant voters, she was extremely popular getting over 90% of the overseas vote cast. Taking into account the overwhelming support of pro-European ideas among Moldovan diaspora, the opposing political forces consisting of Eurosceptic and pro-Russian politicians attempted to restrict voting from abroad and initiated discussion whether emigrant citizens should be eligible to vote [Moldova.europalibera.org, 2020; Newsmaker.md, 2021].
A slightly different situation is observed in Ukraine, Georgia and Mongolia, where political choices of resident voters and emigrant voters in recent presidential elections were opposite. However, similar to Moldova, the percentage distribution of votes for candidates differed quite a lot between internal and external electoral casts. In Ukraine, for instance, President Volodymyr Zelensky won an undeniable and overwhelming victory by gaining over 73% of the votes and receiving the majority of the votes in almost every single region of Ukraine. On the other hand, he failed to win the majority of the electoral votes of Ukrainians living abroad, while his main rival Petro Poroshenko got 54.73% of the external votes [Central Electoral Commission of Ukraine, 2019]. The current President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili won the election in 2018 by getting 59.52% of the votes in the second round running against her rival Grigol Vashadze, who ended up getting the remaining 40.48% of the total vote cast. Again, the distribution of votes between the two candidates in external voting happened to be near exactly the opposite. The winning candidate received only 35.76% of the external votes while the alternative candidate secured 64.24% of the overseas votes [Electoral Administration of Georgia, 2018]. The recent presidential election in Mongolia produced a similar outcome when the winning candidate, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, managed to gain 72.02% of the total votes, while getting only 21.10% of the votes from abroad. At the same time, the percentage shares of the vote cast for the candidate with the second most votes, Dangaasurengiin Enkhbat, were opposite: 73.33% abroad and 20.32% at home [Election Committee of Mongolia, 2021]. However, it is very interesting to note that this regularity did not hold in the recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan held in January 2021, when President Sadyr Japarov took the lead both among residents of Kyrgyzstan and emigrant Kyrgyz people. He received 79.17% inside the country and 71.43% among voters living abroad, leaving no chances to other 18 running candidates [Commission for Elections of Kyrgyzstan, 2021].
As we can see, voting decisions of the external voters differed a lot from those who voted inside the countries, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan for some reason. However, only in the case of Moldova external votes were significant in determining the outcome of the presidential election. Throughout two consecutive elections held within the last year Moldova’s emigrant voters have shown active involvement in the political life of their home country. 18.23% of votes coming from abroad during the last parliamentary election in Moldova is an exceptionally high share of external votes. Obviously, the primary reason for such a high percentage of external votes is the fact that nearly 45% of the population of Moldova live either permanently or most of the time abroad, primarily in countries of the EU. The vast majority of these people are labor migrants, which partially explains the exceptional political enthusiasm of Moldovan external voters during electoral processes in Moldova. There are no precise statistical data on the exact number of Moldovans living abroad, but it is believed that this figure might be as high as 45% of the total population.
However, a high number of emigrant electors actually has little to do with the number of external votes. For instance, a very significant share of the population of Ukraine and Georgia also permanently live in other countries, but the share of external votes in the electoral casts of these two countries stand nothing near compared to that of Moldova. Emigrant votes contributed less than one percent of the total vote cast in these two countries during the last presidential elections. The same is true for Kyrgyzstan, which is one of the countries that relies the most on its labor migrants. Nearly 13% of its citizens are labor migrants living abroad whose combined contribution to Kyrgyzstan´s GDP generally averages 25-30% [World Bank data, 2021], and yet external votes made only 0.84% of the total vote cast during the recent presidential election in 2021.
This mismatch between the share of population living abroad and the number of external votes lead to questions about the reasons for differences in electoral activeness of the emigrant population. Is electoral activeness determined by the political culture of emigrants learned in their home country or is it shaped by the political culture of the destination country. The EU is by far the most popular destination for labor migrants from Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. All three countries are the members of the Eastern partnership and have similar pro-European political agenda. Moldovan diaspora population presents exceptionally high electoral activeness, while Ukrainian and Georgian emigrants appear to be largely detached from electoral events of their home country as they emigrate to other countries. Moreover, the presidential elections of Georgia in October 2018 and Ukraine in April 2019 were held before the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas that of Moldova in November 2020 was held during a heavy phase of the pandemic under conditions that were not favorable for any kind of election. Nevertheless, Moldova’s diaspora have been exceptionally active in terms of the participation in the elections of 2020 and 2021.
Obviously, other circumstances should also be taken into account while contrasting internal and external voting. External voting turnouts almost always tend to be less than inside the country because in general it is more costly and difficult for an average external voter to reach the nearest polling station located in consulates and embassies. Moreover, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters all over the world have been facing challenges, including the fear of being infected by the virus, efforts by governments to postpone elections, switching to electronic voting or voting by mail etc. Studies from various parts of the world register a decline of voting turnout during the COVID-19 pandemic [Morris and Miller, 2021; Picchio and Santolini, 2021; Noury et al. 2021]. The decline of the voter turnout tends to be even more notable in external voting. For instance, during the Presidential elections in Mongolia held in July 2021, the government actively encouraged Mongolians living abroad to vote. However, only 4% of all Mongolian external voters have voted on the election day [News.mn, 2021].
The stark difference in electoral preferences between internal and external voters is one of the most peculiar aspects of the recent presidential elections held in four of the five above mentioned post-socialist countries. The central question that arises is whether electoral preferences of emigrants are shaped by emigration itself and they develop their own political views independently from their compatriots living in the home country, or decisions to emigrate are by itself politically motivated. Or could it be that emigration is an option only for certain segments of the population that have a different set of views from the rest of the population? Another important question that arises is whether the degree of democracy in the destination country of emigrants affects their voting patterns. For instance, the internal and external electors voted predominantly opposite to each other in Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Mongolia, while in Kyrgyzstan the voting patterns were pretty similar inside and outside the country. Unlike the rest, the vast majority of Kyrgyzstan’s emigrants’ live in non-democratic countries, which could be one of the reasons why they vote in a similar manner to their compatriots in the homeland.
The issue of external voting without any doubt creates a great interest in many aspects, especially in the context of new post-socialist democracies. Most of these new democracies are currently going through a process of deep political transformation and realignment towards western democratic practices. In this light, the increasing flows of migration from post-socialist states to the west could be seen as a force that accelerates the democratic transformations. Therefore, the external electorate will become an increasingly relevant political factor, as the number of emigrants will surge further in the near future. In this light, we can expect that the diaspora population will be an important factor in political and socio-economic processes in post-communist and post-socialist states.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Kanat Makhanov is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in Business Economics from the KIMEP University from 2012. In 2014 he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Vigo (Spain), completing his thesis on “Industrial Specialization in autonomous regions of Spain and Kazakhstan”. His main research interests are Spatial Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Economics, Human and Economic Geography.