Moldovans are once again considering changes to the rules governing election of their president. The current election system has been the cause of recurrent crises, and if not changed promises to be so once again in the upcoming 2016 presidential election.
Until recently, presidents have played a central role in Moldovan political life, and competition among top leaders to achieve the post has been intense. During the first decade of the postcommunist period Presidents Mircea Snegur (1990-1997) and the Petru Lucinschi (1997-2001) made use of the post as a counterbalance, sometimes more and sometimes less effectively, to the fragmented legislature. In the following decade Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) leader, Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009) was able to effectively exercise both executive and legislative authority from the Office of the Presidency.
It is only since the most recent presidential election, held in March 2012, that the role of the Pesident has declined in significance. President Nicolae Timofti, the current incumbent, was selected for the position in order to end a deadlock between the dominant political party leaders, none of whom was willing to see one of the others assume the office. Previous to becoming President Timofti served as Chairman of the Supreme Council of Magistrates and was a political independent. Without control over major party resources, he was counted on not to emerge as a major competitor for power. He was apparently expected to remain neutral in the internecine disputes among ruling coalition members and to support the broad direction of established foreign policy orientation. During his tenure in office President Timofti has occasionally engaged in controversial partisan activity, but has in general lived up to these expectations.
Since Independence, Moldova has employed two presidential electoral systems. Like many post-Soviet republics it implemented direct election of the president at the time of the USSR’s break-up. Initially named President by the country’s last Supreme Soviet, Mircea Snegur implemented direct election to the office and was made President by popular vote in December 1991. Direct election of the president was retained in Moldova’s first constitution in 1994 and was employed for a second time in 1996 and resulted in the election of Petru Lucinschi. The following four years, however, were characterized by a nearly constant struggle between the legislative and executive branches. By the end of his term Lucinschi was actively lobbying for transition to a presidential system of government. In order to block Lucinschi’s election to a second term and avoid that outcome legislative leaders banded together in December 2000 to modify the constitutional regarding presidential election. According to the new formula the president was to be elected by parliament. Election requires the support of 3/5s, or 61 of Moldova’s 101 MPs. If no one wins, a second round it held between the top two candidates. If no one achieves success in the second round a new contest must be organized. If that ballot fails to produce a winner, new parliamentary elections must be called.
The new system, which remains in effect at present, immediately proved itself unsound under Moldovan political condition. On its first use in 2000 repeat elections failed to produce a winning candidate, leading to dissolution and early legislative elections in 2001. Those elections brought a Communist majority to power in Parliament. The following two presidential contests proceeded smoothly as a consequence of the PCRM’s legislative dominance, giving Vladimir Voronin first round wins on each occasion.
By the time of April 2009 legislative elections the Communist dominance had waned significantly. As a consequence the weaknesses of the 2000 presidential electoral rules resurfaced, producing a cycle of ongoing crisis. This began with the failure to elect a president after repeat attempts in May and June 2009. The repeat parliamentary elections held in July as called for by the constitution increased support for a new anti-communist coalition, the Alliance for European Integration (AEI), but left the Communists with sufficient seatsin parliament to block election of a President. According to the Constitution repeat elections could not be held again within a year, so AEI leaders employed the device of appointing one of their number, Liberal Party leader Mihia Ghimpu, Acting President until new parliamentary elections could be held. They then called a referendum designed to return the country to direct presidential elections. This measure, held in September 2010 gained nearly 90% support from those who participated, but did not achieve the 33% turnout required to alter the Constitution. On the failure of the referendum Moldova’s Constitutional Court called for Parliament to be dissolved. New legislative elections were held in November 2010, again without producing a majority sufficient to either elect a President or alter the Constitution from within the legislature. Once again, resort was made to the expedient of naming an acting-president, in this case Democratic Party (PD) leader Marian Lupu, while efforts were made to resolve the impasse before another round of early legislative elections would be required. Finally, after an abortive effort in Parliament to elect Lupu President on December 16, 2011, and under the pressure of a looming third set of early parliamentary elections, AEI party leaders with the support of defectors from the communists managed to elect President Timofti with 62 votes in March 2012.
Regularly scheduled parliamentary elections in November of last year left parliament once again in a state of disarray, with the former governing AEI coalition parties (Liberal Democrats (PLDM), Liberal Party and the Democratic Party) deeply divided and without sufficient votes to elect a President. When coalition negotiations between the former partners broke down a short-lived minority government which depended on parliamentary support from Voronin’s Communists was formed by the PLDM and the Democratic Party. That government, headed by Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici, collapsed this June amidst charges of massive corruption by political leaders and the failure of the Moldovan Banking System.
On July 23nd the previous pro-European AEI parties signed an agreement to resume their coalition based on a common program and a new division of ministerial and government posts. At the same time they agreed to reform the presidential electoral system in order to avoid the recurrent crises that have plagued the country’s politics as presidential elections approach in 2016. According to the new system, which will be submitted as a referendum, the President will continue to be elected by the Parliament, but in a new three round procedure. In the first round 61 votes would be required as at present. If no candidate succeeds a second vote will be held in which 57 votes will be required. If that vote fails, a simple majority of 51 will be needed to elect the President. Since the pro-European parties currently control 55 seats, they should in principle be able to successfully elect a common candidate.
The largest parliamentary party, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), immediately rejected the measure, calling for direct popular election to the post. This position was formerly held by the Reform Liberal Party (splinter faction of the PL) and Liberal Democratic Party leaders, who attempted last year o introduce a referendum for direct presidential election that would have been held in tandem with parliamentary elections, They were denied the right to do so by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that insufficient time was provided between introduction of the measure and the vote.
Will the measure pass? While indications are that the majority of the population would prefer direct presidential election, it is clear that the dominant party leaders are unwilling to allow control of the presidency to slip from their hands at this point. Neither, though, do they wish to continue on in the current state of perpetual crisis. The majority legislative vote proposal at least holds out for them the possibility for resolving the problem. It will in all likelihood be supported by Moldovan voters, if they are given no other choice.
William E. Crowther