Moldova – Temporary Suspensions of the President of the Republic

The constitutional choices made in the Republic of Moldova throughout the past 25 years cover an intriguing variety of executive-legislative relations. In the style of a ping-pong game (Fruhstorfer 2016), the idea of going back and forth between a parliamentary and semi-presidential system is a constant theme in the political discussion. At the moment, the game has moved back to a semi-presidential system. This change was not based on a constitutional amendment, but a decision of the constitutional court to declare the 2000 amendments unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016). This decision helped to diffuse the massive protests after a corruption scandal and bank heist in course of which the country lost approx. 1 billion USD (Kottasova 2015, see also Brett et al. 2015). During this crisis, the constitutional court showed an unprecedented level of judicial activism that was, as we will discuss below, no isolated case. It was the start of the Moldovan political elite relying on the constitutional court to help solve inter-institutional conflicts. It is also an example of how a ruling elite tries to preserve its hegemonic status (see Hirschl 2004). To address these issues, this post will briefly describe the chain of controversial decisions of the constitutional court concerning the president since 2016. This is followed by an analysis of the most recent decision to temporarily suspend the president.

The constitutional court and the direct presidential election

In a controversial and surprising decision in March 2016, the constitutional court ruled the 2000 constitutional amendment unconstitutional (Constitutional Court 2016) and de facto re-established the 1994 constitution and reinstated the direct election of the president. (For an analysis of this court decision, see an earlier post). The first presidential elections under the reinstated 1994 constitutional order took place in November 2016. Igor Dodon won the run-off vote with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Maia Sandu). As in many semi-presidential systems, this led to a period of cohabitation with the government of Pavel Filip. This per se conflictual situation is exacerbated by the constant, yet informal influence of Vlad Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc is a wealthy oligarch, chair of the PDM (Democratic Party of Moldova), and is incredibly unpopular according to recent polls (IRI.org 2017, originally cited by Popșoi 2017). But he managed to transform the PDM that won only close to 16% of the votes in the 2014 parliamentary election into the main political force in Moldova. Right after the election, it was unclear how confrontational the Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon relation might be. Since then, we have seen an “inter-institutional deadlock” (Popșoi 2017), which is, according to a variety of independent observers, only a sham to disguise how Plahotniuc and Dodon have consolidated their power with the help of each other.

The suspension of the president

The activism of the court in recent years has often targeted the presidency, yet the suspension of the president in October 2017 and again in January 2018 added a whole new chapter to the already complicated relations between the president and government. Much of the reasoning behind the motivation of Dodon and Plahotniuc is highly speculative, so it seems useful to describe the facts first.

In October 2017, the Moldovan Constitutional Court suspended the president temporarily. The reason was Dodon’s refusal to appoint Eugen Sturza as Minister of Defense, an appointment process that had already started in December 2016. Early in 2017, the constitutional court had issued an interpretation of Art. 98 of the constitution, whereby the president can only reject the nomination of a cabinet member once (Constitutional Court 2017). Thus, the repeated refusal to appoint Sturza led the government to appeal to the constitutional court again. The court first decided that the refusal to confirm a cabinet nomination is considered a violation of the constitution and can led to a temporary suspension. This suspension was issued by the court and was in force until the acting president (the head of parliament) appointed the new minister.
Yet, the constitutional procedure stipulated by Art. 89 would have been entirely different:

(1) In the event where the President of the Republic of Moldova commits grave offenses infringing upon constitutional provisions, he may be suspended from office by Parliament if two-thirds of the members cast their votes in support of suspension.
(2) The motion requesting the suspension from office may be initiated by at least one-third of the members, and it must be brought to the knowledge of the President without delay. The President may give explanations on the actions for which he is being censured before Parliament.
(3) If the motion requesting suspension from office meets with approval, a national referendum shall be organized within 30 days for removing the President from office.”( Constitution of the Republic of Moldova)

A temporary suspension – not because of health reasons – is thus an invention of the constitutional court that sets a dangerous precedent. Two months later the government again appealed to the court to temporarily suspend the president from office, because Dodon refused to appoint seven new ministers. And again in early 2018, two days after the decision of the court on the second appeal, a third complaint reached the court for another temporary suspension, because the president refused to sign a law banning alleged Russian propaganda. According to Art. 98, the president has only a suspensive veto power, but has to promulgate a law after the initiative is reconfirmed by parliament. However, Dodon refused to promulgate the law and the interim president (again the speaker of parliament) appointed both the ministers and promulgated the law.

Any assessment of the role of the constitutional court, the president and the head of the PDM in this complicated power structure is hardly possible without a partisan reading. Some describe Plahotniuc as a pro-democratic, pro-western figure and the PDM as the main party that guarantees democratic development (RFE/RL 2017). But Plahotniuc is also profiting from East-West tensions, has autocratic tendencies and is accused of corruption (Popșoi 2017a). In any case, he is a main player within the government, although he has no formal governmental role (he is member of parliament and chair of the PDM). Dodon’s role and motivations are less clear. On the one hand, he was the former head of the Socialist Party and has a declared pro-Russian stance. This is a logical explanation for his refusal to promulgate the anti-Russian propaganda law. On the other hand, he cooperated closely with Plahotniuc and the PDM to change the country’s electoral law to a mixed electoral system. This move was widely condemned by international actors (among them most importantly the Venice commission, see Venice Commission 2017). Some observers have even argued that Dodon has reached an informal agreement with Plahotniuc and informally supports the political course to hold his position (see for example Necsutu 2017). Authors have described this as a “political cartel narrative” (Popșoi 2017a) with the aim of a Russia-backed coalition between the Socialists (PD) and the PDM after the upcoming parliamentary elections in November this year.

Beyond the speculation about the motives that led Dodon to comply with the course of Plahotniuc, it is clear that the constitutional court is instrumentalized in allowing the ruling elite to preserve their newly won influence and power. The inter-institutional deadlock is nothing new for the Republic of Moldova and neither is the issue of EU integration vs. close ties with Russia. Neither is necessarily beneficial for democratic development, but both always seemed possible to overcome. Yet, what will have a lasting influence on the downward spiral of Moldovan democracy is the unprecedented involvement of the court in the power struggle that will undermine what is left of the public’s trust in the constitutional court.

Literature

BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Constitutional Court (2017): http://constcourt.md/libview.php?l=en&idc=7&id=938&t=/Media/Noutati/The-President-of-Moldova-may-only-once-decline-PMs-proposal-of-Cabinet-reshuffle/ [accessed January 14 2018]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Moldova, in: Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Edited by Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Springer VS, 359-387.
Kottasova, Ivana (2015): How to steal $ 1 billion in three days. http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/07/news/economy/moldova-stolen-billion/. May 7 [accessed January 10, 2018]
IRI.org (2017): Public Opinion Survey (2017). http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_moldova_poll_march_2017.pdf. [accessed January 10, 2018]
Necsutu, Madalin (2017): Dodon Response to Suspension Puzzles Moldova’s Socialists, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/dodon-response-to-suspension-puzzles-moldova-s-socialists-01-10-2018 [January, 14, 2018]
Popșoi, Mihai (2017): Moldovan President Igor Dodon Suspended by the Constitutional Court. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/10/25/moldovan-president-igor-dodon-suspended-by-the-constitutional-court/ [last accessed January 15, 2018]
Popșoi, Mihai (2017a): Moldovan Politics 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. https://moldovanpolitics.com/2017/12/27/moldovan-politics-2017-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/ [accessed January 15, 2018]
Venice Commission (2017): Joint opinion on the draft laws on amending and completing certain legislative acts, in: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)012-e [accessed January 10, 2018]

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