Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 133

Among the fifteen post-Soviet countries, Moldova is the only one whose Communist Party is the most influential political force. Banned in 1991, relegalized in 1994 and eligible to compete in parliamentary elections in 1998, Moldova’s Communist Party gained forty out of 101 parliamentary seats, with the balance divided among mutually hostile parties, blocs and independent deputies. The presidency could and at times did provide a useful counterweight to the communist-dominated parliament. On July 5, however, that parliament voted overwhelmingly to change the constitution, turning Moldova from a semi-presidential into a parliamentary republic, its president into a figurehead, and the incumbent Petru Lucinschi into a lame-duck president who will be out of office next January. The transfer of powers to this parliament can only increase communist influence on Moldova’s internal and external policies.

The vote on July 5 was the final battle in a constitutional conflict, underway since early 1999, between Lucinschi and the parliament. In order to break the logjam on economic reforms, Lucinschi proposed constitutional amendments which would substantially have increased the powers of the executive branch at the expense of parliament. His maximal goal–endorsed by a nonbinding, “consultative” national referendum in May 1999–was to turn Moldova into a presidential republic. Faced with insurmountable parliamentary resistance across party lines, the president eventually proposed a compromise under which the supplementary powers would mostly have accrued to the cabinet of ministers, not the president. Lucinschi, however, pursued the constitutional agenda with the inconsistency which is a personal hallmark, and fatally meshed that agenda with his own reelection effort. To ensure his success in the presidential election scheduled for November 2000, Lucinschi actively sought a deal with the very Communist Party which stood to lose a great deal from the president’s constitutional initiatives.

The right-of-center and centrist parliamentary parties felt equally threatened because they stood to lose control over their respective spheres of influence in the executive departments. Under the semi-presidential system in effect until now, the formation of any Moldovan cabinet of ministers is accompanied by spoils-sharing arrangements, constantly negotiated and renegotiated among the parties. Lucinschi’s proposals would have ended that practice. The parties felt, however, that the president’s proposals would merely have redistributed the spoils in favor of the president’s allies. Thirty-eight of their deputies submitted a set of constitutional amendments designed to transfer the main presidential prerogatives to the legislature and to turn the president himself into a nominee of the parliament. The Communist Party and the self-described right-wing party of the Christian-Democrats played both the presidential and the parliamentary side until the last moment.

It was not until the eve of the July 5 showdown that the main four parliamentary parties formed a solid front to oust the president from office. On that day, at least ninety deputies voted to adopt the set of constitutional amendments establishing a parliamentary republic. Effective immediately, presidential elections by popular vote are abolished. The president shall be elected by parliament, requiring a majority of at least three-fifths of the deputies. The legislature will from now play the main role in forming the cabinet of ministers and in appointing the members of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the general prosecutor, the Chamber of Accounts and the top management of national television and radio.

In an accompanying declaration, the parliament advanced the familiar communist argument that presidential elections by popular vote are unnecessarily divisive, a distraction from real problems and, in any case, a waste of money. The declaration asked the president in barely veiled language to leave office quietly.

Parliament will elect the new president in November in accordance with the preexisting schedule. Lucinschi’s first presidential term of four years expires on January 15, 2001. He lost no time announcing that he will sign and promulgate the constitutional revisions within the required two weeks. But in the same address to the country, he described the changes as undemocratic, inspired by “oligarchic and partisan interests,” incompatible with the principle of separation of powers and that of checks and balances, and depriving the electorate of any real influence on the choice of the national leadership. The defeated president is not the only one to make those points.

Indeed, Moldova’s parliament is elected on the basis of party slates, which are drawn up by authoritarian party leaders. In the country’s current conditions, a parliamentary republic means–to all intents and purposes–the exercise of political power by the top leaders of four parliamentary groups. The parliament recently raised the electoral threshold from 4 to 6 percent–a change which virtually guarantees this parliament’s self-reproduction in 2002. Any important national decision will, moreover, require the Communist Party’s consent.

With Lucinschi out of the way, the inter-party consensus will almost certainly break down again. This parliament’s arithmetic means that almost any legislation will require ad-hoc alliances for passage. Those alliances are likely to change in kaleidoscopic fashion, resulting in unpredictable changes and almost certainly precluding the resumption of any consistent economic reform.

The next president is likely to be one of three party leaders: the Democratic Party’s Dumitru Diacov, who is the parliament’s chairman and who would be acceptable to the communists; leader of the Party of Rebirth and Conciliation former President Mircea Snegur, who is not acceptable to the communists, but might emerge as the joint candidate of centrist and center-right parties; and the Communist Party’s First Secretary Vladimir Voronin, a new kingmaker of Moldovan politics (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, July 5-8; see the Monitor, January 4, March 9, April 12, 18, 24).