Moldova’s constitutional referendum, held on September 5, has failed due to lacking a quorum, with only 29 percent voter turnout (Moldpres, September 6). The failure has triggered a full-blown crisis of legitimacy for the political system in general and the governing authorities in particular.
The governing Alliance for European Integration (AEI) of four parties had initiated this referendum to circumvent (not resolve) the year-long vacuum of legitimacy in parliament, the presidential institution, and government (EDM, August 6, 16). The collapse of the parliamentary system of government has cast Moldova in the throes of a permanent electoral campaign since April 2009, without fully legitimate state authorities.
Under the existing constitution, the parliament (itself resulting from repeated inconclusive elections) should have been dissolved on June 16, 2010, following its latest failure to elect a head of state; and new elections ought to have been held within 60 days of the parliament’s dissolution.
Instead, AEI’s leaders called the referendum to change the constitution, so as to have the head of state elected by popular vote. This procedure suits the presidential aspirations of Prime Minister, Vlad Filat (leader of the Liberal-Democrat Party), and of the former parliament’s chairman (leader of the Democratic Party), Marian Lupu, rival leaders at the top of a deeply divided AEI. Filat stands for a powerful executive presidency, while Lupu favors a parliamentary system of government. Neither of them can hope to be elected in a parliament where the opposition Communist Party holds –and is likely to maintain for another electoral cycle– a solid plurality.
The referendum maneuver also suited the interests of the two smaller parties in the AEI. Parliamentary Chairman, and acting head of state, Mihai Ghimpu (leader of the Liberal Party), as well as the AEI’s fourth party (meanwhile reduced to a splinter), fear loss of their positions in any new parliamentary elections. They were hoping that the referendum and ensuing presidential election by popular vote would enable them de facto to prolong the life of the existing parliament, again in disregard of the constitution.
AEI leaders had campaigned for a high voter turnout in the referendum, with the prime minister in particular marshalling administrative resources toward that goal. The AEI also used its slim parliamentary majority to change the law on referenda, lowering from 50 percent to 33 percent the minimum voter turnout needed for validation of the result. For its part, the Communist Party urged voters to boycott the referendum. The communists have also been boycotting the parliament’s sessions since June 16, citing the letter of the constitution to argue that the AEI was “usurping power” after that date. On September 3, the four AEI leaders issued a final, optimism-filled, joint appeal to voters, urging a high turnout; whereas the Communist leader Vladimir Voronin (head of state 2001-2009) renewed the boycott call on his party’s behalf (Moldpres, September 3).
In the event, voters delivered a stinging rebuke to AEI leaders. These had misjudged recent opinion surveys, which showed overwhelming public support for electing the head of state by popular vote. However, voters were ultimately disoriented and alienated by the daily televised spectacle of rivalry and conflict within the AEI. Some of the AEI leaders, while self-described as liberal, unwittingly enabled the Communist Party to pose as the protector of the constitution, guardian of a parliamentary system of government (which the communists had only honored in the breach when they were in power). More broadly, Voronin´s communists cast themselves as a party of stability and order, in contrast to the perceived chaos and never-ending election campaigns from April 2009 to date, which look set to continue.
Today’s situation resembles that of 1999-2000, when Moldova’s first major experiment with a parliamentary system of government discredited the notion of democracy with ordinary voters, facilitating the Communist Party’s return to power in 2001 in free elections, for the ensuing eight years. Voronin and his party preserved the parliamentary republic pro forma, while operating a presidential republic de facto. At present, however, the communists no longer command enough voter support to stage a major comeback, and lack the administrative and business resources toward that goal. Voronin and his party are slowly but steadily declining in the polls. Exaggerated fears of a communist revanche among some elements of AEI serve as an excuse for postponing the overdue parliamentary elections.
The AEI’s four top leaders act as a committee on those infrequent occasions when they are able to reach joint decisions. This procedure is itself an extra-constitutional one, substituting this informal quartet for the dysfunctional institutional mechanisms. On September 6, the quartet (though lacking constitutional or legal standing) requested that the constitutional court ascertain whether the prerequisites exist for dissolving the parliament, following the referendum’s failure (Moldpres, September 6). Prime Minister Filat’s party and some others in the AEI favor holding presidential and parliamentary elections concurrently in November; while others, notably Ghimpu, may accept the dissolution, but not necessarily new elections any time soon.
Moldova lacks genuine democratic political parties; instead, it has “project” parties and interest-group parties, with little correspondence between their label and their content. The communists remain the only grass-roots party for the time being, before it exhausts its remaining demographic and media resources. Moldova has descended from the political crisis of spring 2009, to the constitutional crisis of August 2009 to June 2010, to the crisis of legitimacy of the authorities since June of this year. The country may need to consider instituting a presidential republic, if a representative leader with a competent team can be identified amid the present chaos.