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CIS: The Hard Road Away From Presidential Rule

By Ilian Cashu --> Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (epa) Two diverging political trends have emerged over the past five years in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In the first group of countries, comprising the five Central Asian states and Belarus, incumbent presidents already serving their second term have instigated referendums with the aim of extending their rule for one or more additional terms. Other CIS states, including Moldova, Ukraine, and Armenia, have set about curbing presidential powers through constitutional reforms. Proponents of parliamentarism emphasize its greater potential for democratization and emphasize the potentially authoritarian character of presidentialism.

Yet whatever the official justification for these democratic reforms, basically they reflected bitter power struggles among political elites. In all three cases, the bulk of the bargaining was conducted behind the scenes, with little or no effort made to explain the essence of such important constitutional changes to the public. The Armenian opposition launched a vocal campaign urging voters to boycott the November 2005 referendum on constitutional changes, arguing that the amendments did not do enough to curb the president's powers, and they subsequently rejected as rigged official claims of 65 percent turnout, with 93 percent of participants endorsing the proposed changes. President Robert Kocharian's opponents fear that he plans to use the reform to remain at the peak of Armenian politics beyond 2008, when his second presidential term expires, by assuming the post of prime minister. It is speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin too may favor a transition to parliamentary rule in order to remain in power as the head of the cabinet after his second presidential term ends in 2008.

The Moldova Model

These constitutional changes determine the official rules of the political game, and, therefore, are vital to mitigating conflicts among ruling elites. To that end, the implementation of the new rules counts more than the debates surrounding their design. With a parliamentary republic in place since March 2001, Moldova offers an indication of how things might develop in Armenia and Ukraine.

The Moldovan parliament approved a reform bill by an overwhelming majority (98 votes to 2) in July 2000. The reform aimed at dampening the political aspirations of then President Petru Lucinschi to introduce a super-presidentialist system along the model established in Russia by Boris Yeltsin. According to Lucinschi, such magnified presidential powers were a necessary precondition for successfully carrying out enduring economic reforms.

By contrast, his most vocal opponents, including Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) leader Vladimir Voronin, insisted parliamentary rule would distinguish Moldova from the authoritarian regimes of Central Asian and set it on a solid path toward European-style democracy. In addition, the proposed reform abolished direct presidential elections, thus significantly reducing the legitimacy of future heads of state.

Communists Call The Shots

But following a landslide victory in the February 2001 parliamentary elections, it was PCM chief Voronin who obtained the leverage to interpret and implement the constitutional reform. Voronin could have chosen either of the two most influential positions under the parliamentary republic -- parliamentary speaker or prime minister. Instead, he preferred to serve as president, albeit with a much more powerful mandate than his constitutionally reserved ceremonial role.

Given the popular prestige of the presidency and a lingering Soviet legacy for strong executives, Voronin's choice was not unexpected. In addition, he managed to retain his position as PCM chairman by skillfully exploiting a gap in the reform design, namely the absence of a clear constitutional ban on the president simultaneously holding two positions. A proposal floated by PCM officials in the summer of 2001 to have Voronin take over the premiership on top of his presidential function never saw the light of the day. In fact, the dual executive system was established to use the cabinet as a scapegoat for potential policy failures.

The issue of a politicized presidency rose to the top of the country's political agenda in the wake of the parliamentary elections of March 6, 2005, when in exchange for voting in favor of Voronin's reelection as president, several political parties agreed one month later to depoliticize the position of the head of state. Also, the PCM pledged to abandon its communist orthodoxy and join the mainstream of modern European leftist parties.

Broken Promises

With a communist-majority government and a multiparty presidential coalition, Moldova's parliamentary republic continues to function as it did during the communists' first term in power (2001-05). And almost a year after the assurances given to the opposition, Voronin is still PCM chairman. Nor are there any signs that the party's name will be changed in the near future. Voronin intends to control both the process of modernizing the PCM and the timing of his resignation as party chairman in order not to jeopardize the Communists' success at the ballot box in the local and parliamentary elections due in 2007 and 2009, respectively.

But while reform of the PCM might well be an internal party affair, the depolitization of the presidency is not. It deals with the constitutional rules of the political game and affects both the government and opposition players alike. In November 2005, the leaders of the Democratic Party (PD) and Social Liberal Party (PSL), Dumitru Diakov and Oleg Serebrian, who backed Voronin's reelection, publicly accused the president of reneging on his promise to step down as party chief. The PSL leader went even further, calling for the president's impeachment.

Although the PSL lacks the institutional means to carry out this initiative (the votes of two-thirds out of the country's 101 lawmakers are required to impeach the president, while there are currently only 11 PSL and PD deputies), it is an important symbolic move from the so-called "constructivist opposition." These developments show that depoliticizing the presidency could become the most explosive political issue of the communists' second term in power.

Of course, only a constitutional amendment could bridge this legal gap. Even if such a proposal is not currently on the table, Voronin's official relinquishing of his chairmanship post might strengthen, rather than weaken, the PCM. The Moldovan president could follow the example of his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu. Although Basescu gave up the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) after winning a presidential election in December 2004, he remains an influential behind-the-scenes actor in PD affairs. In addition, an unofficial role for Voronin would conform perfectly to the Byzantine character of present-day Moldovan politics.

In addition, by abandoning the post of PCM chairman, Voronin would deprive critics from within the sultanistic regime of Transdniester separatist leader Igor Smirnov of any pretext to accuse him of authoritarianism. A consolidated democracy is not only a precondition for the reunification of the country with its rebellious Transdniester region, but also for Moldova's efforts to integrate into the European Union.

Looking Toward Ukraine

Although a similar reform has been in effect for two months in Ukraine, its effects remain inconclusive. The current standoff between the Verkhovna Rada and President Viktor Yushchenko will subside after next month's parliamentary elections only if the president manages to reassemble a strong Orange coalition capable of winning a majority. Despite the procedural irregularities associated with deciding the reform's design before the critical third round of voting in December 2004, Ukrainian democracy would be better served if it is implemented without significant revision. That would make the Ukrainian political process more transparent and help make the democratic aspirations of millions of Ukrainians who unequivocally supported Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution a reality.

It is clear from the Moldovan experience that the transition to parliamentary rule is a very complicated political process. Because the rules of the political game remain fluid, politicians tailor them to promote partisan agendas, meaning that democratic advancement is often sacrificed for political stability. However, curtailing the power of a strong executive is a decisive step in the right direction. Had this process been launched after the first wave of reforms in the mid-1990s, some CIS countries, including Moldova, would be further down the path of democratic consolidation today.

The Government's View

Armenian President Robert Kocharian (file photo)

A PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM OR A PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM? The Armenian government has issued a pamphlet of frequently asked questions about the 27 November referendum in order to get the state's view across. To read a complete translation of this document, click here.