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Moldova: Analysis From Washington -- Checks And Balances

Washington, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A little-noticed court decision in Moldova this week overruling that republic's president in his effort to bypass the country's constitution represents a major step forward in the institutionalization of democracy there.

The Moldovan Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that President Petru Lucinchi cannot stage a new referendum as part of his effort to increase the power of his office relative to the country's parliament. Luscinchi was seeking to do so because Moldovan voters earlier had failed to back such a plan. The court held that under the constitution, only the national parliament could authorize a new vote.

Iurie Rosca, the deputy chairman of the parliament and a leader of the Christian Democratic Popular Front, praised the court's action. "It's a ruling favoring democracy," he said. Other parliamentarians echoed his words although it is not yet certain that the court decision will mark the end of Lucinschi's drive to gain greater power and overcome the parliamentary deadlock in his country.

Lucinschi's effort and the parliament's resistance are typical of processes taking place across many post-communist countries. Faced with pressing social problems that parliamentary systems seem incapable of responding to in a rapid manner and pressed by Western advocates of reform to move quickly, presidents have generally sought to concentrate ever more power in their own hands.

They have often been able to do so because the countries in this region have been accustomed to strong executives in the past and because the citizens of these countries often have little patience with the niceties of democratic procedure -- particularly when they face the social and economic crises of post-communist transitions.

In Moldova, the average wage is only $17 a month. The value of the national currency has fallen by 50 percent against the dollar in the last year alone. And as this decline continues, the parliament seems unable to act: Indeed, the country's prime minister has just delivered an ultimatum to that body calling for it to enact a whole series of new laws or live with the consequences of the dissolution of the second government this year.

At the same time, efforts by parliaments to resist the growth of executive power have also continued, fueled both by the desire on the part of many political figures to maximize their own power and a more widely spread fear in the population that the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual could threaten the entire democratic agenda.

Sometimes, as in the Russian Federation in October 1993, this conflict between parliaments and presidents has descended into violence. More often, the conflict has simmered with each side using a variety of means to achieve its ends -- with presidents simply acting when the parliaments do not and with parliaments trying to block the presidents, sometimes with success and sometimes not.

What is striking about the Moldovan situation is that both sides in this struggle have been willing to turn to the courts and that the courts appear to have sufficient authority to serve as a genuine check on the power of the executive.

Such a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches is a key feature of American democracy, one that has evolved over the last two hundred years but that has served to keep now one and now another of the other branches from overriding constitutional arrangements.

By taking this decision now, Moldova's Constitutional Court has demonstrated that it is prepared to assume the role that the Supreme Court often has played in the United States. By accepting its verdict, both the president and the parliament there will be sending a strong signal to the world that Moldova is prepared to play by democratic rules, a major achievement compared to some other post-communist countries.