Sept. 1, 2010, 12:12 p.m.
On September 5, Moldova will hold a national referendum that may put an end to the country’s year-long political stalemate. For more than a year, Moldova’s political elites have been struggling to reach consensus and elect a president. The referendum will seek to resolve this stalemate by asking voters to amend the country’s constitution and allow for the direct election of the president.
Moldova has operated under its current parliamentary system of government since 2000. The system has a clear division of powers between the president, prime-minister and parliament, with the latter holding the most power. The president is not voted for directly by the people, but indirectly elected by parliament through a two-round system. In order for a president to be confirmed, he must receive sixty-one votes, which is three-fifths of elected legislators. This has proven to be an impossible threshold over the past year.
THE PAST YEAR
Moldova’s year-long crisis began after the parliamentary elections of April 5, 2009, when polls resulted in a vote recount, mass protests and violence, which were labeled by some journalists a “Twitter Revolution.” Opposition parties claimed election fraud while the ruling Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) claimed the riots were an attempted coup d’état.
As a result, on May 20 and again on June 3, opposition parties boycotted the presidential vote, leaving the PCRM unable to elect their candidate. While holding a majority of the 101 parliamentary seats, the PCRM was still one vote shy of the 61 necessary to elect a head of state. President Vladimir Voronin dissolved Parliament and called early elections for July 29, 2009, hoping to expand his party’s 60 seat majority.
Snap elections, however, brought a change to the political balance of Parliament. The Twitter Revolution galvanized the opposition and the PCRM lost their majority for the first time in eight years. Four opposition parties that had gained representation in parliament — the Liberal Democrats, the Liberals, the Democrats and the “Moldova Noastra” Alliance — formed a coalition called the Alliance for European Integration (AEI). The AEI held a combined 53 seats in Parliament, while the PCRM was diminished to 48. The AEI elected Mihai Ghimpu Speaker of the Parliament and Acting President of the country. However, like the PCRM before them, the AEI was short of the 61 votes needed to elect a president. The AEI nominated former PCRM member Marian Lupu as their nominee, but were unable to garner the necessary votes.
THE NEED FOR A NEW SYSTEM
Parliament’s repeated failure to elect a president led the AEI to try a different strategy. Since the beginning of 2010, political parties, civil society organizations, and representatives from the international community have been discussing ways to reform the country’s constitution and political institutions. Both the ruling alliance and communist opposition were not satisfied with the status quo and the political stalemate it created. The AEI proposed altering the Constitution to allow for direct election of the president, which according to the Barometer of Public Opinion in Moldova for April-May 2010, is supported by almost 76 percent of the population (www.ipp.md). The PCRM countered with the idea of simply lowering the 61 vote threshold, allowing the president to be elected by a simple majority of MPs. In addition to disagreements over how to elect the president, both parties differed on the timing of the reforms. The AEI wanted to introduce changes before the dissolution of Parliament, while the PCRM, fearing the Alliance would renounce snap elections, wanted this change to be made after snap elections.
Both of the AEI and PCRM’s proposals were sent to the Constitutional Court and approved. After months of unproductive negotiations with the PCRM, and knowing they lacked the votes to pass a constitutional amendment in Parliament, leaders of the AEI decided the best strategy would be to try their luck through a nationwide referendum. As a result, on July 7, 2010, Parliament voted to hold the first binding constitutional referendum in Moldovan history.
The AEI went around the PCRM this summer by using their simple majority in parliament to adopt modifications to the electoral code. Under the revised code, the requirements were lowered for a referendum to be deemed valid. Now, only one-third of all voters on the voter registry must participate, down from the previous threshold of 60 percent. The code was also revised so a referendum proposal is adopted if it gains support from a majority of voters participating in the referendum (www.alegeri.md). These modifications mean that abstaining from, or boycotting a referendum is less of a political weapon.
Another innovation of the revised electoral code is the provision of free electoral advertising time on public TV and radio channels. As a result, a total of twenty-five parties have registered with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) as “referendum participants” – a title, which gives them the right to send representatives to EMBs, campaign for or against the referendum, take part in TV and radio debates, and have access to free airtime. Referendum participants are also obliged to open a special electoral bank account and submit weekly financial reports to the CEC.
At registration, parties were asked to declare their position regarding the referendum. Sixteen parties support the direct election of the president, four are against, four are boycotting the referendum altogether and one took a neutral position. To date, only a few parties are actively involved in the referendum campaign. Most of the participants probably have no doubt about the results of the referendum but view it as an early start for their presidential and snap election campaigns.
Voters are likely to approve the referendum when they cast their ballots this week. Although the Communist and Social Democratic parties are “boycotting” the referendum, the latest public opinion poll shows that 62 percent of respondents plan on participating in the referendum and 74 percent of likely voters plan on approving the reforms (www.azi.md). If the referendum were to fail, Acting President Mihai Ghimpu would probably call snap elections soon. New presidential elections under the existing system of government, however, are less likely to produce an outcome any different from what the country has experienced over the past year. If voters ratify the referendum, however, there would likely be additional modifications to the constitution and the electoral code, which would help move Moldova out of its political stalemate. Ratification would also result in additional elections being held, which would probably be in the form of parliamentary, and for the first time from 1996, direct presidential elections in November.
Pavel Cabacenco serves as the IFES’ Deputy Country Director in the Republic of Moldova. He manages the development and implementation of a technical electoral assistance program, focused on building capacity of the Central Electoral Commission through training on administering elections and the development civic and voter education programs. Cabacenco’s expertise is in the field of electoral official training, institutional strategic development, voter registration, civic education and out-of-country voting. He is an accredited BRIDGE workshop facilitator.