The notions of what is legal and what is legitimate are often used interchangeably. However, as any political science student would tell you, ‘legality’ simply means being in accordance with the law, whereas ‘legitimacy’ implies something being in accordance with established rules, principles and traditions, in this case democratic standards. Hence, legitimacy is an inherently social and political construct. Leaders have to rely on public legitimacy to maintain their hold to power, otherwise the social contract, which underpins a democratic political system, becomes invalid, leading to extreme outcomes such as revolutions and coup d’états.
Moldova has faced a classical dilemma of Legality vs. Legitimacy. The seemingly never-ending political crisis in the country has reached its peak on Orthodox New Year, January 14. The day before, President Timofti had denied a very determined Vlad Plahotniuc the nomination to become prime minister. On the 14th, Democrats issued a statement that seemed as if they were ready to agree to early elections. Yet, that proved to be a bluff. It was becoming surreal, as Timofti later that day decided to nominate his Chief of Staff Ion Paduraru, who readily accepted then declined the following day in favor of Plahotniuc’s close friend Pavel Filip, all on the backdrop of mass street protests. A Newmaker.md article suggests that Timofti may have been played by Plahotniuc to nominate Paduraru, the latter being a ploy to preclude Timofti from nominating Strurza again, which would have inevitably led to early elections. The president later felt compelled to explain himself, citing no choice other than nominating Filip, as prescribed by the Constitutional Court, which mandated the president to nominate whoever the parliamentary majority decides. The Court’s interpretation of the Constitution was controversial for some, but I find it perfectly reasonable and in line with a parliamentary system. Unlike, another decision by the Constitutional Court of April 2013, which banned Filat from being appointed PM on allegations of corruption. It came to bite Plahotniuc back as Timofti declined his candidacy on grounds of integrity.
One thing is certain, Plahotniuc was able to craft a 55 votes parliamentary majority for himself (only 51 required), which now serves as the basis for the future Filip government. Of those 55, only 32 are in line with their respective parties (Democrats 19 and Liberals 13) on this important decision. The other 23 went against their parties: 14 defected earlier from the Communists to form a joint social-democrat platform with the Democrats; the other 8 either already defected or run the risk of being expelled from the Liberal Democratic Party; and one defected earlier from the Socialists. Understandably, there is lot of rumor about all of these 23 ‘defectors’ having benefited handsomely in exchange for their defections/votes. Renato Usatii alleged that communist defectors got $200,000 each, while liberal democrats went for $300,000. One of the only six communists who stuck with Voronin, Elena Bodnarenco, confirmed that she had been offered money and appointments for her defection, but failed to say where the offer came from.
The latest polls put both the Democrats and the Liberals at only 5%. Furthermore, Plahotniuc has the highest negative rating among national politicians – a staggering 85%, rivaled only by his nemesis Filat. Given all of the above, is Plahotniuc’s majority legal? As long as one cannot prove that the 23 defectors have been bribed, the answer is ‘Yes’. However, is it legitimate? Well, in light of all of the above and given the mass street protests, I say there are serious questions as to the legitimacy of the entire process.
However, legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. Democrats and Liberals clearly see no issue with it. For them it is just carrying on with the ‘pro-EU integration agenda’, which has been key in providing legitimacy to all of their previous governments. They are in denial about having themselves discredited the pro-EU agenda as a source of such legitimacy. Of course, they can and do blame it all on Filat, but few are buying it. Communist defectors did not even try to present a justification for their actions, while liberal-democrat defectors are playing the ‘Russians are coming’ card, which is now getting old. To be fair, one can only imagine the moral dilemma they were facing, provided that there was one: to act in your own best interest and secure another three years in office or act in the public interest by triggering early elections and most likely lose your seat. The entire PLDM was torn on the matter, only by a narrow majority deciding to stay in opposition.
Of course, one could challenge the notion of early elections being indeed in the public interest, as our neighborly brothers so conveniently – have – done, but in light of increasing public pressure, which can turn ugly at any time, early elections appear as the most sensible thing in order to let off steam and legitimize the new government. Besides, what shall we do if the ‘Russians’ (Dodon and Usatii) will be close to a constitutional majority in three years time? Do we delay elections then or do we ban their participation altogether? Finally, as the stakes get higher, there are voices calling for protesters to effectively deny lawmakers’ access to the Parliament building on the day Filip comes for the confirmation vote. This is prone to escalate into a brawl with police. Hence, the ultimate dilemma is: doing what is clearly illegal, but feels right or abide by the law and accept something that feels awfully wrong. Food for thought…
PS: As the new Filip government will have little legitimacy inside Moldova, legitimization from abroad is the traditional standby solution. Hence, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland’s vague support for a new pro-EU government were taken as a full endorsement, almost a vindication that Plahotniuc was right all along. Similarly, cautious statements of support from German Foreign Minister and Romanian President, who insist on calling the future government ‘pro-European‘ (sic!), do little to advance rule of law and democracy in Moldova. Good old geopolitics wins the day.