Category Archives: democracy

Change of Electoral Systems in EaP Countries: Bolstering Dictators or Causing Maidan

Armenia:

Before the Constitutional Referendum of 2015, Armenia was a semi-presidential republic. It had a semi-proportional representation underpinned by a majority bonus system. The unicameral parliament – National Assembly consisted of 131 deputies, of which 90 were elected on a proportional system and 41 on a majority bonus system, which rewards the largest party with the aim of ensuring stronger government stability. After the Constitutional reform of 2015, Armenia became a parliamentary republic with proportional representation based on one national and 13 regional multi-member constituencies. Yet, incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan, whose second term ends in 2018, is likely to retain strong influence over the political system by becoming Prime Minister (Ayriyan, 2016). The change of the electoral system and the reduction in the number of legislators from 131 to 101 (but may go over 101) is likely to facilitate Sargsyan’s continued grip on power.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan started off a unitary semi-presidential republic with a very strong executive and a mixed electoral system, whereby 100 members were elected in single seat constituencies and 25 on national party lists. Later, in 2002, a constitutional reform was adopted, putting the prime minister second in line to the presidency instead of the parliament speaker, thus creating the conditions for the transfer of power from then President Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham Aliyev (Heinrich, 2010). The same reforms abolished the mixed electoral system in favor a majoritiarian one and eliminated the 50% turnout threshold for both presidential and legislative elections. In August 2003, İlham Aliyev became prime minister, only to win the October 2003 presidential elections. Another constitutional reform in 2009 further strengthened the president’s grip on power by allowing the president of Azerbaijan to serve for more than two consecutive terms (Gahramonova, 2009). The latest constitutional reform approved in a 2016 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years and introduced the office of vice president. Shortly after the referendum, President Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as Vice-President (BBC, 2017).

Belarus

The bicameral Belarusian National Assembly is composed of the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Council of the Republic (higher chamber). The 110 Representatives are elected in single member constituencies, while 64 Council members (represent regional public authorities) are elected indirectly in seven multi-member constituencies, plus another eight Councilors being appointed directly by the president.  However, the parliament is only a rubber stamp institution with the president having a strong veto over the legislative process (Frear, 2014; Gubarevich, 2016). The vast majority of the directly elected legislators in the lower house are loyal to the president, who has considerable influence over the 94 independents from the total of 110 legislators, because the government routinely employs coercion to marginalize and criminalize the opposition’s mobilization efforts (Kulakevich, 2016). The remaining sixteen seats are divided among five political parties, which have very little impact of the political process. President Lukashenko himself is not a member of any party, but rather prefers to run as an independent.

Georgia

Georgia is a semi-presidential republic. Its unicameral parliament of 150 seats is elected through a mixed electoral system (77 seats are decided in one nationwide constituency and closed party lists, while 73 seats a filled in single member districts). The country has had a relatively vibrant democratic experience compared to the three countries discussed above, particularly after the November 2003 “Rose Revolution” led by Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004 and re-elected in 2008. However, as he was approaching the second term limit, Saakashvili decided to maintain power by becoming prime minister. Thus, in 2010 Parliament adopted amendments to the constitution, shifting some powers from the president to the prime minister. However, by the time his second term expired in 2013, Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party had lost the 2012 Parliamentary elections to the opposition Georgian Dream Party. This was the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country’s history (Lutsevych, 2013; Delcour, 2015). The Georgian Dream Party went on to improve its results in the October 2016 parliamentary elections, receiving 115 of 150 seats. Another four parties hold the remaining 35 seats, which makes Georgian Dream a dominant party. It appears determined to use its constitutional majority to further cement its dominance by changing the electoral system to a proportional one with a 5% threshold and the redistribution of the unallocated seats to the winner, offering the incumbent undue advantage (Gilbreath and Sichinava, 2017). Also, the Constitutional reform proposed in April 2017 would do away with direct presidential elections. Instead, the president would be elected by a college of electors composed of 300 parliamentarians and municipal council members, transforming Georgia into a parliamentary republic. Even if the proposed change of the way the president is elected would not go into effect until 2023, it is, nonetheless, viewed as an attack by the ruling Party on the President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is independent (Larsen, 2017). In the short term, the reform could lead to consolidation of the ruling party’s positions, but it could also create room for political pluralism in the future.

Moldova

After a failed experience with the soviet majoritarian electoral system used for Moldova’s first democratic elections, following the 1994 Constitution, Moldova became a semi-presidential republic with a proportional electoral system. However, in 2000, following an attempt by then President Petru Lucinschi to gain more powers via referendum, Parliament intervened and amended the Constitution transforming Moldova into a parliamentary republic, with a largely ceremonial president elected by Parliament with 61 of the total 101 votes. However, after two terms of domination by the Party of Communist Party (2001-2009), a government coalition created in 2009 by former opposition parties did not have enough votes to elect a president, which triggered a three year long constitutional crisis with a series of early parliamentary elections, a failed constitutional referendum, only to finally reach the 61 votes in March 2012 to elect a president. To avoid such difficulties in the future, in March 2016, the Constitutional Court issued a rather controversial decision to cancel parts of the Constitutional Reform of year 2000 on a technically, thus reintroducing direct presidential elections. However, as presidential powers were not changed, Moldova remains a parliamentary republic.

The 101 members of the unicameral Parliament are elected for a four year term in one national constituency based on closed party lists. The threshold has oscillated between 4% and the current 6%. The unallocated seats were distributed proportionally during the 2000’s, which gave an advantage to the dominant Party of Communists. After the opposition took power in 2009, the unallocated seats became distributed equally among the parties that passed the threshold, which benefitted the ruling coalition parties. Yet, the successive coalition governments were torn apart by infighting that produced major political scandals, culminating with a billion dollars or 15% of GDP disappearing from three banks on the eve of 2014 parliamentary elections (Rosca, 2015; Socor, 2016), which led to the jailing of a former prime minister and leader of the senior coalition partner – Liberal Democratic Party, and the reformatting of the ruling coalition. This led to the collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party at the hands of it once junior coalition partner – the Democratic Party (Independent, 2017), which welcomed defectors from PLDM and PCRM, thus becoming the main political force in the government, despite public support of only 4% (IRI, 2017). These and other developments brought increasing concerns about government legitimacy and even state capture (Tudoroiu, 2014).

Still, faced with low public support and realizing the diminishing chances of staying in power, in March 2017, the centrist Democratic Party proposed to change the electoral system from a proportional to a majoritarian one, only to settle on a mixed system compromise struck with the largest opposition party – the Socialists, that have managed to replace the Communists on the left wind of the spectrum. If approved, 51 legislators will be elected as before in a single national consistency on closed party lists, while the other 50 winners will be decided in single member districts in one round, which will allow the ruling party to employ its vast administrate and financial resources to gain undue advantage.

Ukraine

Ukraine’s Constitution provides for a unitary republic with a semi-presidential system. The constitution was first amended following the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 by decreasing the powers of the president, but it fell short of moving towards full fledged parliamentarism (Matsuzato, 2005). The rushed change was only aimed at overcoming the political crisis triggered by a contested presidential election, which led to the “Orange Revolution.” However, once Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, the Constitutional Court overturned the 2004 amendments, on technical irregularities, reinstating a strong presidency. This decision was highly controversial (Kramer et. all, 2011), since it cast doubt over the independence of the Court from the influence of the president (Minakov and Stavniichuk, 2016). Moldova appears to have emulated the questionable Ukrainian experience, when its own Constitutional Court, under immense political pressure, invalidated in 2016 a major constitutional reform from the year 2000 that had transformed Moldova into a fully parliamentary republic.

Ukraine has experienced all three main types of electoral systems. Much like all of the former USSR republics, Ukraine started off with the soviet majority (FPSP) system, but due to the double majority rule (50%+1 turnout and 50%+1 votes) many seats were left unoccupied. Discussions about reforming the system started as early as 1993, only to actually move to a mixed electoral system in 1997. The new electoral system undermined the nascent party system by bring 114 independents into Parliament after the 1998 legislative elections (Harasymiw, 2014).   Thus, the mixed system was used for just two electoral cycles (1998, 2002), only to be replaced with a full proportional system used in 2006, 2007 elections (Bader, 2010). Proportional system reduced the effective number of parties and brought some consolidation of the party system. However, as the ruling Party of Regions lost 3 million votes in 2010 local elections, President Victor Yanunovych, hoping to be able to use administrative resources to manipulate results in single member districts, proposed to returned to a mixed electoral system in 2012, under which half of the representatives are elected in one national constituency based on closed party lists, with a 5% threshold, while the other half are elected in single member districts (Harasymiw, 2014). Even though, there have not been major shifts in the effective number of parties, the third electoral system change in less than fifteen years appears to have reduced the turnout by about 8% compared to previous elections, which can be an indication of public frustration and loss of trust in the democratic process. System volatility also increased as two new parties gained over a quarter of the votes.

Not surprisingly, the ruling Party of Regions gained over half of seats in single member districts, while other parties were significantly underrepresented when compared to their results in the proportional list vote. It can be concluded that the Party of Regions archived its goal. Yet, one can only speculate what could have happened in a counterfactual scenario in which the fully proportional system would have remained in place. Perhaps, the Party of Regions would have lost the 2012 elections and Ukraine could have, therefore, avoided the 2013-2014 Maidan Revolution, the loss of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbas. One thing is certain, the country’s political elite is still guided by short term political expediency, rather than genuine debate on a long term constitutional design as was epitomized by the bill to introduce open electoral lists, which failed without proper consideration in 2014 (Interfax, 2014).

Maidan-Square-Feb-2014-photo-by-Olga-Yakimovich-Reuters

Moldova’s New Electoral Bill Divides the Country

In early March 2017, Vlad Plahotniuc, media mogul and head of the ruling Democratic Party in Moldova, proposed a bill to change the country’s parliamentary electoral system from proportional to first-past-the-post. Plahotniuc realized that under the current proportional electoral system his party stood no chance of remaining in power after the 2018 legislative elections. The move was no surprise, as many analysts predicted that Democrats would attempt to change the electoral system in order to hold onto power.

Questions of Legitimacy

With a conformable majority in parliament, one would expect Plahotniuc easily to get his way. In reality, things are more complicated because the majority that Plahotniuc relies on is contested. Despite winning only 19 seats in the last election, the Democratic Party has more than doubled its faction, which now has 42 seats. Eleven seats belong to the Liberal Party, a junior coalition partner. On May 25, the party announced its withdrawal from the coalition a day after the mayor of Chisinau and senior vice president of the Liberal Party had been detained on corruption charges. However, Liberal Party Chairman Mihai Ghimpu considers the arrest political retribution for the party’s refusal to support changing the electoral system. The Liberal Party is likely to be replaced by the nine Liberal Democrat defectors who are currently part of the newly created European People’s Party parliamentary group led by Iurie Leanca. Leanca is often viewed as a Plahotniuc ally and potential future Minister of Foreign Affairs. Plahotniuc co-opted defectors from the Party of Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party after orchestrating a hostile takeover against these two opposition groups in parliament. Thus, since 2014, the Democratic Party was joined by one Socialist, 14 Communists, and 8 Liberal Democrat defectors. Many Moldovans view Plahotniuc’s 42 seats and, therefore, the entire ruling majority as illegitimate.

Similarly, the Democratic Party controls about half of the country’s 900 mayors, despite winning less than a third of mayoralties in the 2015 local elections. Plahotniuc’s tactic of getting lawmakers and mayors to defect and join his party by hook or by crook—coupled with his vast financial, media, and administrative resources—make all of the other parties vulnerable in the face of a single member majoritarian system. Under the proposed system, Plahotniuc could make better use of his unfair competitive advantage by employing either corruption or coercion to turn promising candidates to his sideFor these reasons, every other major political party opposes this bill, including the Action and Solidarity Party, the Dignity and Truth Party, as well as the Party of Communists. That is why Plahotniuc has channeled all of his resources towards building a perception of vast popular support for the proposed change. A national media campaign was launched along with a massive effort to collect signatures in support of Plahotniuc’s bill. Yet, the Democratic Party public relations team may have gone a bit too far when they claimed to have collected almost one million signatures, which amounts to about half of Moldova’s adult population. It did not stop there. The Democratic Party just commissioned the largest poll in Moldova’s history with over 12,000 respondents, compared to the usual national polls of only 1,200 respondents. Apart from the data that was made public, the Democratic Party now is likely to have access to information that allows it to gerrymander electoral districts and co-opt candidates to further cement its competitive edge.

Nonetheless, electing legislators directly in single member districts is an appealing proposition for many voters. Prior to Plahotniuc’s monopolization of political power, some of the parties that now oppose the bill, such as the Liberal Democratic Party, once favored a first-past-the-post system. But more importantly, Plahotniuc and his team have presented first-past-the-post as a simple system of direct political representation, which provides voters in a district a clear choice between individual contenders. This new system is contrasted with the more cumbersome proportional representation system based on party tickets. However, as political science literature indicates, majoritarian systems are generally better suited for consolidated democracies, while countries in transition, such as Moldova, tend to benefit more from a proportional system of representation. Majoritarian systems over-reward the winner, being prone to “electoral dictatorship,” reducing the need for compromise and consensus-building. These negative features can exacerbate tension in multiethnic societies. The unfairness of the majoritarian system also results from the systematic exclusion of smaller parties with more diverse views, in time leading to a two party system alternating in power.

Facing strong domestic contestation, Plahotniuc’s ruling majority is hard pressed to find external validation of this major electoral reform. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, is the leading authority in this regard. It has already stated that a national consensus is advisable for such an overhaul of the electoral system. The support of President Igor Dodon’s fellow Socialists would help to provide the appearance of national consensus that Plahotniuc needs.

Dodon and Plahotniuc: Reluctant Partners?

A compromise solution in the form of a mixed electoral system could be presented as a national consensus between the ruling majority dominated by the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists, which is nominally in opposition to the government even though its former leader serves as president of the country. The compromise bill envisages that 51 MPs would be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 would be elected if they received a plurality of votes in single member districts. Many, including people in his former party, were surprised when President Dodon proposed a mixed system on April 18. However, this was not the first time Dodon and Plahotniuc adopted similar positions, despite their fierce public rivalry.

There have been numerous instances in which the Party of Socialists has cooperated with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, despite ongoing public acrimony between the two camps. Democrats have recently granted two ambassadorships (Moscow and Minsk) to people affiliated with Igor Dodon. At the same time, as the anti-corruption agency is arresting people affiliated with the Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties, Socialists appear to be spared such attention. Similarly, Plahotniuc did not oppose Dodon’s firing of the Defense Minister, whereas Dodon did not stand in the way of Plahontiuc appointing his protégé to head Moldova Gas Company, controlled by Gazprom. Socialists have also supported several controversial bills put forward by the Democratic Party, including the most recent amendments to the Audiovisual Code opposed by many media organizations. Moreover, Plahotniuc’s media empire consistently attacked Dodon’s opponent during the presidential elections. Their relationship has transitioned from one of outright competition to de facto cooperation on many sensitive topics. Many Moldovans view their relationship today as one marked by tacit cooperation.

dodon_plahotniuc_2012

Political Alliances Transcending Geopolitics

The European Union has already linked its €100 million proposed assistance to Moldova to the government’s respect of “effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system.” An even stronger message came from the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) in the European Parliament. The EU Parliament actually postponed the €100 of macro-financial assistanceover concerns regarding the changes of the electoral system. The Venice Commission would also be hard pressed not to acknowledge the obvious lack of political consensus in the country. Given the less than enthusiastic reception that Plahotniuc gets in Brussels, he has turned his focus to the White House. As a fellow businessman who also believes in “the art of the deal,” Plahotniuc made overtures of cooperation to the Trump team even before the inauguration of Donald Trump; he presented Moldova to Trump as a bridge between Russia and the West.

Yet, as U.S.-Russia relations started to deteriorate over Syria, Moldova’s “deal maker” switched gears and re-branded Moldova and his Democratic Party into a bastion of Western values standing against Russia and President Dodon. This branding effort is not consistent with Moldova’s political reality. In order to better shape his own narrative, Plahotniuc hired two leading lobbying groups, Podesta-Group and Burson-Marsteller, to represent his interests in Washington and Brussels.

At the same time, the ad-hoc coalition in support of political pluralism also cuts across geopolitical preferences of the five political parties, three of which are pro-Western (Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party), while the other two are more Russia-oriented (Party of Communists and Our Party). Despite risk of a major political crisis, the current situation has a silver lining. Geopolitics, no matter how pervasive, does not pre-determine policy positions. Therefore, the hope that Moldova can become a country with parties focused less on geopolitics and more on governance still lives on.

Note: The article was written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The original can be accessed here.