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 Foreign Policy in Disarray

In recent weeks, Moldova has been dealing with one foreign policy scandal after another. Relations with Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Council of Europe and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have all been strained to varying degrees. The contentious nature of Moldova’s domestic political competition undermines any chances for a coherent and predictable foreign policy. At the same time, the difficult geopolitical conditions in Moldova’s neighborhood, stemming from a fatigued European Union, an increasingly distant United States as well as a regionally resurgent Russia—coupled with democratic backsliding of Moldova’s own government—have been creating serious challenges for Moldovan diplomacy.

Relations with Russia in particular reached a new low after Moldova expelled five Russian diplomats on May 29, amid accusations that Moscow was recruiting fighters from Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia for the Russia-backed insurgency in neighboring Ukraine (Moldova.org, June 13; Euromaidan Press, June 15). In 2014, Moldova’s Intelligence Service investigated several Gagauz officials, including the region’s former governor Mihail Formuzal, for also allegedly recruiting fighters, but no prosecutions followed as Formuzal was voted out of office and some of his purported lieutenants managed to escape to Russia (Deschide.md, July 9, 2014). Ironically, the new governor of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, elected in March 2015, pledged even closer ties with Russia and accompanied then–newly elected Moldovan President Igor Dodon to the Kremlin on his first foreign visit (see EDM, March 31, 2015; Moldova.eu, January 20, 2017).

The spy scandal occurred during President Dodson’s attendance at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Dodon issued a blistering anti-Western tirade, criticizing Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union, much to the delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Putin’s gratitude was rather peculiar as he ended up ridiculing Dodon with his answer about Russian interference in foreign elections: “Ask Dodon. He knows best,” Putin quipped, and Dodon smiled (RT, June 2; Balkan Insight, June 6). Upon his return from Russia, the Moldovan head of state called a National Security Council meeting to address the spy scandal, despite two prominent members of the Council being absent. Prime Minister Pavel Filip and Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu—both protégés of Vlad Plahotniuc, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party and Moldova’s de-facto leader—were abroad. This, however, did not stop Dodon from scolding the foreign minister and the intelligence chief (Publika.md, May 30; Presedinte.md, June 6). The spy scandal, though unprecedented in its scale, has not prevented business as usual in Moldovan-Russian relations: indeed, around the same time, authorities announced the renewal of Moldova’s contract with the Russian-owned and Transnistrian-based Cuciurgan Power Plant (Unimedia.info, June 7). Russia has not escalated the spy scandal and only responded in kind to the diplomatic expulsions. Hence, Dodon actually earned certain political points for his actions, with some arguing that the government’s antagonism in relations with Russia would push the EU to be more lenient regarding the ongoing democratic backsliding in Moldova.

However, Europe appears to have learned its lesson on Moldova and continues to impose strong conditionalities on Chisinau. A macro-financial assistance package of €100 million (a €60 million loan and a €40 million grant—$67 million and $45 million, respectively) is preconditioned on respect for effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system (Consilium.europa.eu, Jun 15). As such, the EU financial package is widely interpreted as political pressure for the Moldovan government to renounce its controversial plan to change the proportional electoral representation to a mixed electoral system, considered inadvisable by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe (Reuters, June 6; Venice.coe.int, June 19). Failure to follow the advice of European experts commissioned to study the bill will likely strain relations with the Council of Europe and the European Union. Moldova’s government is engaged in a diplomatic offensive, attempting to persuade the EU of the democratic nature of the proposed electoral bill. It did not help, however, that Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu personally attended the plenary session of the Venice Commission that adopted a rather critical opinion of the assessed bill (Coe.int, June 16). Perhaps, feeling personally offended, Candu vented his frustration on his blog, calling the adopted opinion subjective (Candu.md, June 19).

Since Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom has been a reliable partner. Nonetheless, bilateral relations suddenly became tense after the surprising visit by Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselski to London. The Transnistrian conflict settlement process has always been a highly important and sensitive topic for Chisinau. Krasnoselski publicized his meeting at the UK Foreign Office with Nicola Pollitt, the director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as an official working visit (President.gospmr.org, June 16), much to the annoyance of Moldovan officials, who appeared to have been caught off guard (Newsmaker.md, June 16). The British embassy in Moldova promptly issued a statement, calling the visit a private matter, stressing that it does not set a precedent or imply any official recognition of the separatist entity (Facebook.com/BritishEmbassyChisinau, June 17). However, the damage was done and left Moldovan diplomacy scrambling for answers.

Perhaps the best reflection of the current state of Moldovan diplomacy is the compromised current condition of one of Moldova’s top diplomats—Iurie Leanca, a former minister of foreign affairs and previous prime minister, whose European People’s Party recently joined the ruling coalition. Leanca recently drew controversy by suggesting that it was the World Bank and IMF that had recommended the Moldovan government to issue its notorious guarantees for loans aimed at bailing out the three banks left bankrupt after the infamous billion dollar theft that crippled the economy in 2015 (see EDM, January 11, 2016). Both the World Bank and the IMF issued statements denying these allegations and accused Leanca of failing to follow their recommendations throughout 2014, when Leanca headed the Cabinet. The aforementioned banking fraud cut Moldova’s GDP by about 15 percent (Newmaker.md, Moldova.eu, June 16).

iurie-leanca newsmaker.md

Iurie Leanca (Photo: Newsmaker.md)

All these instances indicate a rather precarious state of Moldovan diplomacy. Apart from the structural challenges of divided foreign policy prerogatives between the government and the president, the sharp domestic political polarization and the deficient quality of the ruling political elite leave Moldovan diplomats with almost no good options to develop a coherent foreign policy. As long as Moldova’s foreign policy is guided by immediate political expediency rather than any sense of national interest, its diplomacy is doomed to operate in a constant state of disarray.

 

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.