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Amending the Law on Political Parties

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October 21, 2002
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One of the most controversial issues related to political parties has been the minimal number of members required for the party registration. The issue has taken center stage again after Christian-Democrat deputies submitted a draft law on amending the Law on Political Parties providing for the increase from 5,000 to 15,000 of the minimum number of party members. This is the second time in the last four years the issue has drawn public attention. In 1998 the number of party members required for registration was increased 15 times, i.e. from 300 to 5,000. At that time there were more than 50 parties in Moldova. Immediately after 1998 parliamentary elections the newly established majority coalition, Alliance for Democracy and Reforms decided to “clean the political spectrum”. The Alliance brought several arguments in favor of such a cleansing: “what’s the use of 50 parties when only 15 of them run in elections and only 4 of them passed the 4% threshold of representation”. Another argument was that the high number of political parties only confused the voters in elections and that small parties never learn anything from the elections they loose.

After the 1998 amendment to the Law on Political Parties only 25 parties managed to re-register. However, the number of political parties continued to rise and as of early 2001 there were 31 parties registered. A totally different process started one year after 2001 early parliamentary elections, namely fusion of parties sharing similar political doctrines. That is why one may argue whether it is the right moment to operate amendments to the said law and impose drastic restrictions for parties’ re-registration at the time voluntary mergers started. Thus, during the year the Social-Liberal and the Liberal Parties have consolidated. Furthermore, a merger of parties sharing social-democratic doctrines is to be expected.

One may agree that Christian Democrat’s initiative is logical: they were the ones recommending in 2000 to raise the threshold of representation from 4% to 6%, whereas this year they have succeeded in introducing the successive threshold (9% for electoral blocs formed out of two parties and 12% for blocs formed out of three and more parties). Needless to say, only strong political parties may pass such a threshold.

Even if the initiative seems logical, it is worth consulting the public opinion and international experience in the field. The well-known political scientist, Maurice Duverger believed “political parties are not organized strictly in line with democratic orthodoxy. Their internal structure is essentially authoritarian and oligarchic”. If we are to consider the criticism brought to Moldovan political parties, it coincides with Duverger’s theory. Indeed, a series of political parties underwent scissions or even succumbed because of the authoritarian methods employed by their leaders and the lack of transparency in decision making. Under those circumstances, raising the number of members required for party registration to 15,000 bears some risks; namely only several political parties would survive. Facing no competition at all on their spectrum surviving parties might yield to corruption. And there are enough grounds for such fears. To mention just the steady decrease in the voter turnout, meaning that the offers made by the incumbent political parties do not meet their expectations. An illustration of this is the election results in Gagauz Yeri. In this respect it is a great mistake to believe that the electorate of the political parties failing to re-register, would take part in elections. Consequently, in order to be consistent Christian-Democrats would have to recommend abolishing the 50% voter turnout required for election validation too. That was the case of Ukraine.

Noteworthy, a study conducted by the European Center for Free Elections and Democracy shows that regardless of the population size the minimum number of members required for party registration should be around 3,000 in order to achieve an adequate party system. At the same time, in the Republic of Moldova the minimum number of party members is not indicator of the party capacity to influence the voters. Thus, on the eve of 1998 elections the Agrarian Democratic Party declared they had 60,000 members, as did the Christian Democratic Union. The former was cast 63,000 votes and the latter 8,000. On the other hand, the Communist Party, which claimed only 12,000 members, was cast 800,000 votes in 2001 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, signature collection for the party registration might turn into a huge political scandal, as was the last summer case of signature collection and authentication for initiating a referendum on changing the electoral system. This would be even more complicated on the eve of upcoming 2003 local elections.

Indeed a favorable environment boosting the formation of new parties should be established, at the same time new mechanism should be created for dissolution of the parties failing to gain voter’s votes during several electoral campaigns. The formation of new viable parties would be impossible, if such barriers are raised. It is practically impossible to convince 15,000 citizens right at the beginning to enter the party. Only after registration, once the party acquires a legal status and a good team it may start promoting its political offer among potential voters and sponsors. From this perspective, the minimum number of members required for party registration should be decided based on the party capacity to fill the party structures with competent people able to ensure its viability.

In fact, this is already happening in the Republic of Moldova. After the collapse of center-right parties in the 2001 parliamentary elections, a group of young intellectuals founded the Social Liberal Party, thus providing a new alternative to the center-right voters. It is to early to judge on the success of the new party, however the fact that it has become a center of attraction for youth and other parties wishing to adhere inspires some optimism. Indeed, the existence of 15,000 members requirement would have definitely discouraged the party leaders to venture in politics. As for the numerous parties incapable of succeeding within several electoral campaigns, they might be dissolved. This is the case of Mexico, where the parties failing to gather 2% of the votes during two electoral campaigns are dissolved.

In the well-established democratic countries there are no restrictions with regard to party registration. However there are restrictions with regard to participation in elections. In the Central and Eastern Europe, let’s say in Romania and Russia laws provide for a minimum number of 10,000 members for the party registration. However, Romanian population is five times the Moldovan one, whereas Russia’s is 35 times the Moldovan one. In Bulgaria, for instance parties are registered provided they include 51 members. Kazakhstan legislation is the strictest one, requiring for at least 50,000 members for the party registration. Kazakhstan population is three times the Moldova one. If Christian-Democrats amendments are approved then the ratio population number / numbers of party members required for registration in Moldova shall equal the Kazakhstan one. This would be a questionable performance indeed.

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