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Undermining the integrity of the electoral process

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January 17, 2003
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“Integrity of the electoral process” is the only criteria for assessing the way local elections are conducted. This principles requires observance of both ethic norms and provisions of the election law so as to allow citizens to freely express their will. Consequently, electoral process should be examined from the perspective of “its unity”. In this respect, all the procedures related to the electoral process, be it collection of signatures in favor of a candidate registration or another procedure should be viewed as component parts of the electoral process integrity. Article 1 of the Electoral Code defines elections as encompassing referenda as well. Consequently, all the procedures starting with the registration of the indigenous initiative groups collecting signatures, to elections coverage in mass media, and adjudication of electoral disputes should be also viewed from the perspective of “electoral process integrity” principle.

From the first multiparty elections in 1994 until Communist Party victory in 2001 elections, international institutions, in particular OSCE, viewed the electoral process in the Republic of Moldova as a fairly democratic one. Indeed, there were some violations registered during the 6 electoral campaigns since 1994, however they didn’t have a crucial impact on the election results. Fair elections in the Republic of Moldova were cited in the joint statement of George W. Bush and Vladimir Voronin of December 17, 2002. However, this fact may be rather considered as message addressed to the Republic of Moldova leadership not to deteriorate the electorate process if it wants to secure US support on issues of paramount importance for the country.

However, there are enough grounds to believe that the electoral process has been deteriorating lately. Let’s just refer to the 2002 Bashkan elections in Gagauz-Yeri. Domestic observers pointed a serious of violations, such as: electoral commissions were staffed according to their members’ loyalty to authorities; voters were intimidated by electoral contestants using administrative levers; IDs were taken from citizens for no particular reason on the eve of elections; ballots were printed by a person directly interested in election outcomes, Communist candidate enjoyed the support of the publicly funded mass media, etc. Those facts were also registered by foreign observers from US Embassy and OSCE.

Another example of undermining the integrity of the electoral process is the way authorities reacted to Social Democratic Alliance initiative to conduct a legislative referendum on changing the proportional electoral system to a mixed one. Communist faction simply boycotted the Parliament hearings on the initiative.

Six months ago, leaders of the Social Democratic Alliance initiative group warned on several occasions that at the order of the ruling party local authorities hinder their efforts to collect signatures. This resulted in an open confrontation between Social Democratic Alliance and Communist Party. For example, Deputy Speaker, Vadim Mishin, stated that Social Democratic Alliance initiative is nothing but a “political provocation”.

The conflict between the two parties was generated by the fact that Moldovan law makes a distinguish between “initiating” and “declaring” a referendum. At the stage of referendum “initiation” the law does not provide that public debates should be held on whether referendum is appropriate at the time it is initiated, or even at the time signatures are being collected. If the initiative group manages to collect 200,000 signatures than a referendum is conducted. This is the only way for the citizens to exercise their rights provided in Article 2 of the Constitution, i.e. directly exercise sovereignty. No one could question the appropriateness of the referendum, however one may electioneer in favor or against the issues subject to the referendum, once it is officially declared. In this respect, article 154 of the Electoral Code provides “the right to freely collect signatures in favor of the referendum”.

The procedure of initiating a referendum is similar to that of independent candidates’ registration. No one debates whether signatures in support of an independent candidate should be collected or not, this is an unquestionable right of the citizens who meet all the criteria set by law. Only after the registration of the independent candidates, one may debate on their personal character or their electoral program.

However, vice-chair of the Parliament, Vadim Mishin’s, statement indicates ruling party’s opposition to a possible referendum. It was rather intended to local officials calling them not to authenticate petitions, as is required by the law. Ultimately, the authorities’ refusal to authenticate the signatures collected was considered by the Social Democratic Alliance as the most important difficulty encountered. Mishin’s statement followed by local authorities’ attempts to hinder the signature collection are nothing but attempts to undermine the integrity of the electoral process.

It is curious that Vadim Mishin is a member of the Communist faction in Parliament, whose electoral program provides “a series of urgent measures are to be taken in order to overcome the crisis, such as: adopting a new and democratic electoral law; conducting a referendum on the issues of paramount importance”. Then why is the Communist faction doing exactly the opposite? Numerous debates in press as well as in Parliament between Social Democratic Alliance and Communist Party have made public opinion wonder whether a new social conflict is to be anticipated in the country.

Nevertheless in July 2002, Central Electoral Commission (CEC) acknowledged that the initiative group collected 221,000 signatures in favor of the initiative to change the electoral system and invalidated only 8,000 signatures. CEC submitted all the documents necessary to the Permanent Bureau of the Parliament who had to develop a draft resolution on either declaring a legislative referendum or amending the electoral law by the vote of the Parliament.

Domestic analysts pointed that Communists would interpret electoral law as it would suit them and they might never declare a referendum. The fact is, that it has become a tradition in Moldova referenda to be held only when they suit the governing. This was the case in March 1994 when at the decision of the Parliament Presidium a republican opinion poll “Consulting the people” was conducted, this was the case in March 1999 when former President Petru Lucinschi intended to replace the parliamentary form of governing with a presidential one. The latter resulted in a confrontation between the Presidency and Parliament. Later on Constitutional Court interpreted the Constitution and Electoral law by distinguishing between “initiating” and “declaring” a referendum. Under Constitution a referendum may be initiated by groups of citizens who collected at least 200,000 signatures, by the President, as well as by 1/3 of deputies. However a referendum takes place only after the Parliament examines all the relevant documents and declares a referendum. The Parliament is obliged to declare a referendum if CEC validated 200,000 signatures. However, there is a contradiction here. On the one hand the Parliament is obliged to declare a referendum, on the other hand article 71 of the Constitution provides that deputies may not be prosecuted or tried by law for their votes or opinions expressed in the exercise of their mandate. Consequently, Parliament as a whole has to vote, whereas individual deputies may not be forced to do so.

Communist faction is no interested in changing absolute proportional electoral system (which they had promised during the electoral campaign). Needless to say this system brought them additional 40% mandates (due to the 6% threshold of representation). As an excuse for not voting for the referendum, the Communist Party stated that it verified CEC activities thorough the Legal Commission of the Parliament and found many irregularities. On these grounds they concluded around 45–50% of the signatures validated by CEC had been falsified. The conclusions made by the Legal Commission raise a lot of questions. The Commission claims it verified 12% of the total 213,000 signatures validated by the CEC, that is 25,560 signatures. The approximation, 45 — 50% made by the Legal Commission is outrageous. Even if we are to admit that the percentage of falsified signatures found is true, then out of the total 25,560 signatures verified, 11,502–12,780 would have to be invalid. Consequently, another more than 200,000 signatures still remain valid and there are no grounds for obstructing the referendum. Interestingly enough, Communist Party leaders preferred just to extrapolate the results of the random control, rather than look for another 221–1,497 falsified signatures, thus decreasing the number of valid signatures below 200,000 threshold. Social-Democratic Alliance didn’t react in the best manner either. They insisted that the Parliament had no right to interfere in the CEC activity. Furthermore, they refused to take part in the signature verification process. The fact is that the Communist Party is not willing to change the electoral system and there is no way to verify whether Legal Commission proceeded correctly when verifying CEC activity. Communist faction should have allowed representatives of the Social-Democratic Alliance to inspect the falsified signatures so as to prove its point.

Social-Democratic Alliance could have hoped for a moral victory in their confrontation with the Communist Party if they had collected the signatures in strict compliance with the law. Some examples of falsification cited by Victor Stepaniuc, chair of communist parliamentary faction, seem to be veridical. Given the limited period, only 2 months, available to collect 200,000 signatures it is not excluded that some of the persons collecting signatures resorted to falsification. Another problem is that Social-Democratic Alliance didn’t appeal in court authorities’ actions, which hindered signature collection. Article 12 of the Electoral Code provides that any violations found should be reported to election officials, who are to decide on the matter. The latter’s decisions are biding for the parties involved in the conflict as well as for local public administration. Decisions of the election officials may be contested in the Administrative Court, which is to decide on the matter within 5 days. Instead of this violations committed by the local authorities were reported to mass media rather than to court. This in particular refers to the case when the authorities ousted persons collecting signature. Finally, it is not excluded that during the visit of Council of Europe delegation to Moldova, the two parties would accuse each other of infringing electoral law. Obviously, both of them did commit frauds (however one should acknowledge that Social-Democratic Alliance was left with no other choice).

The most serious aftermath of this case is the fact that Communist Party blamed CEC of unprofessionalism and threatened with controls. Those threats bear a huge significance on the eve of local elections. Several political leaders suspect that Communist Party would change CEC membership on the eve of the local elections, despite the fact that during the last five years the Commission proved its professionalism and expertise. Communist Party pressure on CEC was obvious on January 11 when CEC refused to register the initiative group of the Christian-Democratic Peoples’ Party for a consultative referendum on joining EU and NATO. Communist authorities publicly disapproved the initiative on the grounds that there is a consensus on EU integration among all the political parties, whereas integration within NATO is inappropriate as Republic of Moldova is a neutral state. CEC used the same arguments for rejecting the registration of the initiative group, however it also contained some curiosities. Thus CEC justified the refusal to register the initiative group by the fact that a would-be integration in NATO will require the revision of the Constitution via a constitutional referendum, that is why people could not be consulted beforehand in another consultative referendum. It is not clear why a consultative referendum may not be held prior to a constitutional one. Governmental press supported CEC decision. This determined Christian-Democrats to accuse CEC of serving Communist Party political interests. The party also threaten to resume anti-Communist protest rallies until the resignation of Communist authorities. They stated they wouldn’t accept any compromise solutions and would demand Communists to comply with the 2 PACE resolutions.

This is the third case of this year highlighting an undermining electoral process. Both authorities’ and oppositions’ actions are a cause of concern. Thus, anti-Communist protest rallies started before the Court have ruled on the CEC resolution. According to the electoral law, Court of Appeal should have done so within 5 days.

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