Moldova’s President Dodon initiates referendum to increase his powers

Moldova’s President Dodon initiates referendum to increase his powers
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest March 29, 2017

Moldova’s President Igor Dodon issued a decree on March 28 initiating a referendum in which he hopes to gain the power to dissolve the parliament and call early elections. If it goes ahead, the referendum will be held on September 24, and Dodon said he expects to dissolve the parliament in October or November.

The referendum is part of a broader plan aimed at gaining control of the parliament for Dodon’s Socialist Party (PSRM) - which is most likely to win the next general election - and then cancelling or radically revising the Association Agreement with the European Union and making the country a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, the president’s plan faces serious technical challenges and needs overwhelming support from voters.

Under Moldova’s referendum law, a referendum on constitutional amendments must be endorsed by the majority of those on the voting lists,  in order to be valid. Less important referenda need only support from the majority of those who cast votes. If turnout is around 50%, as in the last parliamentary election, all voters would have to back Dodon, which is highly unlikely.

The main obstacle to Dodon’s plans is therefore attracting sufficient support from voters, though he also has to deal with hostility from the parliament and the Constitutional Court’s drive against hasty and radical moves.

To increase his chances of getting enough votes, Dodon enlarged the focus of the referendum by including three more topics in addition to asking for more power to be given to the presidency. Of the three, one is clearly intended to gain voters’ support: namely the question on cancelling the bill under which the “stolen billion” (actually $680mn) siphoned off from three failed banks is repaid from the public budget. In fact, this topic is the first on the list of four topics which comprises:

    ▪    Do you support the abrogation of law 235/2016 (“on the stolen billion”)?

    ▪    Do you support giving to President, by amending the Constitution, "the supplementary power" to dissolve the Parliament and call early elections?

    ▪    Do you agree to reduce the number of lawmakers from 101 to 71?

    ▪    Do you agree to introduce the study of “History of Moldova” [instead of "History of Romania and Universal History" as currently] in schools?

Dodon’s proposal to give the president supplementary power to dissolve the parliament and call early elections is highly unlikely to be seen as acceptable by the Constitutional Court given the lack of detail. The court, which plays a role in the process by setting up the body charged with managing the referendum and validating its results,  will most likely will ask for the text to be refined. 

Under the current constitution, the president can dissolve the parliament under certain circumstances (basically political crisis and lack of a functioning parliament). The limits on these powers could be enlarged, depending on whether the referendum gets voters’ support. 

The government, which is planning to amend the voting system, has pledged to consider the views of the Venice Commission. The ruling majority is likely to ask the president undergo a similar procedure. While not binding, such a requirement would be an important ingredient in the campaign ahead of the referendum.

Dodon stressed on March 28, at the same time as he signed the decree on the referendum, that he planned to sign a “cooperation agreement” with the Eurasian Economic Union at the union’s summit on April 3. He previously asked the EEU for the country to be given observer status, with the request to be discussed at the summit.