Is downsizing Parliament and banning party-switching a solution for a clean legislature?
This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on July 9.
As the PSRM-PDM alliance has lost majority in Parliament, Socialists are dusting off an older proposal of the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc to amend the Constitution and reduce parliamentary seats from 101 to 61. PSRM representatives argue this would save millions and make legislators more responsible, less corrupt and easier to monitor. Also coming in the bundle is a proposal to ban party-switching.
The Socialist Party (PSRM) and the Democratic Party (PDM) have both supported the idea of a downsized legislature. Igor Dodon was the first to propose it in 2017, and Democrats took the idea further, putting it up for a non-binding referendum in February 2019. After Socialists switched allies in November 2019, PSRM and PDM secured a comfortable majority that they have been able to maintain until recently. Why didn’t they promote this reform in Parliament when they could?
Now Socialists are revisiting the idea in reaction to the Gațcan affair, the first Socialist MP to ever switch allegiance, albeit only briefly. While the defection of multiple Democratic MPs to the splinter group Pro Moldova appeared somewhat tolerable, it seems Socialists are not willing to put up with floor-crossing when it comes to their own turf.
According to the latest polls, only two parties are certain to make it into Parliament if elections were held in the near future: the Socialist Party and the opposition Action and Solidarity Party PAS. The chances of other parties vary greatly from poll to poll. In a parliament with 61 seats, it would take a much bigger number of votes to procure one seat. Regardless of the turnout and the exact seat apportionment formula, the total number of votes will divide by 61 and not by 101, which will result in a bigger number of votes per MP. If the electoral threshold remains unchanged at 5%, the chances of smaller parties will be further limited.
In the hypothetical scenario of early elections where there are only 61 votes up for grabs, PSRM will get a big chance to get rid of rivals like Pro Moldova, the Șor Party, Partidul Nostru Party and unreliable allies like PDM. In fact, Socialists could even win a simple majority alone, if no one else but PAS clears the electoral threshold.
Socialists’ rationale seems based on circumstantial considerations that are fueled by a sentiment of peril and frustration because of the lost majority. Otherwise, perhaps they would have proposed this reform when they were in an alliance with a still undivided PDM and everything was rose-colored.
What could this lead to?
The main effect of the reform would be that it will further empower big parties and block smaller ones. The balance will be tilted not from the corrupted towards the honest, but from the small towards the powerful.
The same arguments about professionalism, accountability and integrity were liberally thrown around when PSRM and PDM reformed the electoral system, a mix of proportional and first-past-the-post majority electoral systems highly criticized by experts and eventually brought down in 2019. Here we are now with a Parliament elected under that system that everyone wants to dissolve, including Socialists. Ștefan Gațcan himself, the straw that broke the camel's back, gained his seat in a single-member constituency.
Reducing the number of MPs will have no certain effect on their corruption-proneness or professionalism. In fact, it could do the opposite:
- more votes required for winning one seat means richer parties with more resources get even more power;
- in a smaller parliament it is easier to obtain or buy a majority – one is no longer to chip off chunks of 14 to 17 MPs from their respective groups, 5 would comfortably do the trick;
- to quote James Madison: “However small the Republic may be, the Representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few”.
However disappointing the Moldovan politics may be, the greater the number of seats in the legislature the wider its diversity of interests, the greater the competition and possibility for the MPs to monitor each other.
Crossing off floor-crossing?
The reform proposed by PSRM would also ban party-switching. This solution has already been tested out in Ukraine, where the “imperative mandate” failed to reduce political corruption and was criticized by the Venice Commission as a non-democratic measure.
The real problem, from the standpoint of democracy, is not floor-crossing itself. It is entirely moral, legitimate and legal for an MP to switch to another party, for example to increase his or her chances to promote certain policies or bills. What can be frowned upon, but is nevertheless a right of an MP, is to cross the floor to increase his or her odds of being re-elected.
What is not OK is to buy or sell MP seats. Let’s take a lawmaker who leaves PDM to join Pro Moldova, what could his or her practical motive be? To have better re-election chances? Pro Moldova is not even on the latest opinion polls. To have a better go at promoting their policies? This is easier done as part of the ruling coalition, rather than from the opposition. In other words there is reasonable suspicion of political corruption.
The real issue is not the MP’s right to switch their allegiance. The story starts before politicians take their Parliament seats, with the National Integrity Agency (ANI), the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), and the prosecutors failing to do their jobs. When Ilan Șor, a convicted fraudster, becomes an MP holding an integrity certificate from ANI, the number of MPs should be the least of one’s worries.
If lawmakers are to be honest and professional, the ruling coalition should rather aim for the independence of law enforcement and supervisory agencies (such as ANI, CEC, the Prosecutor General’s Office, or the National Anticorruption Center) by untying their hands to fight grand corruption and prevent corrupt politicians’ ride into Parliament in the first place.
Transparency of party financing is equally important. Yet PSRM and its informal leader Igor Dodon are wandering from one scandal to another: offshore funds from Bahamas, a million per month from the Russians, muddy operations of the first lady’s charity, the black plastic bag handed by Plahotniuc, the President’s luxurious holidays. Their excuses, on the other hand, are thinner and thinner – it is either a trick to fool Plahotniuc, or the magnanimity of “friends”. In other words, the Socialists are not exactly in the position of a moral authority to lecture their colleagues on integrity.
Banning floor-crossing and shrinking the legislature do not address the real causes of corruption in the Moldovan Parliament. In fact, they will do the opposite: favour big rich parties, while weakening smaller opposition ones. Fewer voices in the legislative body and a ban on switching teams will mean less political pluralism and limited individual freedom for MPs. The reform will increase the influence of interest groups on the MPs they pushed into the Parliament, without limiting the access of the corrupt to the election process. In short, the reform proposed by PSRM is a step towards an oligarchical republic in its classical sense.
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Report on the imperative mandate and similar practices, venice.coe.int ↩︎