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Is a new Constitution necessary?

Radu CUCUTĂ

The Report of the Presidential Commission analyzing the Romanian political and constitutional regime is, without doubt, one of the important topics on the political and media agenda these days. While amending the Constitution is not a new theme in the recent dynamics of the political space, today it is of particular interest, given the hints that it may be turned into a central topic in the President’s upcoming electoral campaign or the interpretations that tie the need to change the Constitution to the broad parliamentary majority that supports the current Government (“let’s use this majority while we still have it,” as the principle goes).

Mention must be made, first of all, that the incumbent President has made an institution out of the use of various Commissions that issue reports; the report on the political regime is part of a series of much-publicised such docu­ments (the “Tismăneanu Report,” the Report on Education, etc.). The effort of these commissions and their intellectual outputs are, without doubt, elements that make a constructive contribution to the domestic political debate; similarly, their legitimacy can­not be questioned. What is questio­na­ble is the extent to which the practice of presidential reports entails genuine insti­tutional changes, particularly considering that such documents are very ambitious endeavours.
There are several aspects that the document approaches in its first section. On the one hand, there are impor­tant references to the need to regard the Constitution not only as a fundamental law, but also as the initial moment of a consolidated democracy. Emphasising that there must be no gaps between constitution articles and the social and political reality that they regulate, the authors of the document present a number of arguments from comparative politics and constitutional law, aimed at justifying this intellectual endeavour. This is where several pro­ble­ms arise. On the one hand, the 1991 moment is defined as a “missed opportunity”, with that Constitution regarded as the expression of FSN and Ion Iliescu’s policies; the 2003 amendment is no more than a functional adjustment of the law, intended to facilitate the EU and NATO integration. There are several pros to the authors’ claim that the 1991 opportunity was “missed”; but judging by the political participation of citizens and their interest in the previous modification of the Constitution (which, technical as it may be, was quasi-una­nimously supported by the Romanian political actors at that time) I don’t believe the existence of this document or the initiation of a new debate will prompt an increased sense of citi­zen­ship.
Moreover, the structure of the do­cu­ment is, to a large extent, vulnerable to political dispute and appropriation. On several occasions, the Commission Report takes the form of a politics or com­parative law handbook, from which political decision-makers are invited to pick their favourite solutions. This selection process (based, in principle, on each player’s set of political values) may give rise to very diverse institu­tional formulas and alternatives, likely to deepen the differences of opinions, instead of facilitating their mitigation.
A second argument in favour of a new Constitution is what the authors view as the significant vulnerability of the current document to political crises, alongside the lack of effective me­chanisms to manage them. On the one hand, there are problems in how the existing constitutional text defines the relations between public autho­rities. On the other hand, one must not downplay the responsibility of political actors in the birth of such crises. Coha­bitation is not, in itself, the cause of crises, and even where the Consti­tutional Lawmaker could not foretell this scenario, politicians could hardly have run out of resources to overcome this problem. Indicating early elections as the solution to overcome political crises is questionable: more often than not, the electoral returns only confirm the previous distribution, forcing poli­ti­cal players back to the negotiating table. Similarly, one cannot claim that the resources for compromise have been depleted exclusively because of the edicts in the Constitution: today’s ru­ling coalition, for instance, proves that the most unexpected agreements are perfectly achievable under the current Constitution.
A series of other comments accu­rately tackle a number of problems in the current political system. The two-chamber system, in which chambers on­ly differ in the number of citizens that their members represent, in a legitimate target of criticism in the report, which suggests suitable solu­tions. Similarly, the wearing down of Parliament’s legislative and control function is another aspect worth considering by the participants in this de­bate – and several elements must be kept in mind in this respect. The roots of this phenomenon are not to be found exclusively in the Constitution, which, on the contrary, contains safe­guards yet to be used by the political or judicial actors. For instance, in the case of emergency ordinances, a provision was introduced in 2003 in Article 115, paragraph 4, which binds the Government to issue such acts under exceptional circumstances alone, and to provide explanations as to its emergency. The fact that no emer­gency ordinance has been over­ruled in an administrative or constitu­tional court, on this criterion, indicates that the problem is not with the norm, but with its interpretation. Parliament also has another tool: the Government Authorisation Act, which defines the circumstances under which a Govern­ment mat resort to issuing ordinances. However, this tool has not been used by MPs to strengthen their own posi­tion. Also, one must not overlook the flaws within political parties (particu­larly in the ruling majority). The commu­nication between a party’s ministers and its MPs should shape the party’s common agenda. The solution suggested in the report – giving regular bills at least equal priority to that of ordinances in Parliament’s order of business – does not make up for politicians’ flawed commu­nication or their reluctance in using constitutional tools.
The same inconsistency between the constitutional constraints on public institutions and their actions in the Romanian political system is evident in the position of the Constitutional Court. Indeed, in times of political crisis, the importance and prominence of this institution increased noticeably – but we are yet to establish whether the importance of Constitutional Court verdicts is, in itself, a reason for concern. In terms of their form, the media coverage and political attention given to the rulings of the nine judges should always generate such a reaction. On the other hand, one may claim that it was not the nature of constitutional provisions, but rather the actions of political players, that forced the Constitutional Court to act, although reluctantly (as the Report itself admits) as an arbitrator of the country’s political life, thus sparking countless controversies. And in this case, endorsing a new constitutional provision is neither credible not suffi­cient to guarantee that new political conflicts are prevented. If politicians decided that the risk of inconsistent rulings by the Court is smaller than the prospects of a political agreement, then the same thinking may be used in a new constitutional framework as well. Moreover, we must not overlook that a solution as regards past rulings may be identified through the current institutional mechanisms – the Court may at any time diverge from its own jurisprudence.
In conclusion, the presidential Commission’s Report includes sound and legitimate arguments supporting the adjustment of the existing constitutional framework. On the other hand, the current system of norms includes resources that may be used, to the same effect, provided that political decision-makers are willing to give a different interpretation to a substantial set of provisions. The main flaw of the document is that, while coherently presenting a number of dysfunctions in the current political regime, it fails to accurately identify their causes: the behaviour of the players or the inevitable effect of the rule. But regardless of the intrinsic value or efficiency of a fundamental law, it cannot yield the desired effects unless political actors themselves commit to the moderation required for complying with it.


By Radu CUCUTĂ
Publicat în : English  de la numărul 63

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