The Pros and Cons of Tymoshenko’s Constitutional Reform Proposal

Rostyslav Averchuk discusses the key ideas of the constitutional reform proposed by Yulia Tymoshenko

Юлія Тимошенко запропонувала ряд змін до політичного устрою України

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Shortly before the Constitution Day of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko put forward a number of changes to the system of government in Ukraine. Her key idea is to switch to a “chancellor” parliamentary system in which one political party would get more than half of parliamentary seats after two-round elections based on party lists. Its leader would automatically become the prime minister while the office of president would be abolished.

Even though Tymoshenko referred to the experience of France, Italy or Germany (whence the inspiration for the term “chancellor”) when presenting her vision of the political reform, the system that Tymoshenko has proposed has no precedent and would be a political experiment. Let us leave aside the issue of the implementation and discuss the accuracy and potential implications of some of Tymoshenko’s key statements and ideas.

Tymoshenko: “Empirically, the world has made up its mind. It has voted for the parliamentary form of government with its GDP level per capita”.

Tymoshenko has underlined that almost all rich countries are parliamentary democracies, while the poorest countries have presidential systems in place.

There are indeed some grounds to believe that the parliamentary system of governance helps improve the quality of political systems (for a more detailed discussion see here). Moreover, some recent studies have established a significant positive impact of the parliamentary form of government on the country’s economic development.

Yet many countries have not engaged in political experiments by trying out different political systems. The choice of a system of government was often a matter of specific historical circumstances. European parliamentary systems emerged from the struggle between monarchs and rising social groups. Latin American countries opted for presidential systems similar to that of the US, while numerous former British colonies followed in the British footsteps by choosing parliamentary systems. Specific circumstances have further steered the development of those countries, regardless of the type of their political system.

In general, while the parliamentary form of government used to be seen as a much better system, at least in what concerned democratic survival, political science has now come to the conclusion that both parliamentary and presidential, as well as mixed forms of government, can be stable and successful. However, the research on the effects of each system is ongoing and tends to focus on more subtle differences.

Tymoshenko has underlined that almost all rich countries are parliamentary democracies, while the poorest countries have presidential systems in place.

Moreover, the studies that have established the correlation between the parliamentary system and improved economic indicators do not explain how exactly parliamentary systems can speed up economic growth. They also rarely differentiate between the different types of parliamentary systems. Yet some studies show that a more proportional parliamentary system, rather than the majoritarian one, does help speed up economic development by promoting the search for a consensus in the parliament and the society at large.

Tymoshenko: “The concentration of power in one office” and “the lack of checks and balances” in the presidential system

It would be a mistake to believe that power is always more concentrated in a presidential system than it is in a parliamentary system or that presidential systems lack checks and balances.

The US presidential system is a typical example of a presidential system with relatively strong checks and balances. The president faces the often difficult task of securing the support of the parliament. In the USA and other presidential systems, the president’s ability to pursue independent policy is curtailed by the need to negotiate with individual MPs, other political parties, and interest groups. Moreover, the extent of constitutional presidential power varies greatly across presidential systems.

Post-Soviet presidential systems have indeed demonstrated the tendency for power to become excessively concentrated as many of them slided into authoritarianism and had the development of their parliaments and political parties stifled. Yet the “chancellor” system proposed by Tymoshenko would most likely result in an even higher concentration of power than the one that is possible, at least formally, in the presidential system. After all, the leader of the party with a guaranteed majority in the parliament would also become a de facto popularly elected head of state – and no other real center of political power would be there to check her powers effectively. It is hardly to be expected that a non-elected “collective president” suggested by Tymoshenko – the National Self-Governance Council, which would include “the nation’s moral authorities” and civil society representatives and would assume some of the current presidential powers – could become such a counterweight.

The de facto popular election of the prime minister would help cement the party discipline and further increase the dependence of ordinary MPs on their party’s leader. The unlimited access to political spoils, together with the ban on floor crossing, would also contribute to stifling the intra-party democracy.

As a result, were Tymoshenko’s ideas to be implemented, political power could become as concentrated as it is in the “super-presidential” systems in Belarus, Kazakhstan or Russia. Contrary to Tymoshenko’s arguments, this particular system would surely lack checks and balances.

Tymoshenko: Two-round parliamentary elections with a guaranteed majority of seats for the winning party modelled after France’s and Italy’s electoral laws.

No electoral system can avoid the trade-off between the representativeness and the efficiency of parliament. The higher the quality of representation, the more political parties there are in the parliament, which makes it more difficult to form a ruling coalition and limits its ability to pursue consistent policies. No ideal solution exists, yet extreme cases are rare.

The electoral system suggested by Tymoshenko, which would sacrifice representation for the unity of the executive, is particularly rare. Italy has never put its “Italicum” electoral law into practice. A similar system has been in effect in Armenia since 2016 but it is too early to say what influence it has had. In France, two-round elections are held, yet the winner does not get an electoral bonus and obtains no guaranteed majority (more than 50% of seats) in the parliament.

No electoral system can avoid the trade-off between the representativeness and the efficiency of parliament. The higher the quality of representation, the more political parties there are in the parliament, which makes it more difficult to form a ruling coalition and limits its ability to pursue consistent policies.

On the one hand, Tymoshenko’s idea would indeed encourage the unity of the executive and enable it to act swiftly and decisively. On the other hand, it would significantly distort the outcome of elections. A party could then win the second round by a slim margin but receive a disproportionately higher number of parliament seats than the runners-up would. Even in the presidential system, the winner still has to seek the support of the parliament that usually represents the variety of opinions and interests in the society.

The suggested type of an electoral system would not encourage the search for political consensus. It could undermine the legitimacy of the parliament and of the government as a whole in a rather diverse society with a plurality of economic, social and cultural views and interests, which would eventually lead to the political conflicts similar to the revolutions of 2003 and 2013-2014.

Tymoshenko: Low election threshold (1.5-2%) would help create an “incubator” for young political parties and politicians

Such a low election threshold is also rare. Even though it makes the parliament more representative, it fosters fragmentation by increasing a number of political factions in the parliament.

In the “chancellor” system proposed by Tymoshenko, a low election threshold would not affect the formation of a ruling coalition. Yet it would make the emergence of a strong opposition less likely as it would be difficult for a number of small political parties to reach a consensus. A fragmented opposition would also look weak compared to the consolidated coalition. The fragmentation and the inability to strike a compromise in the legislature could also gradually undermine the confidence that the people have in political institutions.

Some researchers specifically recommend a higher threshold for young democracies with unconsolidated party systems as it should stimulate the emergence of simple and efficient party systems.

At first glance, the idea of creating an “incubator” for young politicians may seem appealing, yet it is important to remember that many important decisions are made in the parliament. This is not the place for such political experiments. There are other, lower levels of political decision-making where aspiring politicians and political groups should emerge and develop. The unrolling decentralisation reform should provide ample opportunities here.

In the “chancellor” system proposed by Tymoshenko, a low election threshold would not affect the formation of a ruling coalition. Yet it would make the emergence of a strong opposition less likely as it would be difficult for a number of small political parties to reach a consensus.

Tymoshenko: Guaranteeing a majority of seats to one party would help avoid protracted coalition negotiations among parties, which would limit the scope for corruption.

In her speech, Tymoshenko equated political negotiations between parties with corruption. It may well be true that in Ukraine, as in many other countries, such negotiations are often based not on political views but on gaining access to state coffers with private interests in mind. Nevertheless, closing space for negotiation by monopolising power is not be the best solution. Political negotiations and the resulting compromises provide parties with an opportunity to fulfill promises they make to voters, which translates into a better representation of the interests of the people. It is true that such compromises make the complete realization of the programme of each specific party less likely but they probably manage to reflect better the interests of a non-homogenous society.

Moreover, closing the space for formal negotiations is unlikely to eliminate the scope for corruption. Quite on the contrary, it may move the negotiations into a less transparent and less regulated dimension. Political parties are not monolithic as they include various powerful politicians and interest groups. Intra-party negotiations are hardly transparent and serve as the source of gossip and insinuations. At the same time, the likelihood of negotiations between political parties becoming more transparent and more institutionalized is probably higher than in the case of intra-party negotiations.

Conclusions

There is no one ideal political system. Deciding on the suitable system of government is a matter of finding a fine balance between the unity of the executive and the quality of representation, as well as between the dangers of the concentration of power and the potential for conflict that checks and balances create. The discussion of what system would be best for Ukraine is further complicated by the fact that formal institutions are only part of the political process on the ground in Ukraine.

At first glance, the system of government suggested by Tymoshenko is quite detailed and well-thought-out. The parliamentary form of government might improve the quality of the political system and could perhaps be more conducive to the economic development. The suggested type of electoral system would help avoid unpredictable coalition negotiations and would enable swifter and more consistent policies. The clear designation of the prime minister as the leader of the executive would eliminate the source of constant conflict within the executive and would help the voters understand who is responsible for the state of affairs in the country.

The parliamentary form of government might improve the quality of the political system and could perhaps be more conducive to the economic development. The suggested type of electoral system would help avoid unpredictable coalition negotiations and would enable swifter and more consistent policies.

Nevertheless, a number of caveats are in place. The “chancellor” parliamentary system is probably not the type of the parliamentary system that would enable the positive impact of this form of government on the quality of the political system and the economic development of the country. Having won a guaranteed majority in the parliament, the government would not have significant incentives to look for compromise with opposition parties and to build consensus in the society.

The “chancellor” parliamentary system of government would also lack effective checks and balances that Tymoshenko claims to be so important. Indeed, they would probably be even weaker than in the current premier-presidential or the presidential system. The concentration of power would thus be on the par with the “super-presidential” Russia or Belarus. At the same time, a low election threshold would foster the fragmentation of the opposition.

Moreover, such a concentration of power would be achieved to the detriment of the ability of the parliament to represent different views and interests of the Ukrainians. The distribution of the parliament seats would differ greatly from the distribution of votes. The attempts of the government to single-handedly push through certain policies in a heterogeneous society would undermine its legitimacy and could lead to the repetition of the revolutions of 2004 and 2013-2014.

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