Paksasgate is essentially a constitutional crisis

  • 2004-02-19
  • By Algis Prazauskas
The ongoing presidential scandal is a serious test for the political system of Lithuania. During the postindependence period, most people became used to, and did not care much about, the quarrels among and within political parties.

Politics in Lithuania was, and remains, leader-centred, with parties constituting groups of followers of particular leaders. This type of party system, typical of many new democracies, can work more or less satisfactorily as long as leaders preserve a certain balance of power. Any attempt to exercise hegemony meets resistance of other members of the political club and may lead to a political crisis. In a sense, this type of political system is a countryside replica of the Westphalian international system, preserving the balance of power and punishing an ambitious Napoleon.
During his election campaign, Rolandas Paksas assured the voters he would introduce "order," fight corruption, improve life of the poor, etc. His political opponents dismissed such populist tactics, as they knew too well that the president of the republic has neither the powers nor the means to initiate and carry out his own policies. However, the majority of voters trusted the young and very ambitious leader, whose political career matched his experience as a stunt pilot. Once in office, the president and his advisers claimed a larger share of power and increasingly assumed the role of the Soviet-style Politburo, acting as if they were above the law and political correctness. The start of the impeachment process became imminent.
A potentially dangerous trend was set when the president challenged the Constitutional Court verdict and reacted to a legal issue by starting a public political campaign. Nearly every day the president, followed by TV teams, visits some town and tells his sympathizers that he is not guilty and that the truth shall prevail. No wonder then that the ranks of his supporters are growing and, according to latest opinion polls, nearly half of the respondents think the president should not resign.
Finally, a movement called For Justice and Democratic Lithuania has been launched by Paksas' radical supporters, including several MPs mostly known for their dislike of parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, NATO and the European Union. With general elections due next autumn, it is very likely that democracy in Lithuania may suffer a serious setback.
The current conflict has been variously called - presidency crisis, presidency scandal, Paksasgate, and even conspiracy. However, these labels are inadequate as they do not point to the root cause of the crisis. The question to be asked is why a populist leader projecting a quasi-revolutionary image strived to become and was actually elected president. The obvious answer is that Rolandas Paksas, his sponsors and a large part of voters believed that the president of the republic had sufficient powers to influence important decisions. Indeed, the list of the president's powers (Art. 84 of the constitution) looks impressive, but generally they are similar to those in other parliamentary systems.
However, there are two crucial differences. First, in typical parliamentary systems, even where the president is elected by popular vote (as in Austria and Ireland), his powers are effectively circumscribed by the constitution, which explicitly states that presidential orders and decrees have to be countersigned by the prime minister or a respective minister. The Lithuanian constitution does not contain this reservation and (although a similar practice exists following the ruling of the Constitutional Court) some politicians, not to mention the voters, are unaware of it. Second, unlike in any other parliamentary system, the second top official is not the prime minister, but the speaker of the Parliament. Even a moderately educated citizen does not know for sure "who's in charge" and perceives the system as quasi-presidential.
Actually, the constitution of Lithuania reflects a compromise between advocates of parliamentary democracy and a presidential system. However, compromises do not work if one or both parties involved do not cooperate. Former presidents accepted the compromise; the present incumbent has attempted to tilt the balance of powers in his own favor and caused a protracted constitutional crisis in the process.
Irrespective of the immediate outcome, no long-term solution is possible unless the constitutional position and powers of the president are intelligibly spelt in the constitution. Specific features of national political culture and the growth of political radicalism considered, an expansion of the president's powers would inevitably strengthen the trend toward authoritarianism - a milder version of sultanism next door to the East. In line with European political tradition, the president should be stripped of effective decision-making powers, preferably elected by the Parliament or a wider convention and act exclusively as titular head of the nation and symbol of national unity. During the past decade the system has functioned fairly well as a parliamentary democracy, and one or two amendments of the constitution would suffice to prevent constitutional crises in the future.

Algis Prazauskas teaches political science and international relations at
Vytautas Magnus University
in Kaunas.