Paksas affair: political and constitutional lessons

  • 2004-04-15
  • By Algis Prazauskas
The presidency crisis has been the top Lithuanian news story during the last five months. The mass media have recounted the plot in billions of words - enough to produce a national epic along the lines of the Mahabharata, though one lacking the philosophical message of ancient Indians.

Instead, the story went much like a modern political thriller with the cast including all the king's men, an honest sheriff, corrupt officials, smugglers, spies and a couple of smart ladies, all of them acting against a background of transnational security threats. Everyone was good at his part except for the president, who looked hopelessly pathetic with his daily mantra, "I shall not resign."
However exciting the story, most people felt uneasy about the show that secured Lithuania a dubious place in modern constitutional history. The arguments that the whole affair was proof of democratic maturity did not sound very convincing either. The irksome question was why it should have happened in the first place. Why precisely on the eve of Lithuania joining NATO and the European Union?
Conspiracy theories, circulated both by the opponents and supporters of the ex-president, do not explain much, as conspiracies need a number of prerequisites and conditions to succeed.
In this case, political analysts pointed to certain specific features of political culture in post-communist society. Many Lithuanians do not trust all branches of power, and political parties still have strong love-hate attitudes to political leaders. In Lithuania, politics is a permanent job irrespective of one's political record. Since idependence, very few-indeed, just four of five of some 30 top politicians-have left the political scene. Therefore, the impeachment process of a top politician produced a deeper cleavage within society than social, economic, ethnic and other issues.
With the impeachment over, several serious politicians started talking about self-purification. However, this can hardly be expected in a closed shop. We know about Paksas almost everything there is to know, except his origins as a politician. He was a popular stunt pilot, headed a construction company since 199until he joined the Conservative Party and soon rocketed to the position of mayor of Vilnius-a political job just slightly below that of the president or prime minister.
Emergence, or the making of leaders, is a crucial test of democracy. In old democracies, not every prime minister or president is a great leader, but generally they are able to do their job. At least they do not inflict great harm. In new democracies the process is unpredictable, as democratically elected leaders occasionally turn into dictators (e.g. Lukashenko) or are overthrown. Lithuania avoided both alternatives, solving the problem of a hopelessly inadequate president by constitutional means and thus strengthening the rule of law. However, the leadership-selection problem remains. Political parties remain leader-centered, and it is the party bosses and sponsors who promote political newcomers. Paksas' career may become a good showcase but cannot be expected to change dramatically the intra-party decision-making process and political promotion campaigns.
The root cause of the crisis was the fact that a large section of the voters was under the illusion that the president could fulfill his high-sounding promises of introducing order, fighting corruption, improving the lot of the poor. It is irrelevant if Paksas sincerely believed that the presidency has sufficient powers to influence and shape state policies, or whether he was pressured by his Russian sponsor and his own team. Actually his attempt to expand his powers challenged the constitutional system and provoked a constitutional crisis.
What is really disturbing is the fact that the parliamentary majority has not shown the political will to amend the constitution and eliminate the possibility of a constitutional crisis. Article 84 of the constitution confers upon the president impressive powers - the list contains 24 items. In parliamentary systems the powers of the president are usually circumscribed by the constitutional provision that in order to be effective presidential decrees have to be countersigned by the prime minister or respective minister. This is clearly stated in the constitutions of Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia and other parliamentary democracies.
However, in the Lithuanian constitution only diplomatic appointments, conferrence of high military ranks, declaration of emergency and granting of citizenship have to be countersigned by the prime minister or appropriate minister (Article 85). Thus, the constitution itself provides for the collision of executive powers of the government and the president. The presidents Algirdas Brazauskas and Valdas Adamkus -both experienced politicians-wisely avoided confrontation with Parliament.
Only a long-standing tradition can prevent the wrong people from becoming top leaders, but a balanced constitution would suffice to keep them in check at a lesser cost. The experience of many countries provides ample proof that a ceremonial head of state-either hereditary or elected by Parliament or a special college-is the best solution for parliamentary systems. The only effective alternative is the American type of presidential system with its division of powers as its basic principle. o

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