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Democracy by Decree?

BUCHAREST: Romania is facing a fundamental question that many thought buried alongside Nicolae Ceausescu: Is it right to achieve just political ends by suspect or outright undemocratic means? Today’s question is even more troublesome: Should democratic governments stick to the rules of democracy no matter the consequences? Or can they, short of committing unconstitutional acts, take some liberties with the democratic processes in the name of honorable and necessary ends, perhaps even in the name of securing the future of democracy itself?

This question has bedeviled the postcommunist transition. That an excessive use of presidential decrees is a favorite tool of authoritarian governments is not a matter of dispute. We have had some recent experience of this in Romania, where the regime of ex-communists, led by former president Ion Illiescu, was often criticized by the democratic opposition and the press for relying on “rule by decree,” not parliamentary voting.

Decree power, however, has sometimes also been used to good purpose. Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, for example, pushed through most of his political and economic reforms, including privatization, by using -- many would say abusing -- his extensive power to govern by decree. And conversely, in other countries, such as Ukraine, legislative paralysis means that reforms never took hold or were delayed for years at the cost of a great suffering that could perhaps have been averted by a more assertive use of presidential powers.

The dilemma of decree powers is now resurrected in Romania not by Ceausescu’s postcommunist heirs, but by the democratic forces of President Emil Constantinescu and Prime Minister Viktor Ciorbea. Romania’s 1991 constitution does not allow outright presidential decrees. It does, however, permit the government to issue so-called “ordinances,” which have the force of law, but must be ratified by parliament within three months. In theory, this shortcut is supposed to be used in rather loosely defined “emergency” cases. But today, the Ciorbea cabinet claims that, due to the economic rot left behind by the Iliescu government, Romania confronts an almost permanent emergency.