When Nations Play by the Rules


April 01, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--The critical importance of institutions to political stability is evident in three cases in the headlines at this moment: the Russian, French and Italian.

What is most striking about the convoluted political conflict that has gone on in Moscow, pitting Boris Yeltsin against a parliament led by its speaker, Russian I. Khasbulatov, is that it has taken place almost entirely within the fragile political and judicial institutions of Russia today.

It has only briefly and tentatively gone to the street -- and drawn back. While Western comment has made much of the possibility of a coup d'etat, the role of the army, even of civil war, all factions have confined their struggle to the constraints of an unsuitable constitution that dates from the Brezhnev period.

No doubt they have done so in part because of their fear of abandoning those constraints -- when anything might become possible. Yet what all sides are pursuing is popular legitimation. Mr. Yeltsin possesses the legitimacy of popular election and presses for the confirmation of that which a referendum victory would bring to him. His opponents, lacking popular mandate, are looking to find it in new national elections. That all of this should be so provides considerable reassurance about the present situation in Russia and how it may evolve.

A second case is provided in the vast and decisive repudiation of Socialist power in France that took place in the legislative elections completed last Sunday. These gave the conservative and centrist parties some 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

An opinion poll made the day of the second-round vote reveals a public determination to check -- through the peculiar institutions of the Fifth Republic -- that very power the electorate has just granted to a coalition government of the right.

The first question asked in the poll is whether it really is a good thing to give an overwhelming parliamentary majority to one political camp. The public's answer is no. Sixty percent of those responding to the poll say that it would have been better had the minority parties of the left won stronger representation. Nearly 40 percent of the victorious center-right voters believe this to be so.

Should Socialist President Francois Mitterrand resign, given that his party and program have been so decisively repudiated? Again the answer is no. More than half (51 percent) of those polled said he should stay; only 41 percent want him to go (the rest are undecided). Only 14 percent of those polled think the successful parties should have tried to force him out by refusing to form a government under his presidency. Seventy-five percent (including 77 percent of the centrists and conservatives themselves) believe it is proper that the new prime minister, Edouard Balladur, respect the constraints imposed by ''cohabitation'' with Mr. Mitterrand.

This clearly means that while the French wanted to be rid of government by Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party, they nevertheless fear the unchecked power of the new majority. They want a continuing balance of forces, a certain equilibrium. Hence they refuse the idea -- advocated in some conservative circles -- of a deliberately provoked crisis to force Mr. Mitterrand's ouster.

There had been some talk before the second and final vote Sunday that rightists should mass on the Champs-Elysees and march on the presidential palace to demand Mr. Mitterrand's resignation. No such thing happened, and according to this poll, it would have been massively unpopular had it occurred.

The public is solidly behind the institutions of the Fifth Republic. This is exactly because the constitution imposes ''cohabitation'' between hostile forces -- all the better to defend the public from the unchecked enthusiasms and radicalism of either side. The constitution has permitted the public overwhelmingly to vote a new majority into power -- but only into some power, not all.

The third demonstration of the importance of institutions is in Italy. The enormous political corruption being unearthed there is in part the result of an electoral system of proportional representation that makes the public vote for political parties rather than for responsible individual politicians. This allows the parties totally to control the careers of politicians, and makes it easy for them to choke off challenges to the established system.

The attack on Italy's corruption is not coming from inside the political system but from the outside, from an independent judiciary whose investigating magistrates are promoted through their own professional corps and are largely independent of the parties.

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