On March 18, Georgian parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze stated that the country’s Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) is readying to present to the public the draft of new constitutional changes by April 30, 2017. Among those planned changes, the most important clause affects the office of president of Georgia. Specifically, according to the proposed amendments, the Georgian president will no longer be elected via popular vote. Instead, the head of state will be chosen by a convention of 300 delegates, made up of 150 members of parliament and 150 representatives of municipal councils (Civil Georgia, March 21).
Modern-day Georgia has a long history of near-constant constitutional gerrymandering. Every post-Soviet Georgian ruler has tried to tailor the constitution to his own political needs. Georgia’s current parliamentary system is a result of the changes implemented in 2009, which transferred most political power from the president to the prime minister, thus effectively turning the country into a parliamentary republic (Parliament.ge, accessed March 27).
In the aftermath of the 2009 constitutional changes, a commonly voiced concern was that the amended constitution would enable then-president Mikhail Saakashvili to become a similarly powerful prime minister after his second and final presidential term expired in 2013 (Resonance, June 10, 2010). However, Saakashvili’s party, United National Movement (UNM), lost the 2012 parliamentary elections and along with it political power. Georgia’s new constitution and the parliamentary system quickly started to show other negative sides. Although, the newly ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party’s candidate for president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, won the election in 2013, Margvelashvili quickly broke away from GD, thus provoking the wrath of the governing party’s political establishment (see EDM, March 24, 2014; Amerikis Khma, March 20, 2014). Vaguely defined and often overlapping constitutional powers of the head of state and head of government, as well as Georgia’s inexperience with a parliamentary system, have triggered near chronic political bickering between President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on almost every issue, ranging from who should represent the country on the international stage to who should be appointed as the president’s advisor (see EDM, September 18, 2014; Newposts.ge, January 16, 2014).
Although, the new prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili (in power since December 2015), has taken a more conciliatory approach toward the president, GD never gave up on the idea of further weakening the institution of the Georgian head of state in general and President Margvelashvili in particular. The newly proposed constitutional changes are the latest attempt in this direction, as they shift the process of selecting a president from the electorate to the GD-controlled parliament. Even though parliamentary speaker Kobakhidze took pains to emphasize that the changes would not go in effect until 2023 (when Margvelashvili would no longer be allowed to run for another term), he later suggested that they might, in fact, be implemented by 2018, if President Margvelashvili continues to oppose constitutional changes and “disrespect the parliament” (Radiotavisupleba.ge, March 9, 2017).
And Margvelashvili has, indeed, tried to oppose those changes. First, he demanded to co-chair the 73-member CRC, established by the parliament in December 2016 to draft the new constitutional amendments. When GD refused and instead appointed Kobakhidze as its chairman, the president boycotted the CRC process (Civil Georgia, December 12, 2016). Moreover, on March 13, he launched a campaign dubbed “The Constitution Belongs to Everyone,” in which Margvelashvili vowed to engage the wider public in drafting constitutional changes, instead of having the matter monopolized by the commission (News.ge, March 13). It is yet to be seen, however, if the president, who lacks his own political base, will manage to turn this campaign into a formidable movement and steer the direction of the constitutional alterations.
Nevertheless, if the intention is to truly address deficiencies in the Georgian political system, both the ruling party and the president are perhaps focusing on the wrong constitutional clause. Certainly, it is important whether a president will be elected by direct popular vote or selected by a convention of 300 delegates, as the latter undoubtedly decreases a president’s political authority and concentrates the process of selecting a president in the hands of the ruling party. However, the current problem of the Georgian parliamentary system is arguably not a question of the president’s authority, but the vaguely defined and overlapping constitutional powers of a head of state and a head of government. Paradoxically, neither the CRC nor anyone from the ruling or opposition parties has addressed this problem so far.
An even larger question is whether the existing parliamentary system is working for Georgia at all. These last three years strongly suggest that it is not. This system of governance injected even more political instability into an already profoundly unstable and fragile Georgian political system. Since the country switched to the parliamentary system in 2013, Georgian political life has been a scene of constant political bickering between the president and the prime minister. About two dozen vetoes by a GD president have tried to strike down various bills passed by the GD parliamentary majority. As long as one party (in this case GD) held a clear constitutional majority in the parliament, it managed to override the vetoes and keep some degree of effective decision making within government. However, if future elections fail to produce a clear majority in the legislature, the Georgian parliamentary system could become embroiled in political chaos. The country’s complex political and socioeconomic problems need effective and coherent decision making, instead of more uncertainty. In this light, upcoming constitutional changes seem out of touch with the country’s political reality and its needs. Moreover, it is equally important that amendments are conclusive and final in order to end Georgia’s never-ending cycle of constitutional gerrymandering. So far, it does not seem that the government will be addressing either of these two problems, which means that Georgia will likely see many more constitutional changes in the future.