The parliament of Georgia approved amendments to the Constitution, on September 26, in its final, third reading. One hundred and seventeen lawmakers—mostly from Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG)—voted in favor and two against. Parliamentarians from opposition parties United National Movement (UNM) and European Georgia (EG) walked out in protest before the vote (, September 26).
This unilateral move by GDDG concluded a months-long process of equally one-sided negotiations, which also formally included Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and non-governmental organizations (NGO) (see EDM, , , ). The reform was initiated by GDDG immediately after garnering an invulnerable constitutional “supermajority” in the 2016 parliamentary elections (see , October 31, 2016). Thus from the outset, GDDG displayed a tendency of merely paying lip-service to most demands stemming from the opposition.
Since the newly adopted constitution all but completes Georgia’s transition to a parliamentary republic, the main bone of contention was the electoral system for parliamentary elections. The opposition demanded the current mixed electoral system to be abolished. With it, 73 members of parliament are elected in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, and another 77 seats are distributed proportionally in the closed party-list contest (, September 27). The Venice Commission also emphatically recommended the immediate transition to a fully proportional system (, September 17). But at the end of the day, GDDG rejected its adoption.
Thus, the upcoming 2020 election will be held according to the existing system, although GDDG did agree to a one-time reduction of the threshold for entering the parliament to 3 percent, while also allowing participating parties to form electoral blocs. However, this latter change requires a subsequent constitutional amendment, and it remains to be seen if GDDG will follow through on it.
In seven years, from the 2024 parliamentary elections onward, Georgia is supposed to transition to a fully proportional system. After that, no electoral blocs shall be permitted, while the hitherto normal 5 percent threshold shall be reinstated.
Notably, under the newly adopted Constitution, votes cast for parties that fail to cross the threshold will be transferred entirely to the winner, thus all but guaranteeing a marginalization of opposition parties in the national legislature. In this case, too, parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, reacting to a protest note sent to the Constitutional Commission by President Margvelashvili and 20 opposition parties, agreed to make a “concession,” abandoning this substantial modification in favor of a proportional allocation of uncaptured mandates (, September 22). But yet again, it is unclear if and when a subsequent amendment—necessary also in this case—will be introduced.
The constitutional amendments pertaining to the office of the presidency represent arguably the weightiest structural change for Georgia’s political system. And the opposition parties, weakened by their fragmentation early on, were unable to stand in the ruling party’s way on this issue as well. GDDG had succeeded in reframing the previous wave of constitutional reform—implemented by UNM under Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, which deliberately reduced the executive scope of the presidency while strengthening the position of the prime minister as head of government—as a first step toward a seemingly inevitable transition of Georgia into a parliamentary republic. The numerous political skirmishes between GDDG and President Margvelashvili—elected on GDDG’s ticket in 2012, yet soon after alienated from it, though still lacking his own political party—no doubt, added fuel to the flames.
Claiming inconsistencies in the separation of rights and duties between the weakened executive and the empowered legislative branches, GDDG seized the opportunity to further neuter the presidency as an institution, removing all of its remaining significant executive functions altogether. Direct elections of the head of state have now been abolished. Instead, the president will be chosen by a college of electors composed of 300 members, themselves recruited from the parliamentary majority and local and regional government representatives. Most of them, in turn, are appointed by the respective governing party.
This move effectively subsumes the office of the president under whichever party holds a majority in the parliament. And although the president still formally remains the head of state and the commander-in-chief as well as the country’s top representative in foreign relations, he or she no longer ensures “the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” Moreover, the Georgian president forfeits the right “to request particular matters to be discussed at the Government session and participate in the discussion” (, September 27). The National Security Council, which was led by the president, has been disbanded. In short, whatever minimal checks-and-balances function the office of the president still retained after the 2008 reforms, has now been largely discarded.
The prime minister organizes the government’s activities and appoints and dismisses ministers, being accountable for the government before the parliament. Yet, it seems Georgia has entered a new constitutional phase in which a strong and more independent executive branch, embodied in a directly elected president, is no more. It remains to be seen whether this is a positive development for a country with a still young democracy and only one instance of a peaceful transition of power by elections. The Georgian president’s spokesperson, Ana Dolidze, has already dubbed the Constitution a “document that does not belong to anybody but one party” (, September 26).
Tbilisi’s Ilia State University constitutional expert Vakhushti Menabde has stressed that the increased accountability of the prime minister vis-à-vis the parliament and several other improvements represent a positive shift. However, he also pointed out a number of drawbacks regarding human rights. The Constitution now prohibits selling agricultural land to foreigners. It establishes marriage solely as “a union between a woman and a man for the purpose of creating a family.” And it restricts freedom of religion and belief in favor of a vaguely defined “state security interest” (Author’s interview, September 27). The latter amendment, in particular, was bemoaned by a number of NGOs, including the Tolerance and Diversity Institute (, September 26). Kutaisi is no longer a parliamentary location, while the Prosecutor’s Office has been separated from the Ministry of Justice and is accountable directly to the parliament. This can be interpreted as another weakening of the independent executive branch of government.
The extra-parliamentary opposition already convened its first meeting in reaction to the vote, issuing a resolution urging the president to veto the adoption of the amendments into law (, September 28). But even if Margvelashvili will have the political will to do so, his veto will most likely be overridden by the parliament.