A public discussion of the draft amendments to Georgia’s constitution, initiated by the ruling Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party, has begun (Civil Georgia, May 3). The proposed constitutional reforms are profound. According to many experts, if the package of amendments is adopted, it will effectively result in a new constitution that radically changes the principle of separation of powers in Georgia and vastly alters the functioning of the major state institutions.
“The first democratic constitution of Georgia was adopted on August 24, 1995, after long discussions in the parliament. It was based on the so-called ‘American model’ of separation of powers, whereby the president directly heads the cabinet of ministers and does not have the authority to dissolve the parliament,” Nika Imnaishvili, an expert with the independent information and analytical agency GHN, told this author. According to Imnaishvili, “The 1995 constitution continued to operate until the Rose Revolution (2003); but in early 2004, [then-president] Mikheil Saakashvili initiated important amendments that strengthened the powers of the president: the head of the state was empowered to dissolve the parliament. Furthermore, the amendments provided for the introduction of the post of the prime minister…” The expert said that the next stage of constitutional reform began in 2009, when Saakashvili proposed to once again change the basic law of the country—to significantly enhance the role of the prime minister and the government, thus weakening the powers of the president (Author’s interview, May 7).
Saakashvili’s successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili, elected president in late 2013, soon broke with his party—Georgian Dream—and GDDG has been able to use its parliamentary majority to drastically reduce the already modest opportunities of the head of the state to exert influence on the political and social processes in the country. Under Georgia’s current mixed parliamentary-presidential system, real power is exercised by the prime minister. Nonetheless, the Georgian president has still been able to make decisions that do not correspond with the interests of the ruling party (see EDM, March 30).
“The president was popularly elected, which considerably raises his political role [domestically]. Besides, he is still the supreme commander-in-chief—he directs the army and can convene meetings of the National Security Council,” the former chairman of the Constitutional Court, Avtandil Demetrashvili, explained (Author’s interview, May 7).
After overwhelmingly winning the parliamentary elections in 2016, GDDG is currently trying to take advantage of its constitutional super-majority (it controls more than three fourths of the deputies in the legislature) to reshape Georgia from a mixed presidential-parliamentary republic to a classic political model adopted in Germany and many European countries. According to the new proposed amendments, the president will henceforth be elected by a special assembly consisting of parliamentary deputies and members of municipal representative bodies. The powers of the head of the state will be further reduced, essentially turning the president into a symbolic figure.
One of the authors of this initiative, the constitutionalist Vakhtang Khmaladze, explained to the author the necessity of abolishing direct presidential elections: “In a parliamentary republic, the president should perform the duties of a neutral arbiter and enter the political stage only in crisis situations. But in those parliamentary republics where the president is elected by the public, he becomes a political figure. He gains huge political ambitions; he refers to his high legitimacy and cannot perform the duties of a neutral arbiter” (Author’s interview, May 7).
However, aside from the ruling party, no other political faction in Georgia agrees with such logic. The opposition insists on maintaining direct presidential elections as the only guarantee preserving a healthy “balance of powers.” “The ruling party and its informal leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, are trying to usurp power in the country by subordinating to themselves the president as well,” alleged Sergo Ratiani, one of the leaders of the opposition party European Georgia (Author’s interview, May 7).
In protest against GDDG’s “attempts to usurp power,” the opposition parties have left the “Constitutional Commission” (see below). This was a political blow to Georgian Dream, as the adoption of a new constitution with input solely from the ruling party will be negatively perceived by Georgia’s Western partners.
In order to give the constitutional process a more democratic character, the government of Georgi Kvirikashvili and GDDG leaders agreed to postpone the adoption of indirect presidential elections until 2023. In addition, they proposed an important compromise to the opposition: the cancelation of majoritarian electoral districts and a move to fully proportional party-list elections. Fully proportional parliamentary elections have long been insisted on by almost all political parties in the country. Nonetheless, in the interest of securing its overwhelming parliamentary majority going forward, GDDG continues to insist that “unallocated mandates”—that is, votes cast for parties that fail to break the 5 percent threshold to enter the parliament—should be reassigned to the first-place winner in the election. In addition, GDDG wants to ban the right to form electoral blocs and flatly refuses to reduce the parliamentary threshold from 5 percent to 3 percent, which would create a more pluralistic and multi-party legislative body (Civil Georgia, May 3).
Considering these acute disagreements, the public debate over the constitution has been marked by mutual accusations and stormy rhetoric from the president, the parliamentary chair, GDDG representatives, as well as members of the two main opposition parties: United National Movement and European Georgia (Civil Georgia, May 5).
President Margvelashvili remains the main figure resisting the ruling party. Speaking at his “Constitution Belongs to Everyone” campaign meeting, in Akhaltsikhe, on April 28, he accused the parliamentary chairperson, Irakli Kobakhidze, of “horse trading” over the constitution and of “attaching internal [party] interests to the document.” The president also called it “regrettable” that the draft constitution was tabled “without consensus”: “all political parties in the reform Commission quit, and the document is being approved by a single political force” (Civil Georgia, April 29).
Parliamentary chair Kobakhidze, in turn, declared, “The president […] met [with opposition] political party representatives and agreed with them on how to challenge the Parliament of Georgia” (Civil Georgia, April 29).
Nothing about the proposed constitutional changes are yet set in stone. In the near future, Georgia’s Constitutional Commission will consider the package of constitutional amendments and publish its recommendations. The opposition hopes, that the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and other European institutions will convince the ruling party to take into account proposals on creating a more balanced and pluralistic political system.