New political vertical: How Georgian constitutional reform to change the country

Author : Karen Madoyan

Source : 112 Ukraine

The transition to parliamentary form of government becomes a trend for countries of the South Caucasus
23:19, 4 May 2017

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The transition to parliamentary form of government becomes a trend for countries of the South Caucasus. Following Armenia, Georgian authorities became to actively promote the idea of a parliamentary republic.

April 22, state constitutional commission, headed by the Speaker of Parliament of Georgia Irakli Kobakhidze, majority voted for a new draft of the Basic Law of the country. The new draft was adopted by 43 votes "for" and eight "against".

The intention to change the constitution, which should reflect the existing political reality, the leadership of the ruling party "Georgian Dream" has voiced before the last year's parliamentary elections. Constitutional Commission began its work in December 2016.

The proposed draft constitution involves changing the internal configuration and consolidation of Georgia's integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures.

Related: Georgia accuses Russia of sovereignty violation

New Commander

The new Constitution proposed significant changes to the procedure for electing the head of state, whose powers have been curtailed in 2012 on the initiative of a team of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Under the new amendments, the Georgian president will be elected not by the people, but by voting in the Parliament. One of the options involves the creation of an elected board, composed of parliamentarians and local authorities.

However, the ruling party is not limited to this innovation. As part of the proposed project, the head of state would not be considered the commander-in-chief. National Security Council under President will be dissolved. It would be replaced with Council of National Defense, directly responsible to the Minister of Defense and the Prime Minister. The president might participate in its work only in case of emergency.

In addition to the restrictions, it is proposed to deprive the head of state of such important instruments as the appointment of referendums and vetoing the legislative initiatives.

This initiative also deprives head of the state of legitimation and prevents his participation in political life as an alternative center of power.

However, if approved by Parliament, these changes will not affect the upcoming presidential election in 2018 and come into force in 2023.


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Elimination of majoritarian system

In addition to the abolition of the direct election of the president, the draft Basic Law contains a clause according to which members of parliament of Georgia will be chosen by the proportional system, preserving the five percent barrier.

It is also proposed to increase the threshold age for candidates from 21 to 25 years.

An important point is that the current ruling party "Georgian Dream" has a constitutional majority in parliament due to the majoritarian system.

Last October the deputies were elected by the mixed principle - on party lists and single-mandate constituencies. Following the elections "Georgian Dream" won an absolute majority of deputies -115 (constitutional majority - 113 seats), the majority of the ruling party (71 mandate) were selected by the majoritarian system.

However, the success of majoritarian MPs (compared to the fact that the opposition failed to bring to power any MP by the majoritarian system) is perceived more as an argument against the current government.

Moreover, public opinion research (conducted by Georgia National Democratic Institute), showed interesting results. In January 2017, answering a question: "Who is your majority deputy in Parliament?" a third of voters said they did not know.

At the same time, 65% believe that "majoritarians" are not independent, they do what the party leadership says to.

Related: Ukraine, Georgia condemn Russian aggression

Opponents of the change

Represented in the Georgian parliament, opposition parties, and a number of leading NGOs have criticized the draft of the new Constitution. They see the problem in an attempt to usurp the leadership and to adapt the Constitution to some party interests.

The opposition accuses "Georgian Dream" of unwillingness to compromise on fundamental issues, among them is the way of electing the president and the rules of the election.

Starting from April 10, representatives of all opposition parties, including the "United National Movement", "Alliance of Patriots", "Free Democrats" and "European Georgia" left Constitutional Commission as a protest. The opposition plans to appeal to the Venice Commission and is ready to mobilize the supporters to protest if the government does not hold a referendum in connection with amendments to the Constitution.

The NGOы issued a statement in connection with attempts to fix the level of the Constitution the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In their view, this formulation contains homophobic connotations and contributeы to the strengthening of negative sentiment about the LGBT community, which in turn would negatively affect the situation of human rights in the country.

Georgian President George Margvelashvili has also joined the camp of critics.

The President refused to support the initiative of the parliamentary majority and also called for a plebiscite. In March, the President initiated the campaign "Constitution for All", in which he meets with civil society in all regions of Georgia to change public discussion of political model of the country.

Related: Lessons of de-oligarchization: Main achievements and failures of changes in Georgia

Representatives of the ruling team negatively perceived president's initiative. Vice Prime Minister Kakha Kaladze called this campaign "cheap façade," and the speaker of parliament Irakli Kobakhidze called the head of state to join the commission.

It should be noted that according to a survey conducted in March 2017 by the International Republican Institute (IRI), the President of Georgia leads the politicians’ ranking. He is supported by 67% of voters.

What would the EU say?

The approved by the constitutional commission document would be sent to the Venice Commission and presented to the citizens of Georgia for public discussion. At the end, the draft amendments to the Constitution must be approved by the Parliament.

Supporters of the constitutional amendments refer to the fact that the new configuration will facilitate more effective governance and impede the usurpation of power.

On the other hand, the haste with which the "Georgian Dream" is trying to implement this initiative demonstrates the desire of the ruling party in the long term to consolidate its dominant position.

Equally important, along with amendments to the Constitution the executive power talks about the reform. Deprivation of seven cities the status of local government units.

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Today, there are 12 towns in Georgia with the status that allows them to dispose of revenues in municipal budgets and identify priorities for development. However, the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure of Georgia said about the incompetence of local authorities and insisted that such a move would halve administrative costs.

Interestingly, the emergence of local government units became possible in 2014, even during the reign of "Georgian Dream". This step was explained by the need to move away from the practice of excessive centralization under reign of Mikheil Saakashvili. So, "Georgian Dream" today is a step to a full restart of the political system in their favor.

Given that the unofficial leader standing behind the "Georgian Dream" is the country's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the new Constitution might not only consolidate the dominance of one party, but the informal system of governance.

The only obstacle to the realization of this scenario might become members of civil society with the support of the Western partners. The latter still perceived Georgia as a success story, especially given the recent steps towards visa liberalization with the EU.

Related: Georgia condemns merging of South Ossetia’s troops with Russian army

To avoid such a scenario, Parliament Speaker Georgi Kobakhidze has announced amendments to the Constitution of the transitional provision, which establishes a pro-European course of foreign policy.

The question is whether this proposal encourages Brussels to close its eyes to the possible attempts to monopolize power in Tbilisi.

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