Georgian Opposition Demands Referendum On Proposed Constitutional Amendments
Broad public discussion of a series of amendments to the Georgian constitution drafted by a commission dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party is currently under way.
The planned changes include abolishing direct elections for president, and fine-tuning the electoral system in a way that would benefit whichever party garners the largest number of votes.
Georgian Dream argues that those changes will strengthen multiparty democracy. The opposition, by contrast, argues that they are intended and will serve solely to enable Georgian Dream to remain in power indefinitely.
Several opposition parties are therefore campaigning for the amendments to be put to a nationwide referendum, which Georgian Dream is reluctant to condone, even though the current constitution stipulates that referendum results are nonbinding.
Meanwhile, civil society groups and NGOs have appealed to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of expert constitutional lawyers to rule on whether the planned amendments are appropriate and acceptable in the Georgian context.
Plans for amending the constitution were announced late last year by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili following the reelection of Georgian Dream in the October parliamentary ballot.
The objective, Kvirikashvili explained, was to replace what he termed “the very unbalanced constitution” Georgian Dream inherited in 2012 from the former ruling United National Movement with “a truly European, democratic constitution” that would “preclude the possibility of a single party ever again usurping and monopolizing power.”
That statement is a clear allusion to the way the United National Movement had systematically tweaked the constitution in the hope of ensuring its reelection in 2012 and facilitating then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s transition to the post of prime minister after the end of his second presidential term one year later.
Dogged By Disagreement
The process of drafting the amendments has been dogged by disagreement and controversy from the outset, however. It has also exacerbated the already strained relations between Georgian Dream and Saakashvili’s successor as president, Giorgi Margvelashvili.
The most contentious changes affect how the president is to be elected, some of his prerogatives, and the distribution of parliamentary mandates.
Others include adding to the constitution a definition of marriage as “the voluntary union of a man and a woman with the aim of creating a family” and removing the stipulation that the seat of the parliament is Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. (The transfer of the legislature from Tbilisi to Kutaisi was one of numerous constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by the United National Movement between 2004 and 2012.)
At present, Georgia’s president is elected by a nationwide vote. Initially, switching as of 2018 to the indirect election of the president by the parliament had been proposed.
That proposition elicited an outraged response from Margvelashvili, who is widely expected to seek a second and final presidential term next year.
Margvelashvili had declared in December that he and his staff would boycott the work of the constitutional commission because he was not named to co-chair it.
The constitutional commission then suggested a compromise whereby the transition to an indirect presidential election would take place only in 2023, after Margvelashvili’s anticipated second presidential term expired. From that juncture, the president would be elected by an electoral college comprising the 150 lawmakers plus a further 150 representatives from all of Georgia’s various regions, including the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
That failed, however, to mollify Margvelashvili, who declared in a TV interview in early March that “I still have not heard a single cogent argument” why the Georgian people should be stripped of the right to elect their president.
Margvelashvili apparently enjoys overwhelming public support on this point: his parliamentary secretary Ana Dolidze was quoted on April 18 by InterpressNews.ge as saying the latest opinion polls reveal that 98 percent of Georgians favor retaining direct presidential elections.
Margvelashvili is also against the proposed abolition of the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the president in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces.
According to parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the constitutional commission, the abolition of the National Security Council was recommended by the Venice Commission on the grounds that the council advises the president on issues that are the prerogative of the government, not of the president.
At the same time, Kobakhidze explained that, while the president will retain the post of commander in chief under the amended constitution, the armed forces are not directly subordinate to him, InterpressNews.ge reported on May 5.
Kobakhidze’s related assertion that the proposed amendments do not affect other presidential powers is not strictly speaking true insofar as the amendments deprive the president of the right to request that the cabinet address specific issues and participate in discussion of them, and of the right to nominate a certain number of Supreme Court judges.
Margvelashvili has duly launched a personal campaign, under the slogan: “The constitution belongs to everyone.” His stated aim in doing so is to solicit citizens’ views on what the revised constitution should look like, but some observers suspect that pique and injured pride were also a motivating factor. Margvelashvili is simultaneously participating in the ongoing public discussion of the amendments.
Controversial Voting System
The proposed revision of the voting system in parliamentary elections has likewise proven controversial.
True, the amendments meet the opposition’s demand for switching from the current mixed system, under which 73 of the 150 parliamentary deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 under the proportional system, to a fully proportional system. But Georgian Dream insists on retaining the existing 5 percent barrier to qualify for parliamentary representation, and also on abolishing the option of forming electoral blocs.
The rationale for those changes, as outlined by Kobakhidze, is to promote the emergence of some six or seven strong and viable political parties by weeding out smaller political groups that enjoy only minimal support.
Of the 27 political parties and six electoral blocs that were registered for the October 2016 parliamentary ballot, just three qualified for parliamentary representation. Kobakhidze’s predecessor as parliament speaker, former Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili, similarly affirmed during a long interview he gave to InterpressNews.ge in August 2016 that “unless we make the transition to a parliamentary system of government, political parties will never become any stronger.”
To that end, in future, political parties not represented in the outgoing parliament must submit the signatures of no fewer than 25,000 supporters to register for a parliamentary election. Smaller parties reject those changes as discriminatory, and have demanded that the barrier for parliamentary representation be lowered to 3 percent of the vote.
The opposition is even more incensed by the proposal that those parliamentary mandates not allocated under the proportional system be given to the party that garners the largest number of votes, rather than shared among all parties that surmount the 5 percent hurdle.
It was precisely that system, according to United National Movement lawmaker Otar Kakhidze, that kept Italy’s World War II Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in power.
Georgian Dream lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze, who has participated in the drafting of Georgian constitutions since the late 1980s, branded that proposal “unfair,” while President Margvelashvili commented during a public discussion in Gori on May 11 that “not only does it sound unfair to me, I think a strong party should not need to resort to this.”
In a joint appeal to the Venice Commission, 85 civil society organizations aligned in the Georgian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum pointed out that, in all elections between 1995 and 2016, the average votes wasted because of the 5 percent threshold stood at about 20.1 percent. That would give the winning party 30 additional mandates.
Despite such criticisms, Georgian Dream continues to maintain that the amended constitution will guarantee the optimum balance between promoting political pluralism and preserving stability.
Parliament speaker Kobakhidze argues that “we are changing a very bad constitution for a very good one.” He says the switch to the proportional system would virtually preclude any single party gaining a constitutional majority in parliament (which Georgian Dream currently has), and that in this respect “for the first time ever, the constitution is being amended to the detriment of the ruling force.”
Those assertions have proven less than convincing. In early April, the opposition parties represented on the constitutional commission walked out one after the other, complaining that none of their proposed revisions had been taken into account, and therefore failed to participate in the formal vote approving the finished draft.
One month later, the United National Movement and the political parties European Georgia, the New Rightists, the State for the People, and the National Democratic Party established a rival initiative, named Defend the Constitution, to Margvelashvili’s “The Constitution Belongs to All,” the news portal Caucasian Knot reported.
At the same time, the European Georgia party, which split in January from the United National Movement, called for a nationwide referendum on the planned changes, Caucasian Knot reported on April 22. To date, four other parties the United National Movement, the Alliance of Patriots, and the extraparliamentary Free Democrats and the Republican Party, have added their voices to that demand.
Khmaladze, however, argues that a referendum is inappropriatebecause the majority of the electorate does not understand the nuances of the issues involved.
Georgia’s leaders may also be unwilling to risk the charges of manipulation of the outcome that have plagued similar referendums on constitutional amendments over the past two decades in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
It is not clear whether Georgian Dream’s seeming obduracy was simply a negotiating tactic, and the party will ultimately agree to modify the proposed changes in order to demonstrate both good faith and the depth of its commitment to a genuinely democratic electoral system.
Even before the constitutional commission got down to work, Kobakhidze stressed that the parliament will not endorse any proposed changes to which the Venice Commission raises an objection.
If Georgian Dream goes back on that pledge, the confrontation between Georgian Dream and the political parties and NGOs that oppose the amendments could prove reminiscent of the Soviet-era Radio Yerevan joke: “Will there be a Third World War? “No, but there will be such a struggle for peace that not a single stone will be left standing.”
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.