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Georgia: Constitutional Amendments Create New Rift Between Authorities, Opposition

The Georgian parliament approved in the first reading on March 4, the second reading on March 11, and the third and final reading on March 12 constitutional amendments that will fundamentally change the way the next Georgian parliament is elected.

The opposition National Council rejects one of those innovations, which it claims is designed to preserve the existing overall majority within the legislature of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, and has demanded the resignation of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whom it accuses of reneging on an oral agreement reached in February on numerous political issues, including the constitutional amendment in question.

The Georgian parliament elected in 2003-2004 comprised a total of 225 deputies; 150 mandates were distributed under the proportional system among parties or blocs that polled a minimum of 7 percent of the vote, and 75 were allocated in single-mandate constituencies; 10 mandates reserved for deputies representing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained unfilled. In a referendum in 2003, the parliament voted to cut the total number of lawmakers to 150, of whom 100 would be elected under the proportional and 50 under the majoritarian system. The most recent amendments reduce even further, to 75, the number of mandates distributed under the proportional system and lower the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system from 7 to 5 percent. The opposition did not take issue with those changes, but is adamantly opposed to a third, which increases from 50 to 75 the number of majoritarian lawmakers and envisages a new procedure for their election that they claim violates the agreement reached last month between Burjanadze and the National Council.

The new procedure abolishes the existing "first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system" for electing majoritarian lawmakers. But in its place, it introduces a system under which Georgia is divided into 19 election districts that will elect a total of 75 MPs. Before the figure was raised from 50 to 75, the mandates were divided as following, according to the "Georgian Times" on February 18:
Tbilisi -10, Samegrelo and Imereti - five each, Shida Kartli, Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, and Adjara - four each, and South Ossetia, Samtskhe-Djavakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Guria, Svaneti, Racha-Lechkhumi, Abkhazia -- two each. The allocation of those mandates was seen as crucial in determining whether Saakashvili's United National Movement would preserve its two-thirds constitutional majority in the new parliament.

One of the 17 demands contained in the National Council's January 29 memorandum to parliament speaker Burjanadze was that the proposed 50 majoritarian parliamentarians be elected on the basis of regional proportional lists. That would enable parties or blocs to nominate not one but several candidates in each electoral district, and the parliament seats would be allocated according to the number of votes the party/bloc received in that specific constituency. The authorities initially agreed to the proposed regional proportional lists "in the event of reaching a consensus," reported on February 16.

In the event, the parliament tweaked the amendments at the last minute to increase the number of majoritarian deputies from 50 to 75, and went back on the assurances given to the opposition concerning how they would be elected, opting instead to revert to the original model under which one parliamentarian was elected in each of 75 constituencies. It then adopted the amendments in the first reading on March 4 without any debate, a procedure the opposition subsequently decried as unconstitutional. Opposition parliamentarian Kakha Kukava (Conservative Party) branded Burjanadze "a liar," claiming that on February 22, during her talks with opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, she swore that the constitution would be amended to ensure that majoritarian deputies would be elected according to the system proposed by the opposition, the "Georgian Times" reported on March 10. Mamuka Katsitadze told that paper that the authorities retracted their earlier concession to the opposition over the regional proportional lists because they feared they would not win the required number of votes. Gachechiladze argued that the 75:75 proportion is not only unconstitutional but endangers national unity, and he threatened to renounce his Georgian citizenship in protest.

President Saakashvili, however, defended the amendments on March 10 as "fair," and branded the opposition "unserious and irresponsible" for protesting them instead of declaring solidarity with the country's leadership in face of the March 6 unilateral decision by Russia to withdraw from the economic sanctions imposed by CIS members states on the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia at a summit in January 1996 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Prior to the second reading on March 11, opposition supporters staged a protest demonstration outside the parliament building, and David Gamkrelidze and five other law-makers from the New Rightists party that he heads began a hunger strike in the ante-room to Burjanadze's office, both to protest the new draft of the constitutional amendments and to demand that the authorities deliver on the other opposition demands to which Burjanadze agreed earlier.

Several dozen more opposition supporters began a hunger strike outside the parliament. Burjanadze met with the six New Rightists on March 11 and proposed resolving the deadlock by raising the total number of deputies in the new parliament to 175, but Gamkrelidze rejected that idea as "nonsense," adding that "not a single opposition party would agree to it," reported.

Meanwhile, some oppositionists began voicing demands above and beyond those contained in the January 29 memorandum to Burjanadze, including Saakashvili's resignation and the holding of new presidential elections, and, in response to the Russian waiver one week earlier of sanctions of Abkhazia, that Georgia quit the CIS. On March 12, opposition supporters embarked on hunger strikes in two other major cities, Kutaisi and Batumi.

Saakashvili responded on March 13 by stressing the need "to cooperate," reported. He urged the opposition to "sit down at the negotiating table," arguing that continued political instability undermines Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). Burjanadze too appealed on March 13 for a resumption of dialogue, calling on the hunger strikers to abandon their protest and warning that "the language of ultimatums" would not yield the desired results.

Human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar for his part told Burjanadze on March 13 he is ready to mediate between her and the opposition. But News Rightists leader Gamkrelidze rejected Saakashvili's call for dialogue, Caucasus Press reported on March 14. His faction also issued a statement demanding that Burjanadze resign as they no longer trust her. New Rightists faction member Pikria Chikhradze explained that "Ms. Burjanadze was the guarantor of the dialogue between the opposition and the majority, but the authorities preferred to take unilateral decisions and departed from the agreement," Caucasus Press reported.

A further opposition protest outside the parliament building has been scheduled for the early evening of March 16 to demand a recount of the votes in the January 5 presidential ballot, which the opposition believes will substantiate their suspicions that the outcome was rigged to give Saakashvili a first-round victory, and repeat elections. Giorgi Khaindrava, a former government minister now aligned with the opposition National Council, told that "much will depend" on the outcome of the March 16 protest. Attendance at the previous opposition rally on March 9, while in the thousands, was much lower than during the initial post-election protests.

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