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Georgia Gets A More Democratic Constitution, Though The Process Is Not Perfect

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits first-graders during their first lesson at the start of the new school year in September.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits first-graders during their first lesson at the start of the new school year in September.
Last week the Georgian parliament adopted amendments to the Constitution of Georgia that brings the country's political system closer to a parliamentary republic and makes the prime minister (not the president) the most powerful figure in the government.

Opinions about these amendments both in Georgia and abroad proceed from two radically opposed points of view. One side proceeds from a consideration of the political future of President Mikheil Saakashvili, while the other looks at the content of the changes themselves. Critics emphasize that the new constitution gives Saakashvili (who in 2013, when his second and last term as president comes to an end, will be just 46 years old) the opportunity to continue ruling the country as prime minister. Immediately people begin making comparisons with former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now the prime minister: a still-young and energetic president couldn't simply step down, but instead decided to remain on as prime minister. Saakashvili intends to do the same, critics allege.

It is hard to deny that the new version of the constitution does give him this opportunity, if his party, the United National Movement, wins the 2012 parliamentary elections (and that seems highly likely). Saakashvili himself, when asked what his post-2013 plans are, always answers vaguely, which merely bolsters suspicion that he indeed intends to become prime minister.

More Democratic

Nonetheless, comparisons with Putin are unjust at the very least, because Putin made no effort to change the constitution before becoming prime minister and, on the contrary, the subsequently adopted amendments to the Russian Constitution made that country's super-presidential system even stronger (giving the president a six-year term, instead of four). The amendments adopted in Georgia mark a shift to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system in which the legislature predominates. The comparisons between Saakashvili and Putin presuppose that the substance of the constitution is irrelevant.

And it is hard to agree with that. A democratic constitution is not a guarantee of democracy, but it is a prerequisite. Most commentators agree that the new amendments bring the previous super-presidential system closer to the European parliamentary model and make the constitution more democratic. The most serious criticism argues that the prime minister is too well-protected, thus restricting the ability of parliament to control him. Once a prime minister and a cabinet have been approved, it will be very difficult for parliament to replace them; in order to do so, legislators must form a new majority of three-fifths to support the new prime minister and hold that majority for more than two months while the complex procedures, including a possible presidential veto, are carried out.

The main argument in support of this system says that Georgia does not have stable political parties and so a parliamentary model would be subject to frequent crises. Even if this is true, the complex procedures for conducting a no-confidence vote tip the system toward the executive branch, which weakens the democratic character of the new model. But this does not refute the overall assessment that the system is more democratic than the old one.

Weak Debate

The political process by which the amendments were approved, however, demonstrated the weak aspects of democracy in Georgia, as well as some signs that inspire hope. Although the ruling party has a constitutional majority in the legislature, the amendments were prepared by means of relatively broad and extensive political consultations. A constitutional commission was created in June 2009 and all the significant political parties were invited to participate. However, the majority of opposition parties proudly refused -- probably because they didn't know which constitutional model to support. They had previously claimed that democracy in Georgia was hampered primarily by strong presidential powers; but now that they concluded that a parliamentary system might play into Saakashvili's hands, they became confused.

After it became clear which model would be accepted in May, the discussion was very tame. With the exception of two or three experts, most critics just reiterated that the amendments had been written with Saakashvili in mind and that the authorities did not have the moral authority to adopt any changes. It turned out that the main discussion of the constitution wasn't carried out by the opposition or civil society but by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe. And although the commission made serious criticisms (including those mentioned above), it generally emphasized the overall positive character of the amendments.

We must give credit to the parliamentary opposition, which became quite active and achieved some definite concessions. But by contrast, the main opposition -- which today is outside of parliament -- cited the fact that not all of the Venice Commission's suggestions were accepted, but then criticized it when it reached conclusions the opposition could not agree with.

For its part, the ruling party demonstrated unjustifiable stubbornness by refusing to extend the discussion of the amendments by another month or two. Doing so would hardly have changed the situation. But it would have undermined opponents' claims that the new constitution was rushed through and that public discussion was intentionally scheduled for the vacation month of August and that the government didn't even bother to wait for the Venice Commission's final verdict (which was presented the very day that the amendments were adopted).

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Venice Commission was an EU body. In fact, it is an advisory body of the Council of Europe. The text has been amended.