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New Draft Georgian Constitution Unveiled

Tengiz Sharmanashvili (left) and Avtandil Demetrashvili (right) at the commission meeting in Tbilisi on May 11.
Tengiz Sharmanashvili (left) and Avtandil Demetrashvili (right) at the commission meeting in Tbilisi on May 11.
The state commission established last summer to draft further amendments to Georgia's already much-amended constitution approved on May 11 by a vote of 31 to 10 with two abstentions a new draft constitution that, if adopted, will augment the powers of the prime minister at the expense of the president.

Several members of the majority United National Movement parliament faction voted against it, including faction head Petre Tsiskarishvili. Two alternative drafts, one strengthening the powers of the president and the second unequivocally advocating a parliamentary republic, were rejected.

The new draft will be submitted to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for assessment, according to commission Chairman Avtandil Demetrashvili, who co-authored the draft together with Tengiz Sharmanashvili of the opposition National Democratic Party.

If approved, the new constitution will take effect only after the presidential election due in January 2013. The present constitution formally bans incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili from running in that ballot for a third term.*

Since Saakashvili's election as president in January 2004, the Georgian Constitution has already been modified at least five times. Amendments in February 2004 strengthened the power of the executive branch (the president and government) vis-a-vis the parliament, which the president is empowered to dissolve twice within the space of one five-year presidential term. A subsequent change in 2006 limited the president's authority to appoint and dismiss judges, and a further amendment in October 2008 empowered him to dismiss the justice minister (in addition to the interior and defense ministers).

In September 2009, amendments were enacted permitting those opposition parliament deputies who had rejected their mandates to protest the perceived rigging of the May 2008 parliamentary elections to reclaim them, and on partially relocating the parliament to Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city. Three months later, the parliament endorsed further amendments related to the date of local elections and introducing direct elections for the post of Tbilisi mayor.

Georgia's Constitution has been amended five times since 2004.
Creation of a state constitutional commission on which all interested opposition parties would be represented was one of the measures President Saakashvili offered opposition parties at the height of the mass public protests in April-May 2009 to demand his resignation.

That commission would, Saakashvili said, "work toward a balanced constitutional model.... A model where there will be space for strong presidential power, as well as a strong parliament [and] an independent judiciary." That formulation suggests that previous amendments to the constitution, which were intended to produce precisely such a model, failed to do so.

Demetrashvili described the proposed new model on May 11 as "mixed," but closer to a parliamentary republic. He acknowledged that the draft may still undergo significant revisions.

The most significant changes are as follows:

The president will no longer control either domestic or foreign policy, responsibility for which will devolve on to the prime minister and government.

The prime minister will be selected by the party that has the greatest number of parliamentary mandates, and will be approved by the president. The prime minister will then select cabinet ministers, who must be approved by parliament. The president therefore loses his current right to appoint the defense and interior ministers. The prime minister will therefore, according to political analyst Ghia Nodia, be the most powerful person in the country.

The president also forfeits the right to unilaterally dismiss the government, and any say over the budget.

The government's powers are automatically suspended on election of a new parliament.

Persons holding dual citizenship may not hold senior government positions.

The parliament will need only a simple majority (rather than the current two-thirds majority) to override a presidential veto.

Any further amendments to the constitution will be far more difficult to enact, and will require the approval of a new parliament.

Of the two alternative rejected drafts, that authored by Liberty Institute head Levan Ramishvili strengthens even further the powers of the president, Maestro TV reported on April 1. It also provides for the introduction of the post of vice president. In that respect, it is closer to the U.S. system.

The third draft is the work of an unofficial Public Commission established last year. That draft unequivocally advocates a variant on a parliamentary republic with a bicameral parliament that would elect the president. Such a system would guarantee stable government, but also give opposition parties effective leverage over the government's actions, commission member Mindia Ugrekhelidze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service last month.

Vakhtang Khmaladze, an independent expert with two decades of experience, explained that "there are any number of parliamentary republics and they are all different. The system we are proposing provides for strong and stable executive branch...the parliament alone is responsible for forming the executive branch and it can dismiss the government by a statement of no confidence, but only on condition that a new government is formed immediately.... The country should not be without a government for a single day."

The Public Commission is currently collecting the 200,000 signatures required to introduce the draft as a legislative initiative in parliament.

Demetrashvili claimed that his draft was not tailored to suit a specific individual. But unnamed members of his commission have pointed out that it could enable Saakashvili to continue to wield supreme power after the expiry of his second presidential term, in the event that he is elected to parliament from a party that wins the majority of seats. In that case, he would be the obvious candidate for prime minister.

* CLARIFICATION: The original version of this post included reference to a Caucasus Press report that misstated polling data regarding public support for Saakashvili running for a third term. We have removed the passage citing that inaccurate report.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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