With less than six months to go before parliamentary elections, a new dispute has surfaced within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition over the optimum length of the election campaign.
That dispute threatens to derail the efforts made over the past four months by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili to forge a harmonious working relationship with Georgia's president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, whose powers are largely ceremonial.
On April 14, Kvirikashvili told his cabinet he would not countersign an edict issued by Margvelashvili scheduling the vote for October 8 and the start of the election campaign for August 8. As the NGO Association of Young Jurists had already pointed out, the formal publication of the date of the election marks the start of the electoral campaign, so that Margvelashvili's assertion that his edict would take effect only on August 8 constituted a violation of the election law.
Noting that various political parties and NGOs had protested that a two-month election campaign is too short, Kvirikashvili asked the president to retract his edict and issue a new one in early July scheduling the ballot for October 8 following a three-month election campaign.
Margvelashvili, however, countered with the announcement that he will reissue the relevant edict in early May.
Margvelashvili explained the timing of his original edict in terms of the need to allow political parties to plan their election campaign. That statement is disingenuous, however, insofar as the Georgian Constitution specifies that parliamentary elections take place in October of the year in which the parliament's four-year term expires.
That means that the approximate time frame for electioneering can easily be calculated well in advance and adjusted once the precise date of the ballot is made known. Article 50.2 of the constitution also stipulates that the president must announce the election date no later than two months in advance.
Margvelashvili told journalists on April 14 that the wording of his edict had been coordinated with the government and was based on ministers' warnings that an election campaign of longer than two months would prove financially ruinous. He added that Kvirikashvili's statement that the election campaign should last three months shows that argument was spurious.
Margvelashvili also hinted that if necessary, he could cover part of the cost of the ballot from the presidential reserve fund.
Whether he is in fact empowered to do so is questionable, however: Georgian Dream parliament deputy Irakli Sesiashvili made the point that the reserve fund is intended to be drawn on only in exceptional circumstances, such as in the event of a natural catastrophe.
In short, Margvelashvili's initial pronouncement of the election date without apparently taking into account the legal implications and his subsequent attempts at rationalization threaten to encourage the perception of him as a stubborn, defiant, and dysfunctional dilettante.
Moreover, if he does indeed call Kvirikashvili's bluff by issuing in early May an analogous edict effectively announcing the start of a five-month election campaign, the prime minister will be under pressure to sign it against his better judgment, given that if he refuses to do so, Margvelashvili does not have the legal right to issue a third such edict for another six months, by which time the parliament's four-year term would be at an end.
At a meeting with journalists on April 15, Kvirikashvili said the election date will not be changed. At the same time, he sought to downplay the contretemps over the duration of the election campaign, stressing that relations between the government and the presidential office were "absolutely normal, [and] correspond to the principles of a democratic state."