Over the past several weeks, the long-standing tensions between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party have reached a new level of hostility.
Having declared three months ago that he would not participate in the work of the commission tasked with drafting a new constitution because he was not named to co-chair it, Margvelashvili recently launched his own campaign to solicit citizens' views on what that constitution should look like -- even though the draft the commission is currently working on will be published for nationwide discussion.
Central to the dispute is how Georgia's president should be elected: in a nationwide ballot, or by the parliament. Georgian Dream, which has a constitutional majority in the parliament elected in October 2016, favors abolishing direct elections for the post. This would be in line with constitutional amendments enacted in 2010 by its rival and then ruling United National Movement, under which many presidential powers were transferred to the prime minister, who thus became the country's most powerful official.
True, the president remains nominal head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, but he no longer formulates domestic or foreign policy, and has been stripped of the right of legislative initiative and the power to convene an emergency parliament session or schedule a referendum.
Margvelashvili, however, whose term in office expires in late 2018, insists that the Georgian people have the right to elect the president. So too do the two factions into which the United National Movement recently split, and which routinely seek to disparage and where possible undermine any initiative by Georgian Dream.
Margvelashvili was selected as Georgian Dream's presidential candidate in spring 2013 by then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and was duly elected president in October of that year with 62 percent of the vote, compared to 22 percent for the United National Movement's Davit Bakradze. It was only after that ballot that the constitutional amendments passed three years earlier took effect.
Ivanishvili resigned shortly after that election, and was succeeded as prime minister by Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who is 13 years younger than Margvelashvili. Relations between them proved tense and difficult. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who was named prime minister in December 2015 following Garibashvili's sudden resignation, has sought to establish a congenial relationship with the president despite Margvelashvili's sometimes inappropriate statements and erratic behavior.
Even before the parliament's constitutional commission convened for its first session in late December, the possibility of abolishing direct elections for the post of president was under discussion. Margvelashvili repeatedly criticized that proposal as unwarranted. He was quoted by Interpressnews.ge on February 7 as telling Iberia TV that the Georgian people should be able to elect their president, and that "I still have not heard a single cogent argument why that right should be taken from us and given to someone else."
Georgian Dream then came up with a compromise proposal. Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze announced that "in order to preclude speculation, the ruling party considers it expedient" that in 2018 the president should be elected by a direct nationwide vote, and the transition to an indirect election should take place only in 2023. Given the constitutional limit on any individual serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, Margvelashvili will not be eligible to run in that ballot.
That proposed compromise only served to exacerbate the situation, however. Margvelashvili publicly attributed that compromise proposal to public pressure to retain direct elections. At the same time, he continued to protest that the proposed abolition of direct elections is directed against him personally. Presidential-administration head Giorgi Abashishvili similarly suggested in early March that the creation of the constitutional commission was simply a smokescreen for making "a specific decision," clearly meaning abolishing direct elections for the post of president.
Kobakhidze responded with a categorical denial that the proposal to postpone the abolition of direct elections was made under pressure from the public at large, saying that the commission had taken Margvelashvili's position into account. He went on to warn that if Margvelashvili continued to make "incorrect comments," the commission might withdraw that proposal and opt instead for the indirect election of the president in 2018.
That injudicious statement is likely to haunt Kobakhidze for some time. Levan Bezhashvili, a leading member of the United National Movement, described it as "the reaction of an angry and outraged child," while Abashishvili sarcastically queried the rationale for tailoring constitutional amendments in response to statements by the president.
Even veteran lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze, a member of the constitutional commission and one of the co-authors of the 1995 constitution, conceded that Kobakhidze's statement was not entirely appropriate -- although he was even more critical of Margvelashvili.
Then, on March 10, Margvelashvili convened a special press conference, to which NGO representatives and foreign diplomats were invited, at which he announced his The Constitution Belongs To All campaign. Civil.ge quoted him as stressing that the campaign was not intended as an alternative to the parliamentary commission's deliberations, but to further that process by democratic means. Whether by oversight or design, that press conference was scheduled to coincide with a plenary parliament session; consequently, Georgian Dream parliament members failed to show up.
Kobakhidze, who unlike Margvelashvili is a trained constitutional lawyer, construed Margvelashvili's initiative as deliberate defiance of both the parliament and the constitutional commission, and as demonstrating regrettable lack of respect for the parliament as an institution. He recalled that the parliament alone is empowered to conduct the process of public review of the proposed constitutional amendments, and appealed to Margvelashvili to "set aside his narrow political interests" and involve himself in the constitutional commission's work.
Margvelashvili has not yet responded to that appeal, or commented on a new proposal floated by Khmaladze last week. That proposal, namely, that the president should be selected by the 150 lawmakers plus 150 representatives of local government, represents a retreat from the commission's offer to postpone the abolition of direct elections for president. Khmaladze said it would give greater legitimacy to the election process.
The dispute over electing the president is likely to resurface in early April, when Margvelashvili is scheduled to deliver his annual address to parliament. Meanwhile, it is likely to be eclipsed by his veto on March 20 of the revised law on electronic surveillance the parliament passed in the third and final reading three weeks ago.