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Tectonic Shifts Anticipated In Georgian Political Landscape

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (right) and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in Tbilisi in May 2013.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (right) and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in Tbilisi in May 2013.

The protracted standoff over proposed amendments to Georgia’s constitution has resulted in “the emergence of two divergent, parallel Georgias, a dichotomy that could undermine confidence in the political process.”

That is the conclusion reached by a seven-member delegation from the U.S. National Democratic Institute following a series of meetings last month with members of the country’s leadership and representatives of political parties and civil society. The objective was to assess the political situation in the run-up to municipal elections tentatively scheduled for mid-October.

The failure to reach a consensus on the proposed constitutional amendments has indeed resulted in the polarization of the political landscape, with the ruling Georgian Dream party that authored the draft proposals on one side and virtually all other political parties, both parliamentary and extraparliamentary, on the other, together with the country’s most influential NGOs. But to speak of “two Georgias” is misleading and an oversimplification, given the lack of unity both within Georgian Dream and among the opposition. Those tensions and rivalries could, journalist Khatuna Lagazidze suggests, catalyze the emergence of new political alignments in the run-up to the presidential election due in 2018.

The most controversial proposed constitutional amendments concern whether and when to switch from direct to indirect presidential elections; the time frame for transition from the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system of parliamentary elections to a fully proportional system; and the allocation of votes between parties that qualify for parliamentary representation.

In late June, the Georgian Dream parliament faction approved in first and second readings, in the absence of the three opposition parliament factions, a draft that postponed the transition from the mixed to the 100 percent proportional system until the elections due in 2024.

The draft approved days earlier by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of legal experts envisaged switching from the mixed to the fully proportional system in 2020. That U-turn reportedly reflected pressure within Georgian Dream from some of its majoritarian lawmakers who feared the loss of their mandates in the event of a switch to the proportional system. Their stated rationale for preserving the existing mixed system was the problems Moldova encountered following an analogous transition to a fully proportional system in 2006.

At the same time, in line with the Venice Commission’s recommendations, Georgian Dream lowered the barrier for parliamentary representation from the current 5 percent to 3 percent and agreed to limit the maximum number of additional parliament mandates the winning party will receive as a result of votes cast for parties that do not qualify for representation.

The parliamentary vote nonetheless triggered outrage across the opposition spectrum. Sixteen opposition parties, including the former ruling United National Movement and European Georgia, which split from it earlier this year, immediately addressed a statement to the Council of Europe secretary general, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, the OSCE, and foreign ambassadors in Tbilisi calling for a halt to parliament discussions of the draft (the third reading of which is scheduled for October), and the submission of a revised draft to the Venice Commission, all of whose recommendations would then be incorporated into the final version. They characterized the amended constitution unilaterally endorsed by Georgian Dream as “antidemocratic,” adding that “it does not reflect the will of the Georgian people and cannot be considered a legitimate document.”

Professing himself “profoundly disappointed,” Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio met with representatives of the parliament, the president, and the opposition. Buquicchio again characterized the draft as on the whole a good one. He pointed out that Georgian Dream had taken the right step in opting to switch from the mixed to the proportional system at the risk of losing power, but added that postponing that transition for seven years “was not the best decision.” He appealed to all involved to resume talks with the aim of reaching consensus.

Venice Commission President Giovanni Buquicchio
Venice Commission President Giovanni Buquicchio

Although both sides repeatedly expressed their readiness for further talks, each demanded that the other make clear prior to sitting down at the negotiating table what concessions it is prepared to make. And in a further indication of the lack of unity within Georgian Dream, some of its members continue to insist that no substantive changes can be made to the draft amendments prior to the third and final reading of the bill in October, and that they see no chance of reaching consensus. Others, including parliament chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, maintain that if talks with the opposition yield a compromise solution, there are “legal and procedural ways” of amending the draft.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who had boycotted the work of the commission tasked with drafting the amendments but nonetheless vigorously opposed the proposed abolition of direct presidential elections and of the National Security Council subordinate to the president, called in early July for withdrawing the draft amendments from parliament. Georgian Dream rejected out of hand both that proposal and Margvelashvili’s subsequent offer to convene talks between the ruling party and the opposition with the aim of reaching a consensus.

Since then, the constitutional deadlock has been overshadowed by a further disagreement, this time over draft amendments to the law on local self-government and to the Electoral Code. The changes to the law on self-government entail reducing from the current 12 to five the number of towns with the status of self-governing entities distinct from the outlying district. In addition, elected mayors will require the approval of a majority of members of the municipal prior to appointing their deputies. As for the election law, the proposed change envisages making the representation of individual political parties on the Central Election Commission proportionate to the number of votes they received.

The opposition said it considers those changes unwarranted, undemocratic, and aimed at giving Georgian Dream an unfair advantage in the run-up to the October municipal elections -- even though, as Ekaterina Beselia, chair of the parliament’s judicial committee has pointed out, the changes to the electoral code will take effect only after those elections. The population at large disapproves of the proposed downgrading of some self-governing towns: a poll conducted in June by the NDI found that 59 percent of respondents were against merging those towns with the surrounding region, while only 16 percent approved; 45 percent believed the change will have a negative impact.

In late July, Margvelashvili vetoed all three draft bills, arguing at length that they would hinder the country’s democratic process, weaken pluralism, and reduce public involvement in the functioning of the state. The parliament immediately overrode the vetoes during a session marred by a heated exchange between parliament chairman Kobakhidze and Margvelashvili’s parliamentary secretary, Ana Dolidze.

Veteran commentator Ramaz Saqvarelidze suggested to the news portal InterPressNews that insofar as Georgian Dream enjoys a large enough majority to override any presidential veto, Margvelashvili is deploying his right to veto legislation as a tactical weapon to enhance his approval rating in the run-up to the presidential election in 2018, in which he clearly aspires to a second term.

Khatuna Lagazidze
Khatuna Lagazidze

Lagazidze sees both the municipal and the presidential elections as key milestones in the process of what she describes as the reincarnation of old-established political forces and the birth of new ones. The results of a poll conducted by the NDI in mid-June/early July suggest that the outcome of the municipal elections is wide open, given that 62 percent of the 2,261 respondents were undecided which party they would vote for if the elections were held the following day. Twenty-two percent said they would vote for Georgian Dream, 7 percent for the former ruling United National Movement (ENM), and 3 percent for European Georgia, which split from the ENM in January 2017.

Lagazidze opined that a struggle has already begun for “the support of the street,” meaning the voters disenchanted with and alienated by both the ENM and Georgian Dream, and that whoever succeeds in winning their favor will win the 2020 parliamentary ballot. She also predicted that the ENM and European Georgia will be competing first and foremost with each other, rather than with Georgian Dream, in the upcoming municipal elections. She suggested that Aleko Elisashvili, a former journalist and member of the Tbilisi municipal council who intends to run as an independent candidate for Tbilisi mayor, could emerge as a potential national leader if he manages to place second in that vote after Georgian Dream candidate Kakha Kaladze, as the NDI opinion poll suggested he might.

At the same time, Lagazidze acknowledged the existence of invariables, the biggest of which is the future role of Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili served for a year as prime minister after Georgian Dream’s defeat of the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary elections and then stepped down. Although he plays no role in public life, 59 percent of the respondents in the NDI poll remain convinced that he dictates Georgian Dream policy from behind the scenes, and 56 percent think it would be preferable for him not to.

Rumors have surfaced in recent months that Ivanishvili is ill; prominent Georgian Dream members, including Health Minister Davit Sergeenko, have categorically rejected them as untrue.

There has also been speculation that Ivanishvili is disillusioned with Georgian Dream and might decide to sponsor a different political force in 2020, a scenario that Lagazidze did not exclude. The very possibility of losing Ivanishvili’s patronage and financial backing could, Lagazidze added, lead to a split within Georgian Dream, with some of its members breaking away to form a new party.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)