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What Is Cohabitation? And How Will It Work In Georgia?

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) will have to find a way of getting along with Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, which has won parliamentary elections.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) will have to find a way of getting along with Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, which has won parliamentary elections.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has conceded victory to rival Bidzina Ivanishvili in parliamentary elections on October 1. But it is not the last they will see of each other.

Saakashvilli will remain in office until next year's presidential election, while Ivanishvili's bloc will have the parliament and prime minister's post

That puts them into a power-sharing arrangement known as cohabitation. Here are five things to know about how it works:

What is cohabitation?

Cohabitation is unique to semipresidential systems, where both the president and the prime minister have executive powers.

It most frequently occurs when parliamentary and presidential elections are not held simultaneously and a party that once controlled both the presidency and parliament loses one position while still retaining the other.

But it does not always happen by accident. Patrick Dunleavy, general editor of EUROPP, the European politics website of the London School of Economics, suggests voters occasionally force parties into cohabitation as a way of maintaining balance between them.

"Sometimes electorates don't really know what they want, they are in rather tricky situations, and in Georgia there is a two-way pull, as there is in Ukraine, between getting closer to the EU, which is the president's line, and rebuilding relations with Russia, which is very much [Ivanishvili's] line," he says.

"And by dividing government between the president and prime minister, or between the president and the parliamentary majority, then they are hedging their bets. They might want, for example in this situation, to rebuild relations with Russia but still have a pro-EU president to keep the prime minister in check."

Are there dangers to cohabitation?

A common problem is that the rival political parties regard their cohabitation as a period in which to discredit the other before the next election. Each hopes to weaken the other until it can control both the positions of president and prime minister.

That can mean a prolonged period of feuding. A notable example was the government for which the term cohabitation was first coined in France in the late 1980s.

In 1986, French President Francois Mitterand was forced to nominate his arch-rival, Jacques Chirac, as prime minister after his own party lost its parliamentary majority.

When Chirac began to roll back Mitterand's programs, Mitterand refused to sign statutes passed by the cabinet, forcing the prime minister to pass them through lengthy parliamentary procedures. The standoff lasted two years, until Mitterrand was reelected president and his party won new legislative elections.

But cohabitations can be much more bitter than that.

"There is a good example of [cohabitation] going completely sour currently in Romania," Dunleavy says. "[There] the prime minister with a parliamentary majority tried to have the president impeached and dismissed from office, but was stopped by the constitutional court."

Is there any upside to cohabitation?

Cohabitation can have a positive, moderating effect on a divisive political scene if feuding parties decide to work together. Or it can have a negative effect if it leads to a stalemate that incapacitates the government altogether.

Nonetheless, by offering a middle ground in very partisan disputes between rival parties, it at least helps keep the disputes from subverting democracy altogether. And that is better than a unitary system where all power is in the hands of a single authority, with other voices silenced.

Is there a difference between cohabitation and divided government in the United States?

Currently in the United States, there is a partisan stalemate between the president and the Congress, which is partly controlled by the opposition Republicans. But this situation, called divided government, is different from cohabitation because the United States has a full presidential system in which the president exercises executive power and the Congress has legislative power.

Dunleavy calls cohabitation – where executive powers are shared -- a more difficult relationship because it requires the president and prime minister to truly "live together:"

"The president and the prime minister have to, if you like, live together constantly in executive government," he says. "They constantly have to meet, they constantly have to agree, particularly in areas like defense policy, foreign policy, very big strategic issues, so [the] cohabitation of a president and a prime minister is a good deal more difficult even than divided government."