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President, Speaker Trade Barbs Over Georgia's Draft Constitutional Changes

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (left) congratulates newly elected parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze during the first session of the parliament in Kutaisi in November 2016.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (left) congratulates newly elected parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze during the first session of the parliament in Kutaisi in November 2016.

As the process of adopting amendments to the Georgian Constitution enters what is intended to be the final phase, the level of recriminations between parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the constitutional lawyer who chaired the commission that drafted the changes, and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has reached a new level of intensity after confidential interim comments on the draft amendments by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission were leaked last week to the Georgian media.

Kobakhidze publicly blamed the president's office for that breach of confidentiality. Then, when Margvelashvili's parliamentary press secretary, Ana Dolidze, denied that Margvelashvili had ever received those comments, first deputy parliament speaker Tamara Chugoshvili said she had e-mail confirmation from the Venice Commission that the comments had indeed been sent to the president's office.

Meanwhile, five civil-society organizations and two extraparliamentary political parties have made a last-ditch appeal to postpone the parliamentary debate on the amendments until the autumn parliamentary session, the website reported on June 8. They expressed doubt that it would be possible to hold an in-depth discussion of the Venice Commission's recommendations and reach the maximum consensus in the limited time available.

Kobakhidze and Margvelashvili have been at odds since the process of drafting the amendments got under way late last year, trading accusations of insincerity, intransigence, and ignoring the interests of democracy and the Georgian people.

Margvelashvili announced at the outset that he and his staff would boycott the work of the constitutional commission because he had not been named to co-chair it. Instead, he launched his own personal campaign under the slogan "The Constitution Belongs to Everyone." While the stated aim of that campaign was to elucidate public attitudes to the proposed changes, the primary focus was on tapping into public indignation over the proposed abolition of direct presidential elections, and to a lesser degree on the risks Margvelashvili claimed were inherent in the proposed abolition of the National Security Council subordinate to the president, which he heads.

Those controversial changes were among several proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, whose members dominated the work of the constitutional commission. Others related to the anticipated transition from the present mixed proportional/majoritarian electoral system to a fully proportional one in which all 150 lawmakers will be elected on the basis of party lists -- a change for which opposition parties have long been lobbying.

Opposition politicians nonetheless objected vehemently that two other proposed changes effectively negated the anticipated benefits of switching to the proportional system. The first was the abolition of election blocs while preserving the existing 5 percent barrier for parties to qualify for parliamentary representation that, the opposition argues, effectively leaves small parties with no chance of winning any seats. Kobakhidze's stated rationale for that change was that it would contribute to the emergence of half a dozen strong parties rather than the survival of a multiplicity of small ones.

The second was the proposal that all the parliamentary mandates that remained unallocated as a result of votes cast for parties that failed to surmount the 5 percent hurdle should go to whichever party garnered the largest number of votes. Opposition parties construed that provision as intended to ensure that Georgian Dream preserves indefinitely its current constitutional majority. (Georgian Dream won the October 2016 parliamentary elections with 115 of the 150 mandates.) In light of that repeated criticism, prominent Georgian Dream lawmaker Gia Volsky suggested in late May that it might be preferable to preserve the existing mixed system.

In early May, civil-society groups and NGOs had appealed to the Venice Commission of expert constitutional lawyers to rule on whether the proposed amendments are appropriate and acceptable in the Georgian context, even though Kobakhidze has said repeatedly over the past few months that parliament will not endorse any amendment that the Venice Commission deems inappropriate.

And during talks with Georgian officials in Berlin later in May, Venice Commission experts were quoted as expressing overall approval of the proposed amendments while at the same time stressing the need for unspecified minor changes and to reach the maximum consensus.

The Venice Commission was scheduled to unveil its formal assessment of the planned changes on June 16, after which the parliament was to vote on the amendments in the first and second readings before the end of the spring session in late June. It therefore seems likely that the interim recommendations the Venice Commission sent to Tbilisi last week were intended as both guidance and gentle pressure on the Georgian leadership to tone down the most controversial proposals in time to meet that deadline and thus save face.

Venice Weighs In

As quoted by the website, the Venice Commission's experts concluded that the proposed changes constitute "a positive step forward that will strengthen democracy, the supremacy of the law, and constitutional order." At the same time, they noted that Georgia "lacks a lengthy tradition of independence of the judiciary." They further registered the risk that the majority will continue to dominate the parliament and called for a system of checks and balances to preclude that, such as establishing a bicameral parliament and strengthening the role of the parliamentary opposition.

As for the proposed transition to a proportional system, the commission described it as a positive step but went on to argue that taken together, the 5 percent hurdle, the proposed abolition of electoral blocs, and the proposed allocation to the winning party of all unapportioned mandates "limit the influence of the proportional system to the detriment of pluralism and the smaller parties."

The commission therefore recommended considering alternative variants, such as that the unallocated mandates either be divided among all the parties that garner 5 percent of the vote in proportion to the percentage they received, or that an upper limit be placed on the number of unallocated mandates the winning party would be entitled to, or that the barrier for parliamentary representation be lowered to 2-3 percent.

With regard to the office of the president, the Venice Commission reportedly warned that the transition to the indirect election of the president by an electoral college comprising the 150 parliament deputies and 150 regional representatives "should not lead to the constant election of the presidential candidate proposed by the majority."

The commission's experts reportedly did not offer any recommendation with regard to the National Security Council. Just days before their interim evaluation became public knowledge, the Tbilisi Strategic Discussion, a forum convened by Margvelashvili, released a communique arguing that the proposed constitutional amendments, including the abolition of the National Security Council, would further weaken Georgia's defense capacity insofar as they do not provide "a full-fledged and coherent legal and institutional framework for security policy formulation, planning, execution and oversight." The 27 signatories, among them two former defense ministers, three former deputy defense ministers, and a former deputy foreign minister, therefore called for revising the time frame for passage of the constitutional amendments in order to allow for a detailed analysis of the threats the country faces, reported.

The Georgian parliament is unlikely to heed that warning, however. Kobakhidze has already gone on record as saying that "all the Venice Commission's comments are acceptable [to us]. We have promised that they will all be taken into consideration." He added that Georgian Dream was discussing the optimum limit on the number of unallocated parliamentary mandates to which the winning party would be entitled. At the same time, Kobakhidze noted that the Venice Commission did not reject outright either the proposed abolition of electoral blocs, or the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation, which he pointed out was characteristic of the electoral systems of most EU member states. Those remarks suggest the party is unwilling to yield on those points.

Georgian Dream is even less likely to revise its proposal to switch to the indirect election of the president. It has already made one concession by agreeing that the new mechanism will go into effect only in 2023, thereby preserving the possibility for Margvelashvili to run for a second term next year.

How the tensions between the Georgian Dream-dominated parliament and the president's office will play out in the coming weeks after Kobakhidze publicly accused the president of lies, sabotage of the reform process, and systematic attacks on the parliament can only be guessed at.

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

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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