The scheming and infighting surrounding the process of amending Georgia's constitution was reminiscent of a TV soap opera just three weeks ago. But with the third and final parliament reading expected before the end of this month, it is coming to look more like theater of the absurd.
The four main actors in this ongoing drama are the ruling Georgian Dream party, which controls 115 of the total 150 parliament mandates; Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who refused from the outset to take part in the work of the commission Georgian Dream established to draft the amendments; the parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties and civil-society groups; and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of constitutional experts to which the other three look for support.
The fundamental disagreements between Georgian Dream on the one hand, and President Margvelashvili and the opposition parties on the other, focus on the way the president and parliament should be elected. Initially, it was envisaged that in future the president should be indirectly elected, while future parliaments should be elected by a fully proportional system instead of the current mixed system in which 73 lawmakers are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 from party lists.
Margvelashvili, who is widely expected to seek a second term in the 2018, objected vehemently, arguing that the Georgian people should retain the right to elect their president. In March, the constitutional commission, which was dominated by Georgian Dream and chaired by parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, duly announced that the transition to an indirect presidential ballot will take place only in 2023 (the number of consecutive terms a president may serve is limited to two).
Georgian Dream initially also agreed to the planned transition to a fully proportional electoral system, but insisted on preserving the existing 5 percent threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation and on abolishing the possibility of smaller parties forming electoral blocs. A draft incorporating those points was submitted in June to the Venice Commission, which largely approved them, while objecting to the proposal that the winning party should automatically receive as a "bonus" the parliament mandates left unallocated as a result of votes cast for parties that failed to garner the required minimum 5 percent of the vote.
Just days later, however, apparently as the result of pressure from a group of Georgian Dream lawmakers elected from single-mandate constituencies who feared the loss of their mandates in the event of a transition to the fully proportional system, Georgian Dream announced that that transition will take place only in 2024, with the parliamentary elections due in 2020 being held under the current mixed system. At the same time, Georgian Dream tweaked the draft amendments to take into account the Venice Commission's objections to the proposed distribution of unallocated parliament mandates.
Dialogue, Not Compromise
That amended draft was passed in the first and second readings on June 22 and 23; none of the three opposition factions attended the parliament sessions in question. Angry and outraged, the opposition appealed to the international community and to the Venice Commission, whose president, Gianni Buquicchio, professed himself profoundly disappointed.
Over the next two months, Georgian Dream and the opposition both reaffirmed their readiness for dialogue with the aim of reaching a consensus, while setting the precondition that the other should state in advance what concessions it was prepared to make. At the same time, individual Georgian Dream lawmakers stressed periodically that no substantive changes could be made to the draft during the final reading.
Three hours of talks between the two sides on August 11 failed to narrow the differences between them, and when the opposition subsequently presented a written list of demanded changes, Georgian Dream announced that it saw no point in any further discussions, thereby effectively serving notice that it would not attend the talks the Venice Commission had offered to mediate on September 6.
At that juncture, President Margvelashvili, who had repeatedly called to no avail for the draft to be recalled from parliament after the second reading, together with 20 opposition parties, set to work on an alternative version of the articles of the draft constitution on which the two sides disagreed. His purpose, as explained by his spokesman Giorgi Abashishvili, was to "save Georgia's democratic image" by demonstrating that consensus is possible.
Kobakhidze, who in May had openly accused Margvelashvili of lying, responded by asking how consensus could be reached by excluding the political force for which the majority of Georgians had voted last year from drafting the document intended to guarantee it.
The alternative draft document was unveiled on September 19, three days before the Venice Commission was scheduled to make public its assessment of the draft constitution revised in June by Georgian Dream. Margvelashvili was quoted as saying he hoped it would prompt Georgian Dream to review its "very uncompromising stance."
Some Room For Maneuver
The alternative draft comprises five points, two of which enhance the powers of the president (i.e. Margvelashvili): the parliamentary elections due in 2020 should be held under the fully proportional system, and direct presidential elections should be preserved indefinitely (not only until 2018); the National Security Council, which is chaired by the president, is to be preserved (Georgian Dream had proposed abolishing it); the possibility of forming electoral blocs should be preserved, and the barrier for representation should be lowered from 5 to 3 percent; parliamentary oversight of the government should be intensified; and the independence of the judiciary should be strengthened by empowering the president to appoint Supreme Court judges.
Georgian Dream, whose representatives had, as noted above, ruled out any changes to the draft amendments already passed in the first and second readings, responded to those demands with two minor concessions, one of which partially coincided with one of the Margvelashvili-initiated alterative five points.
In a statement released on September 21, Kobakhidze announced that forming electoral blocs will be allowed, exceptionally, for the parliamentary elections due in 2020. In addition, in 2024 when the transition to the fully proportional electoral system takes place, the provision whereby the party that garners the largest number of votes also receives as a bonus a disproportionately large share of the unallocated mandates will no longer apply. Instead, the unallocated mandates will be distributed among the parties that poll the minimum 5 percent in strict proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive.
It is worth noting that the proposed abolition of electoral blocs and the "bonus" system that would benefit the winning party were among the points that the Venice Commission expressed reservations about in June. Given that according to Kobakhidze, Georgian Dream has been in constant contact with the Venice Commission, that body's September 22 assessment is likely to reflect those two minor revisions.
Those concessions did not, however, satisfy the opposition. Veteran Republican Party member Levan Berdzenishvili termed Kobakhidze's statement "cynical," while Roman Gotsiridze of the former ruling United National Movement stressed that "our principal demand did not concern electoral blocs and it has not been met."
It remains unclear why Margvelashvili waited until the last minute to launch an initiative that was almost certainly doomed to fail -- unless he had been proceeding on the assumption that the planned talks in early September under the aegis of the Venice Commission would result in that body pressuring Georgian Dream to make substantive concessions to the opposition.
Political commentator Ramaz Saqvarelidze suggested that Margvelashvili's alternative draft was intended primarily to exert pressure on Georgian Dream, while Avtandil Demetrashvili, who chaired a commission established by the United National Movement in 2009 to draft constitutional amendments, opined that Margvelashvili was seeking simply to save face.
Assuming that the Georgian Dream parliament faction passes the amended draft in the third and final reading on September 26 as planned, Margvelashvili will almost certainly avail himself of his prerogative to veto it. Kobakhidze has made it clear that Georgian Dream will then override that veto.
The Alliance of Patriots, which has six seats in parliament, plans to stage weekly protests against the new constitution; 23 of its members launched a hunger strike in Tbilisi last week. Saqvarelidze considers it unlikely, however, that the population en masse will rally to their support.