Plans by Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party to amend the country's constitution have gotten off to a rocky start. After President Giorgi Margvelashvili's proposal that the commission to draft those amendments be jointly co-chaired by himself, the prime minister, and the parliament speaker was ignored, he announced last week that his staff would boycott its work because it "lacks legitimacy."
Sergo Kapanadze, a member of the opposition United National Movement (ENM) minority parliament faction, had similarly declared earlier that "unless the president is involved to the maximum extent in the work of the parliament commission, the legitimacy of that commission will be open to question."
Shortly after the October 11 parliamentary elections, in which his Georgian Dream -- Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) party ultimately won 115 of the 150 parliament mandates, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili proposed establishing a group that would draft amendments to what he termed "the very unbalanced constitution" inherited in 2012 from the ENM. The objective, he explained, was "a truly European, democratic constitution" that would "preclude the possibility of a single party ever again usurping and monopolizing power."
That was a clear allusion to the ENM, which during its nine years in office repeatedly amended and fine-tuned the constitution, first to strengthen the position of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and then to transfer many of the presidential powers to the prime minister to enable Saakashvili to continue wielding supreme power in that capacity following the expiry of his second presidential term.
The Georgian Dream coalition's resounding victory in the October 2012 parliamentary elections put paid to that scenario. And in December 2013, the new parliament duly established a commission tasked with drafting constitutional amendments within the next 12 months. But although its mandate was repeatedly extended, the commission failed to come up with the hoped-for proposals, partly because the absence of some members frequently left its five working groups without a quorum, and partly because of the sheer volume of issues to be addressed -- some 50-55, according to then-parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili.
The new commission, by contrast, will focus on three key issues, the daily Rezonansi reported on October 18. They are how the president should be elected; moving the Georgian parliament from Kutaisi, the country's second city, to which the ENM had transferred it, back to the capital; and defining marriage as "the voluntary union of a man and a woman." The previous parliament had discussed a draft constitutional amendment to that effect in the first reading in May 2016 but failed to vote on it; Margvelashvili subsequently vetoed a petition calling for the issue to be put to a nationwide referendum.
The presidential office initially hailed Kvirikashvili's declaration that the constitutional amendments would be drafted with the maximum public involvement, and "without any haste." Presidential office head Giorgi Abashishvili commented that such an approach would contribute to ending speculation that GD-DG would use its constitutional majority to push through amendments that would serve to strengthen its chances of remaining in power. At the same time, Abashishvili stated that "the president, as head of the state...who is not a member of any political party, is ready to establish such working group, co-chaired by the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament.... We are ready to launch consultations over the structure and procedures of such a working group."
GD-DG lawmaker Gia Volsky immediately pointed out that the president is not empowered to create the commission; both Volsky and constitutional lawyer Vakhushti Menabde noted that neither does he have the right of legislative initiative.
Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, also a specialist on constitutional law, argued that it was "impossible" for the commission to have three co-chairmen as Margvelashvili proposed, as one of them would have to take precedence over the other two, which the president is not constitutionally empowered to do even though as head of state he would be the senior of the three.
A third constitutional expert, Vakhtang Dzabiradze, objected that having three co-chairmen "looks odd" and was illogical, given the pressure the commission will be under to finalize draft amendments in light of the failure of its predecessor to do so.
Parliament first deputy speaker Tamar Chugoshvili for her part recalled in response to Kapanadze's claim that without Margvelashvili's "maximum involvement" the commission would lack legitimacy that the president had not played "a leading role" in the work of any of the numerous previous commissions (i.e. including those created by the ENM).
Those arguments cut no ice with Margvelashvili, who announced on December 12 that neither he nor any member of his staff will take part in the work of the commission. Margvelashvili objected that neither the constitution nor other legislation specifies the procedure either for establishing the constitutional commission or for drafting constitutional amendments.
Chugoshvili expressed regret at Margvelashvili's decision, describing it as "regretful" and "wrong," and expressing the hope that the president will reconsider. Several analysts, including Zaal Anjaparidze, suggested that Margvelashvili acted out of pique at not being named co-chairman of the commission and will try to sabotage its work. Saqvarelidze went further, saying Margvelashvili had behaved "childishly."
The parliament has since formally endorsed setting up the 60-person commission and its statutes. The president's office is entitled to nominate two members of the commission, which also encompasses representatives of all parliamentary parties and of those extraparliamentary parties that polled over 3 percent of the vote; the justice minister; the chairmen of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court; the Public Defender; the president of the National Bank; representatives of the Abkhaz and Ajar autonomous republics; the National Security Council secretary (who like Margvelashvili has said he will not participate); and civil-sector representatives.
Its first session is to take place by December 31; it must finalize the package of proposed amendments by April 30, after which they will be the subject of broad public discussion.
Parliament speaker Kobakhidze, who will chair the commission, has pledged to take personal responsibility for its work and for the amendments it comes up with. He declared that the parliament will not approve a single norm that receives a negative assessment from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of legal experts to whom the package will be submitted for approval. "Our task is to establish once and for all time the sort of constitutional system that will promote the country's long-term democratic development," he added.