Leading parliamentarians from Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party met last week with representatives of 20 parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties in a last-ditch attempt to reach a consensus over the country’s new draft constitution.
Even though Georgian Dream reportedly offered two minor concessions, the three-hour talks on August 18 not only failed to narrow the fundamental disagreements between the two camps about how the president and parliament should be elected, some opposition parties have since set conditions for resuming dialogue that Georgian Dream may be unwilling to meet.
The process of drafting the amendments, which kicked off late last year, has by most accounts been turbulent and acrimonious. As indicated above, the two most contentious issues were whether and when to switch from the present nationwide direct election of the president to indirect election, and replacing the current mixed system for parliamentary elections, under which 73 of the 150 parliament deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 under the proportional system, to a fully proportional system.
In response to vociferous protests from incumbent President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgian Dream agreed to postpone the transition to indirect presidential elections from 2018 (when Margvelashvili will almost certainly seek a second term) to 2023. Georgian Dream also initially agreed that the parliamentary ballot due in 2020 would be held under the fully proportional system. Both those concessions were reflected in the draft Georgian Dream submitted in late May to the Venice Commission for approval.
In discussions with the commission’s experts in early June, Georgian Dream representatives, including parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who chaired the Constitutional Commission, agreed to change several provisions the Venice Commission construed as detrimental to smaller parties and pluralism, and as “deviat[ing] from the principles of fair representation and electoral equality to a larger extent than seems justified by the need to ensure stability.” Those changes included lowering the barrier for parliamentary representation from the present 5 percent to 3 percent of the vote.
At that juncture, some of Georgian Dream’s 71 majoritarian lawmakers came out against switching to the fully proportional system, citing the domestic political instability Moldova had undergone after doing so. Why they did not take a stance on that point during the initial process of drafting the amendments remains unclear.
Ignoring appeals by President Margvelashvili and NGOs to resume discussion of the draft, the Georgian Dream parliament faction then approved in the first and second readings on June 22 and 23 an amended version that postponed the transition to the fully proportional system until the elections due in 2024. The third and final reading is scheduled for October.
Professing himself “profoundly disappointed,” Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio sought to persuade Georgian Dream to revise its stance, but without success. The two camps continued to affirm their readiness to resume talks but on condition that the other first clarify its negotiating position. The opposition addressed a statement to the Venice Commission and the European Union complaining that a resumption of talks with the aim of reaching a consensus was impossible due to Georgian Dream’s “ultimatum.”
The deadlock continued for several weeks, until Archil Talakvadze, who heads Georgian Dream’s parliament faction, invited the opposition on August 15 to resume talks prior to the Strasbourg meeting. Some 20 parties, including the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) and European Georgia, which split from the ENM early this year, accepted that invitation.
Margvelashvili, who had repeatedly called for revoking the draft and resuming discussions on rewording it, was not represented at the talks, which is not surprising in light of repeated heated exchanges between his parliamentary secretary, Ana Dolidze, and parliament speaker Kobakhidze. Margvelashvili’s press secretary, Giorgi Abashishvili, nonetheless expressed approval of Talakvadze’s call to resume discussions, which he construed as an admission that Georgian Dream’s previous approach was misguided.
For reasons that were not spelled out, it was Talakvadze, not Kobakhidze, who chaired the August 18 meeting. Georgian Dream reportedly offered two minor concessions -- preserving the right to form election blocs, and abolition of the minimum percentage of the vote required to qualify for parliamentary representation under the proportional system. Political analyst Zaal Anjaparidze suggested in an interview with the news portal InterPressNews that some of the smaller parties might agree to support the holding of the 2020 elections under the current mixed system if the minimum barrier were abolished, given that they would thus theoretically have a chance of securing representation in the new parliament.
Possibly in an attempt to split the opposition, Talakvadze also asked each of the parties represented at the August 18 meeting to submit written clarification of the concessions on which their support for the draft amendments as a whole is contingent. On August 22, 11 parties, including the ENM, European Georgia, the Free Democrats and the Republican party made public their response, in which they warned that seeking to reach agreement with some minor parties on elections thresholds and blocs does not meet the “minimum standard” required for reaching a broad consensus.
They insisted on reverting to discussion of the draft that stipulates a transition in 2020 to parliamentary elections under the 100-percent-proportional system. They also described as “essential” preserving direct presidential elections but added that this issue could be decided by means of a plebiscite. That offer hardly looks like a concession, given that according to Dolidze, 98 percent of Georgians favor retaining direct presidential elections.
The 11 parties further made clear that they are prepared to discuss other aspects of constitutional reform only if their position on those two issues is taken into account. Whether the two sides will meet again as planned prior to a formal meeting in Strasbourg on September 6 under the aegis of the Venice Commission remains unclear.