Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili signed into law on October 19 the controversial constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by the ruling Georgian Dream party in the teeth of vociferous objections by opposition parties from across the political spectrum and from Margvelashvili personally.
He explained that he decided to sign in order to avoid possible political destabilization, stressing that it was “hard” for him.
Georgian Dream’s parliament faction adopted the amendments in the third and final reading in late September despite a concerted effort by Margvelashvili and the opposition parties to force last minute revisions. In light of Georgian Dream’s categorical refusal to yield on the crucial issues of holding the parliamentary election due in 2020 under the fully proportional system, rather than the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system, and the manner of electing the president, Margvelashvili formally vetoed the amendments on October 9. Georgian Dream’s parliament faction overrode that veto four days later after a debate lasting over five hours that two of the three opposition parliament factions boycotted.
The adoption of what opposition politicians and members of the presidential administration alike have branded the constitution of a single political force has exacerbated the rift between Georgian Dream on the one hand and the rest of the political spectrum on the other. That antagonism is unlikely to abate, given Georgian Dream’s whopping parliament majority (115 of the 150 mandates), the resulting limited influence of the opposition, and widespread public indifference to the entire political process.
After the Georgian Dream majority passed the draft amendments in the third and final reading on September 26, Kobakhidze invited President Margvelashvili to veto just two of its provisions that Georgian Dream had already agreed, at the urging of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of legal experts, to alter. The first entailed making an exception for the parliamentary elections due in October 2020 to the proposed ban on the formation of election blocs and lowering the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system from 5 to 3 percent of the vote. The second entailed abolishing the “bonus” system whereby the mandates left undistributed as a result of votes cast for parties that fail to garner the required minimum to qualify for representation in the new legislature are automatically given to the winning party.
Kobakhidze explained that if the president vetoed those two provisions, the parliament could amend the draft, thereby avoiding the need for a new legislative initiative.
On October 4, Margvelashvili met with representatives of the Georgian Dream parliament faction to discuss that option. The news portal InterPressNews.ge quoted faction leader Archil Talakvadze and faction chairman Mamuka Mdinaradze as telling journalists after the meeting, which Margvelashvili’s parliamentary secretary Ana Dolidze had described as “constructive and businesslike,” that the two sides reached agreement that the two additional changes should be reflected in the revised constitution, but that Margvelashvili had not come to a definitive decision.
Margvelashvili then met the following day with representatives of the 20 opposition parties that had participated last month in drafting an alternative set of constitutional amendments. In addition to preserving the possibility of forming electoral blocs and lowering the barrier for parliamentary representation from 5 to 3 percent, those proposed alternative changes included switching to the fully proportional system prior to the 2020 parliamentary elections; preserving indefinitely direct presidential elections (which Georgian Dream advocated abolishing after the 2018 ballot); and preserving the National Security Council, which is chaired by the president.
In the course of the October 5 deliberations, the opposition revised and reduced its alternative demands to four; in addition to the two changes proposed by Georgian Dream, it insisted that the 2020 elections be held under the fully proportional system and that the Georgian president should be elected by the parliament only after the parliament becomes bicameral. The existing constitution stipulates that the parliament will become bicameral only after Georgia regains full control over its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Explaining the rationale for those demands, Nika Rurua of the former ruling United National Movement said “the issues that the ruling party proposed [as a basis] for imposing a veto are secondary and constitute only a fraction of our demands. The most important thing...is that the people should have the right to decide their own destiny, including electing the president.”
Margvelashvili's office announced late on October 5 that he would veto the amendments, citing those four points. It said Georgian Dream’s willingness to revise the draft to meet those four demands would constitute consensus and demonstrate that the amended constitution is not simply “a one-party document.”
Kobakhidze, who has repeatedly crossed swords with Margvelashvili over the past nine months, denounced that decision, saying that the president “has squandered the opportunity to play a constructive role for once in the process of adopting the amendments” and that “the president and the opposition did everything to prevent reaching a consensus.” He also claimed that the Venice Commission, which on October 6 released its final assessment of the proposed changes, regretted Margvelashvili’s position.
Mdinaradze for his part warned that “we shall take note of the veto in the event that the issues agreed with the Venice Commission are reflected in it. That is, the two issues on which a universal consensus has been reached. But if other points, whatever they refer to, are added to these two issues, we shall have to override the president’s veto,” according to InterPressNews.
When Margvelashvili formally announced his veto of the amendments on October 9, however, the reasons he cited went beyond the four points agreed on during his deliberations with the opposition parties four days earlier. According to the website civil.ge, he also proposed that the parliament remove from the list of legitimate reasons for restricting freedom of belief “preventing crime” and “administering justice.” Echoing one of the Venice Commission’s recommendations, he also advocated that a majority, rather than a unanimous vote, should be sufficient in the event that the Constitutional Court is called upon to rule on the constitutionality of election legislation. What he thought could be achieved by making those last-minute demands is not clear.
Even allowing for the bad blood between Margvelashvili and Kobakhidze, the latter’s criticism of Margvelashvili’s actions over the nine-month process of drafting and adopting the amendments is not unfounded. First, Margvelashvili refused to participate in the role of the commission tasked with drafting the amendments because he was not named its co-chairman. Then he protested the proposal to abolish direct presidential elections immediately, whereupon the commission agreed that in 2018, when Margvelashvili is expected to seek a second term, the president will be elected by nationwide vote. And since the passage of the draft amendments in late June in the first and second readings, Margvelashvili has consistently sided with the opposition, calling repeatedly on Georgian Dream to ditch the existing draft and resume the entire process from scratch, while simultaneously offering to convene talks between Georgian Dream and the opposition on reaching consensus. Finally, he waited until the very last minute to float the idea of postponing the transition to the election of the president by parliament until a bicameral parliament has been created.
Analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze has suggested that Margvelashvili may have been motivated primarily by self-interest, specifically the desire to improve his political rating prior to his bid for a second term. He may also have been seeking to demonstrate that even though the president is largely a ceremonial figure and real political power is vested in the prime minister, he still wields considerable political influence. Margvelashvili’s insistence on preserving the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the president and which Georgian Dream proposed abolishing, and his frequent vetoes of legislation, tend to substantiate that hypothesis.
The consensus within Georgian Dream nonetheless appears to be that Margvelashvili went too far in seeking to sabotage the proposed amendments. As Georgian Dream lawmaker Zaza Gabunia was quoted by Caucasian Knot as saying during the October 13 parliament session, “the president should be a neutral arbiter, and not the leader of the opposition.”
All this is not to say that Georgian Dream was not also single-mindedly pursuing its own agenda, albeit with arguably greater finesse (as reflected in the timing of its proposed last-ditch concessions in September over allowing electoral blocs in 2020 and abolishing the unfair “bonus” system) to push through amendments that, as Caucasus scholar Tom de Waal has argued, “all have analogies in EU countries and are [thus] hard to object to” but which “seen as a whole, and combined with Georgia’s lack of progress on judicial reform, look like an effort to weaken checks and balances and cement Georgian Dream’s one-party domination for years to come.” Certainly that is how the opposition perceives the entire process.
In an extended interview with InterPressNews, psychologist Nodar Sardjveladze highlighted one relevant factor that has blighted the political process in Georgia for years, namely the fact that “in Georgia , taking one’s opponent’s opinion into consideration is considered a sign of weakness." Consequently, Sardjveladze continues, “the same brutal and primitive political reality exists in Georgia today as in the 17th and 18th centuries,” when the various Georgian kings and princes spent more time and resources undermining and fighting each other than on seeking to stave off the common enemy. That continued focus on party rather than national interests does not bode well for the future.