After nine months of embittered public debate, the majority Georgian Dream parliament faction adopted on September 26 in the third and final reading controversial constitutional amendments that opposition parties across the political spectrum are convinced are unfair and intended to enable Georgian Dream to remain in power indefinitely.
The vote has not, however, put a stop to the political maneuvering surrounding the amendments.
Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, the young constitutional lawyer who chaired the commission that drafted them, suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili veto two provisions of the draft bill, which Georgian Dream had last week signaled its readiness to tweak in line with recommendations made in June by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of legal experts.
Margvelashvili for his part responded by convening on September 28 a meeting with representatives of the 20 opposition parties who participated in the drafting earlier this month of five provisions they insist should be incorporated into the amended basic law. Georgian Dream ignored Margvelashvili's invitation to participate in those talks.
Margvelashvili had boycotted the drafting of the amendments from the outset, apparently out of pique in light of the proposal to abolish direct presidential elections. On September 19, he and representatives of 20 opposition parties unveiled alternative provisions, several of which were clearly intended to enhance the role of the president.
One of these proposed provisions also focused on the major point of disagreement between Georgian Dream on the one hand and Margvelashvili, the parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition, and many NGOs on the other, namely the timing of the planned transition from the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system of parliamentary elections to a fully proportional model.
In the initial draft of the amendments, that transition was due to take effect for the parliamentary elections due in 2020. But days after the Venice Commission voiced overall approval of that draft, some Georgian Dream lawmakers elected from single-mandate constituencies came out categorically against the abolition of the mixed majoritarian-proportional system, citing the problems Moldova encountered after similarly switching to the fully proportional system.
Georgian Dream therefore tweaked the draft to postpone the transition until 2024, after which its parliament faction passed the amended draft in the first and second readings in late June. The three opposition parliament factions boycotted that vote in protest.
Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio professed himself "profoundly disappointed" by Georgian Dream's U-turn on what in the commission's Draft Opinion unveiled last week was described as "the most important aspect of the [constitutional] reform and the key to reaching consensus."
Georgian Dream responded to last week's "Margvelashvili + 20" initiative by announcing two minor concessions on points about which the Venice Commission had earlier expressed concern. The first was the proposed abolition of electoral blocs; the second the provision that those parliament mandates left unallocated due to votes cast for parties that failed to garner the minimum 5 percent of the vote required to qualify for parliamentary representation be given as a "bonus" to the party that polled the highest percentage.
'To The Detriment Of Pluralism'
The Venice Commission had opined in June that together, those provisions "limit the influence of the proportional system to the detriment of pluralism and the smaller parties."
On September 21, Kobakhidze announced that forming electoral blocs would be allowed, exceptionally, for the parliamentary election due in 2020, and the threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation would be lowered from 5 to 3 percent for that election.
In addition, in 2024 when the transition to the fully proportional electoral system takes place, the "bonus" provision will no longer apply; instead, the unallocated mandates will be distributed among all parties that garner the 5 percent of the vote required to qualify for parliamentary representation.
Kobakhidze later explained that these changes necessitate a new legal initiative, given that only editorial changes could be made to the existing draft between the second and final readings. He predicted that the necessary new draft legal initiative could be passed in the first and second readings by the end of the year, and in the third reading in March 2018.
If, however, Margvelashvili were to agree to Kobakhidze's suggestion that he veto the relevant articles of the draft, Georgian Dream could amend them within weeks to yield a constitution that takes into account virtually all the Venice Commission's criticisms (except for the timing of the transition to the fully proportional system).
Georgian Dream's proposed concessions failed, however, to mollify the opposition. The September 26 parliament session proved tempestuous, with several opposition lawmakers declaring that the draft changes are intended solely for Georgian Dream's benefit.
Nika Melia of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) accused Georgian Dream of seeking "to legalize a dictatorial and clan-based constitution" and then walked out in protest.
The European Georgia faction, which split from the ENM in January, also quit the parliament chamber prior to the vote, the website civil.ge reported. One of its parliamentarians, Sergo Ratiani, predicted that "this constitution will have destructive consequences."
Even before the September 26 vote, opposition parties decided to form a Council of Leaders to continue their campaign to have the amended constitution branded illegal, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on September 25.
Following the September 28 talks, ENM lawmaker Nika Rurua told InterpressNews that Margvelashvili and the 20 opposition parties would not give ground on their five demands. The opposition also asked Margvelashvili to veto the entire amended constitution, Caucasian Knot reported.