What kind of Constitution does Georgia's ruling party want?
The Georgian Dream’s intention to change the Constitution was known long before the election. Moreover, this team had announced about introduction of constitutional amendments before coming into power in 2012. But it failed to do it then, since it didn’t enjoy the constitutional majority.
The situation is different now. 115 out of the total 150 MPs are the Georgian Dream members. In addition, there are also 2 MPs, who didn’t get in Parliament through the ruling party lists, though they actually support this team on any matter. A consent of 113 MPs is required to change the Constitution. Therefore, the ruling team will now have no problem changing it.
Have the lawmakers already started working on the constitutional amendments?
The government is hurrying to change country’s basic law, saying the bill on constitutional amendments will be ready by the end of April and its consideration will be launched in Parliament. Under the legislation in effect, first there should be public debates on the amendments bill and then it should be approved at the Parliament’s 2 different sessions. Under the law, the January-December period is divided into 2 sessions – the spring and autumn sessions. In other words, the government seeks to have the bill approved by the end of the year.
Opposition and NGOs see problems in that hastiness. They believe, the Constitution is being tailored to the party interests.
Major changes to be introduced to the Constitution:
President is in the thick of those constitutional amendments. The major changes concern exactly him.
A procedure of election the President
President’s election procedure is the major change. Under the bill on amendments, Georgian President will no longer be elected through direct voting. In other words, there won’t be any presidential elections. The President will be presumably elected by Parliament (there are speculations that the President could be elected by the so-called electoral board, comprising MPs and local government officials. Though, this option stands a slim chance, since the ruling team supports the idea that the President be elected by Parliament)
The government’s key argument: Georgia should maximally get closer to the parliamentary government model. Thus, there will be no need to elect the President through direct voting, because in the parliamentary republics, as a rule, the President is elected through indirect procedure.
The opponents’ key argument: Georgia is a weak democracy, therefore it needs an independent arbitrator so as to balance the branches of power. Under the Constitution, today this function is vested in the President. Whereas the President elected through indirect voting will fall entirely under the influence of the parliamentary majority group and the single political party and could no longer perform as an arbitrator and mediator. And also, President is elected through indirect ballot mostly in case of bicameral Parliament, so as to avoid President’s election by a single political group. As for Georgia, it can’t be done until restoration of country’s territorial integrity, since the Parliament’s upper chamber is formed from the territorial entities and this issue can’t be solved without Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region.
In most of the parliamentary republics the President is really elected through indirect ballot. Though, there are some parliamentary republics, where the President is elected through direct voting. For example, Austria, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Iceland.
Voting procedure isn’t the only change that concerns the President. The ruling team is actually going to deprive the President of all essential functions.
Under the present Constitution, the President is the Head of State, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief and represents Georgia in foreign relations. And most importantly, he is a key figure who ensures balance between the branches of power. Consequently, all his functions proceed therefrom.
The National Security Council (NSC) is subordinated to the President; he appoints and dismisses the Chief of General Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces and other commanders; the President enjoys a right to veto; he is entitled to appoint a referendum, plebiscite and election; he appoints and dismisses ambassadors nominated by the government; and also received their credentials; the President nominates 3 members for the Constitutional and Supreme Court of Georgia, as well nominates the National Bank President and the National Regulatory Commission Chairman. He enjoys a right to pardon prisoners, as well as to confer Georgian citizenship and decide on granting shelter in Georgia.
The ruling team is going to deprive the President of the following rights:
The President will not enjoy the Supreme Commander’s status, except in war time and emergency situation; the National Security Council will be abolished and the Defense Council will be set instead, that will be subordinated either to the Defense Minister or the Premier. As for the President, he will be entitled to convene the Defense Council session only in emergency situations or war.
The President will be restricted his right to decide on use of military forces during environmental disasters and pandemic.
The President may be also deprived of his exclusive right to call a referendum.
The President will require the Prime Minister’s consent with regard to the veto issue.
He will also require the Prime Minister’s consent for nomination of the Supreme Court judges and ambassadors (another option is also considered, under which the President will be completed deprived of the right to nominate the Supreme Court judges and the High Council of Justice will do it in his stead).
And also, the President could no longer enjoy a right to confer citizenship and grant shelter.
The most disputable at this stage is the countersigning issue, which concerns pardoning of prisoners. In this regard, the President will require the Prime Minister’s consent too.
The President will no longer enjoy a right to award state prizes, as well as to confer high military and honorary titles and diplomatic ranks.
The amendments that will be introduced to the Constitution ahead of next presidential election, in 2018, will presumably take their effect in 2023.
Where will the Parliament be located?
In July 2011, on President Saakashvili’s initiative, Kutaisi was written into the Constitution as the place of Parliament’s location. A new Parliament building was constructed in Kutaisi in 2009-2012. The total of GEL326million were spent on its construction.
The United National Movement’s key argument was that Georgia shouldn’t be a ‘tadpole’ country and that important institutions should be relocated in various cities throughout the country. It was then that the decision was made to relocate the Constitutional Court to Batumi.
There have been fierce debates over this issue since the Georgian Dream’s coming into power in 2012. This theme has become a matter of political principle. Former leadership’s proponents insist that the Parliament should stay in Kutaisi, whereas the Georgian Dream supporters demand to move it back to Tbilisi.
Today, the situation is such that the Parliament is actually functioning in both cities – in the new building in Kutaisi, as well as in the old building, in Rustaveli Avenue, in Tbilisi, which is related to considerable expenses.
Parliament’s relocation to Tbilisi is on the constitutional amendment’s agenda.
Both parties stand firm on their arguments. Saakashvili’s proponents claim, leaving Parliament in Kutaisi is important for the development of this region, while the ruling team proponents argue that maintenance of the Parliament building in Kutaisi, as well as provision of Parliament staff and MPs with housing is very costly for the budget.
Approximately GEL 500,000 are spent monthly to ensure parallel functioning of 2 Parliament buildings; GEL80,000 are spent on average per month to cover MPs’ transportation costs. In addition, Kutaisi Parliament’s utility service costs are twice higher than those of the Parliament building in Tbilisi. According to the data provided by the Georgian National Statistics Office, Imereti region didn’t benefit much from Parliament’s relocation to Kutaisi. Besides, nearly all public opinion surveys that focused on this issue (NDI public opinion surveys) showed that the majority of country’s population supports the idea of Parliament’s relocation back to Tbilisi.
Do we need majoritarian MPs?
Unlike other constitutional amendments, these amendments have been actively demanded by the opposition and NGOs, whereas the government has been more reserved in this regard.
The matter concerns election of Georgian MPs through a majoritarian system.
Under the present Constitution, Georgia has a unicameral Parliament and 150 MPs, including 77- elected through the proportional system, 73- through the majoritarian system, by the electoral constituencies.
Last elections proved that this system is far from being fair. For example, less than half of the population voted for the Georgian Dream, but, despite that, it still enjoys the constitutional majority at the expense of the majoritarian MPs.
The Georgian Dream itself had pledged to annul this system when in opposition, back in 2012. However, having come into power, it now doesn’t hurry to change it, since this system is an advantageous lever for any government.
There are differences in opinion in the ruling team in this regard. One part supports the idea of changing and updating the present-day majoritarian system, while another part claims, the majoritarian system is necessary to ensure that each region has its representative in Parliament.
The argument put forward by the opposition and NGO sector is as follows: the powerful administrative resources, that are used by each government during the elections, guarantee the pro-governmental candidates’ victory in the majoritarian constituencies, putting other parties in unfair and disadvantageous position.
It should be also taken into account that the majoritarian MPs in the present Parliament are unlikely to vote for abolition of this system. Whereas without their votes (there are 73 majoritarian MPs in Parliament) there will be no constitutional majority-113 MPs.
What is family?
Another constitutional amendment that will be introduced is the ruling party’s initiated definition of marriage in the Constitution.
The Georgian Dream seeks to write down into the Constitution the following definition: ‘a voluntary union of man and woman for the sake of creating a family.’
As far as marriage is concerned, the present-day Constitution reads as follows: ‘marriage shall be based on equality of rights and free will of spouses’ (Article 36.1).
Why is it bad: the opposition claims that writing down this provision into the Constitution is a mere populism and the government’s attempt to win a traditional electorate’s heart. Human rights activists regard this provision as discriminative, since in this case, an unmarried person and his/her child will not be considered as family in Georgia. The constitutionalists don’t see any point in introducing this provision either. In their opinion, the Civil Code already provides for family definition and there is no need introducing the ‘family’ concept’ to the Constitution.
The Constitution in effect in Georgia was adopted on August 24, 1995. The Constitution comprises 109 Articles and it has been changed 33 times since its adoption.
The most significant constitutional changes were made during Georgia’s 3rd President, Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling. Overall 25 amendments were introduced to the Constitution during his presidency.
The Prime Minister’s post was introduced to the Georgian Constitution in 2004. It was then that the President was declared the Head of State. Besides, President and MPs were banned from business activity, whereas the Prosecutor’s Office and police officials were banned from engagement in politics.
Age limit for judges was reduced to 28 years, whereas a minimum age for election as MP made 21 years.
The Constitution was once again dramatically changed in 2010, by the end of Saakashvili’s rule. The President’s powers were considerably restricted, while the government and parliament’s powers were expanded. As for the Parliament itself, it was relocated from Tbilisi to Kutaisi.
No constitutional changes have been actually made over the past 4,5 years, after the Georgian Dream’s coming into power. The main reason for that is a lack of consensus between the ruling team and the opposition and, consequently, an insufficient number of votes for pushing through the constitutional amendments.
The only thing that the Parliament has managed to achieve over the past 4,5 years is that it has partially returned its activity from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. And also, it has passed a regulation, under which the President is entitled to dissolve the Parliament provided that the latter fails to give a vote of confidence to the government trice.