BACKGROUND: Georgia has been a regional frontrunner in democratization for the past two decades. However, that progress is not irreversible. Constitutional reform is one arena in which Georgia’s political forces compete in a zero-sum game with little regard for democratic norms. The ruling GD party has actively sought to reform the country’s constitution since coming to power in 2012. More specifically, its priority has been to transform Georgia into a full-fledged parliamentary republic with a figurehead president. Since 1990, the country has elected its president by popular vote, and until 2013 (following constitutional amendments passed in 2010) the presidency was the unquestioned locus of executive power.
GD has sought both to reduce presidential powers and change procedures for electing the president, first establishing a 58-member Constitutional Reform Commission in 2013. That commission’s work came to naught because the party lacked sufficient legislative support to enact a new constitution. However, constitutional reform remained a priority. The political landscape is currently more amenable to reform, with the lopsided outcome of last October’s parliamentary elections giving new impetus to the project. GD won 115 seats in the 150-seat parliament, enough for a supermajority allowing it to amend the constitution without the consent of other parties in parliament.
Last December, GD’s majority faction in parliament established a new, 73-member Constitutional Reform Commission tasked with proposing a new constitution. The Commission is a diverse body made up of parliamentarians from various parties, civil servants, and civil society representatives. However, it is led by Irakli Kobakhidze, who is both parliament speaker and GD party chairman. Thus, the Commission is understandably viewed as a vehicle for the ruling party. After four months of deliberation, the Commission approved a draft constitution on April 22. The parliament will likely vote on the draft on the first reading in June, on the second reading in July, and on the third – and final – reading in September. If approved on the third reading, the new constitution will become law.
IMPLICATIONS: The draft constitution features two key amendments worth analyzing here. First, it involves changing presidential election procedures. According to the reforms, the office of the president would be elected not by popular ballot but by a college of government officials: 300 delegates would cast votes; half of them would come from the parliament; the other half would come from local municipal councils and the supreme councils of the Autonomous Republics of Adjara and Abkhazia (the latter in exile). That change would come into effect in 2023, meaning the next presidential election – scheduled for 2018 – will be by direct ballot regardless of whether the draft constitution is approved.
The new constitution would also amend procedures for electing parliamentarians. Civil society activists and academics have long called for reform, as the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system heavily favors incumbent parties. The draft constitution addresses those concerns, but not in the manner that many hoped. The Commission’s specific proposal would abolish majoritarian mandates but also ban parties from forming electoral blocs. That would make it more difficult for smaller parties to pass the five percent threshold for entering parliament, dashing hopes for more pluralistic parliaments in the future. Most controversial, unallocated seats – the proportional mandates not allocated because some parties receive votes but fail to pass the threshold – would automatically go to the party winning the most total votes.
Both of the above amendments have negative implications for Georgia’s further democratic development. The most obvious outcome would be a completion of the country’s transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Since his election in November 2013, current President Giorgi Margvelashvili has shared executive powers with a succession of prime ministers, and overlapping jurisdiction has been a problem. While settling questions about the separation of powers is a welcome change (in theory), the specifics do not inspire confidence.
GD aims to reduce the role of the president and transform the country into a full-fledged parliamentary system where executive power rests almost exclusively with the prime minister. President Margvelashvili is a frequent critic of GD, especially since its lopsided electoral victory last October. The president and many of his supporters believe the new constitution is aimed against him personally and intended to sideline him by transferring powers to Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
The president’s public spat with the ruling party has dominated media headlines. However, changes to the parliamentary election system have bigger implications for Georgia’s democratic future. Replacing the current electoral system with a proportional system that bans electoral blocs and distributes unallocated mandates to the party receiving the most votes would be a step backward. Keeping the five percent threshold in place while banning blocs would result in a large number of unallocated mandates. If implemented, the system would most likely heavily favor GD in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020.
Dustin Gilbreath and David Sichinava, two researchers at the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research Resource Centers, performed a statistical analysis on how the proposed reforms would affect the outcomes of future parliamentary elections. They constructed data models based on three distinct scenarios: the current mixed system; the proportional system as proposed by the Constitutional Reform Commission; and a theoretical scenario where seats are allocated on a proportional basis and undistributed seats are not re-allocated to the leading party.
What do they find? In the current landscape, the proposed reform would tip the scales strongly in favor of the leading party: “At best, the proposed changes are two steps forward and one step back. At worst, they could squash political competition in Georgia.” The best outcome, in their analysis, would be to make the system fully proportional, continue to allow blocs, and refrain from distributing un-allocated seats to the leading party.
Georgia analyst Lincoln Mitchell was even less equivocal in his condemnation of the proposed amendment: “The idea of giving votes of parties that do not cross the threshold to the winner has no political or legal justification, is patently undemocratic and is a terrible idea.”
The Constitutional Reform Commission, which was dominated by the ruling party from the beginning, did nothing to inspire confidence in GD’s commitment to multiparty democracy. Seven opposition political parties boycotted the Commission following publication of the draft constitution. The president ripped the amendments, saying that provisions to do away with direct election of the president and change the system for electing parliament are “at odds with the logic of democracy.” If nothing else, the process has deepened political polarization. Georgia already had that in ample supply.
CONCLUSIONS: Georgia has made impressive democratic progress and is viewed as a regional leader in political reform. However, its democratic institutions are yet to reach maturity, of which the constitutional reform process is a reminder. Without adequate input from the political opposition and president – and without a strong civil society to involve the public in the process – the Constitutional Reform Commission has produced a document that dissatisfies everyone except the ruling party. Rather than consolidating Georgia’s democratic system, the draft constitution looks likely to consolidate the power of GD.
A democratic rollback in Georgia would be a major disappointment for the wider region. Given recent dubious constitutional reforms in Armenia and Turkey, the international community must pay closer attention to developments in Georgia. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which will review and comment on the draft constitution during May, should be unsparing in its criticism. Additionally, the country’s key allies, the U.S. and the EU, should apply pressure where necessary. Georgia and the region cannot afford democratic backsliding.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Joseph Larsen is an Analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics.
Image source: flickr.com, accessed on May 16, 2017