Georgia’s governing party, Georgian Dream, is using the commanding victory it won in last year’s parliamentary elections to push through a new constitution. The process, though, has become a target of controversy as critics complain that the party is sidelining any outside voices while drafting the new constitution.
More fundamentally, it is forcing the party – which came to power as a diverse coalition united only in opposition to the near decade of dominance by former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement – to clarify what it actually stands for.
Shortly after its victory last November, the GD-led parliament set up a special commission tasked with writing a new constitution. The commission came up with a draft in May, which was passed in June on its first and second readings. A third and final reading is scheduled for September. If it passes, the new constitution will enter into force in 2018, although its various provisions will be phased in over several years.
The most substantial changes under the new constitution would be a reform to the way Georgia elects its government. It would move to a proportional system; the current system gives a big advantage to incumbent parties, including GD, which now holds 75 percent of the seats in parliament despite winning just 49 percent of the vote last October.
That proposal has been welcomed even by GD’s opposition, but other electoral reforms appear, by contrast, to strengthen the ruling party’s hold on power.
The new constitution would maintain the current 5-percent electoral threshold for parties to gain seats in parliament, and would ban parties from forming electoral blocs. Taken together, those two provisions would make it difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament. Most controversial, the new constitution would stipulate that leftover votes – those that had gone to parties who failed to pass the threshold – would automatically be allocated to the party that receives the most total votes.
“It has been childish to hope that by simply calling the system ‘proportional’ the system could be sold to political opponents or outside observers,” David Zedelashvili, a professor of law at Free University of Tbilisi, said in an email interview with EurasiaNet.org. “Basic arithmetic and common sense were enough to see that the [proposed] system works to produce gross disproportion.”
Nevertheless, the draft constitution was assessed (mostly) favorably by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a body that offers legal opinions on pending legislation among member states. The Venice Commission’s opinion, published in June, voiced displeasure over the parliamentary election procedures – saying they “deviate from the principles of fair representation and electoral equality” – but still deemed the draft an improvement over the existing constitution.
Winning the Venice Commission’s approval looked like a major coup for GD, but it did nothing to mollify domestic critics. When the draft constitution came up for approval a week later, the three parties making up the parliamentary opposition – the National Movement, the Movement for Liberty-European Georgia, and the Alliance of Patriots – all boycotted the vote. GD’s dominant majority nevertheless easily secured approval of the draft.
But then the constitutional commission’s chair – also speaker of parliament and GD party chairman – Irakli Kobakhidze reignited the controversy on June 21 by announcing that the new parliamentary election procedures would not come into effect until 2024. The next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020 will be held under the existing system, albeit with the threshold reduced from 5 percent to 3 percent. Some reports suggested that the delay came out of an intra-party compromise – some of GD’s current majoritarian MPs demanded the chance to hold onto their seats.
To many outside the party, the delay is a betrayal: the proposed electoral system is not truly proportional but most still view it as an improvement over the current system. On June 27, a coalition of more than 30 civil society organizations issued an appeal to the international community calling the delay “a grave threat to democracy in Georgia.” Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio said he was “disappointed” by the decision to delay.
GD’s approach to the reforms has not only raised questions about its commitment to consensus. It has also highlighted the central tension of the party platform: the still-unanswered question of whether GD is a pro-western, economically-liberal party masquerading as a socially-conservative party, or vice versa.
On the economic side, the constitutional provisions are a mixed bag. One amendment would ban the purchase of agricultural land by foreign nationals; another would abolish Article 94, a controversial feature of the current constitution that requires referenda to raise corporate and income tax rates. The first is a naked appeal to nationalism; the second is a project of the Social Democrats, the left-wing faction within GD. Both provisions create friction with the party leadership’s professed commitment to economic openness and market-driven growth.
“GD is not based on a coherent ideological platform”, said Mate Gabitsinashvili, a Tbilisi-based political analyst. “On the one hand, it’s social democratic, on the other hand, it’s implementing neoliberal policies.”
The social provisions also send mixed signals. The draft includes a ban on same-sex marriage, something already enshrined in Georgia’s civil code. The move looks like an attempt to pander to GD’s socially-conservative base, which includes many voters who equate Euro-Atlantic integration with the so-called “homosexual agenda.”
But Kobakhidze defended the ban as a means to defuse the power of “certain groups” using social issues to stir up opposition to Euro-Atlantic integration.
And the draft would codify Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, with a provision mandating that government bodies “take all necessary actions to ensure full integration of Georgia in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
“The concessions to disparate groups were usually very selective and partial, even leftists who gave the most support to the GD constitutional commission and got most concessions were not entirely satisfied,” said Zedelashvili. “The draft is incoherent and unbalanced.”
Charles Fairbanks, a political scientist at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University, said that while the document may be a mish-mash, the overall objective of the reforms is clear. “The primary purpose is GD winning re-election,” he said. “That’s the main vision behind the constitutional changes.”
Joseph Larsen is an analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics.