A proposed new constitution for Georgia, expected to be approved by parliament this month, is feeding speculation about the political motives of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. Saakashvili and his allies insist the new constitution would enhance Georgia’s system of checks and balances. But critics contend that the president is trying to rig the political system in his favor.
If the new constitution is adopted as expected, it would mark the second time since Saakashvili took office in 2004 that Georgia’s basic law has been overhauled. This latest version would break with the Rose Revolution model of a powerful executive branch by redistributing power among the president, prime minister and parliament.
Under the draft constitution, which passed a second reading on October 1, the Georgian president would be directly elected, but hold limited powers in day-to-day affairs. Many of the president’s current powers would be transferred to the prime minister. For example, both the president and the prime minister would be required to sign international agreements relating to conflicts, or covering the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Once parliament approves a third reading of the new constitution, it would go into force. Since Saakashvili’s National Movement Party dominates parliament, legislative approval is not really in doubt, local observers say.
Saakashvili has hailed the reform as Georgia’s final break with its Soviet legacy, adding that it would fix the country on a course toward becoming a European-style democracy.
But critics maintain the new constitution would mainly help the Saakashvili-led United National Movement Party maintain its hammerlock on power. The most significant change would be the transfer of power from president to prime minister. Parliament’s ability to check either would arguably diminish, critics argue.
Tamar Khidasheli, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, believes the draft constitution undermines parliament’s influence by giving it weak oversight over the selection of a cabinet and establishing a complex procedure for expressing no confidence in the government. “You should be blind not to agree that the functions of the president are decreased, but proportionally the rights and the competences of the prime minister and the government have increased,” Khidasheli said. “[T]hey did not accomplish the goal [of balancing powers].”
The Venice Commission, a European Union body charged with analyzing the draft, has echoed Khidasheli’s concerns, saying that the complexity of the vote of no-confidence procedure could undermine the balance of power in Georgia. The procedure requires three separate parliamentary votes and allows the president to dissolve parliament if no consensus is reached.
Additional concerns touch on the lack of clarity between the role of the president and government in foreign affairs. The Venice Commission is expected to release its comprehensive analysis on the constitutional changes later in October.
Saakashvili is dismissive of outside criticism, calling it unfounded and misguided. “Advice is good, but no one will be able to build our country better than us and no one knows better than us what is good for our country,” Saakashvili told National Movement leaders in comments televised on September 30.
In addition to criticizing the content, some non-governmental activists have assailed the drafting process, in particular citing a lack of public input. Public hearings on the proposed amendments took place in August – a vacation month in Georgia – and there have been no televised debates about the proposed changes on any of the country’s national broadcasters.
Mark Mullen, board chair for the watchdog group Transparency International Georgia, disputed the government’s claims that the drafting process was open. “I don't think there has been sufficient time or procedure to allow for a comprehensive discussion,” said Mullen, who complained about a lack of information about draft discussions.
“Speed, bureaucratic barriers and a lack of procedure are the three best ways to conceal information and prevent understanding, and we see all three of them here,” he continued.
National Movement leaders insist the drafting process was transparent. Davit Darchiashvili, chair of parliament’s European Integration Committee, said non-governmental organization and opposition political leaders had ample opportunity to participate in the 12-month drafting process, as well as provide input during subsequent parliamentary debate.
Darchiashvili also stressed that several changes in the draft constitution were the result of compromises between the National Movement and the opposition, including a ban on the president holding an official post in a political party and reducing the vote of no confidence procedure by 20 days to a maximum length of 80 days. “Some compromises were found from our side … just in order to maintain the political dialogue and to somehow provide the ownership of the constitution for all groups which are present here,” he said. [Editor’s Note: Darchiashvili formerly served as director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the network of Soros Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, which is also part of the network].
Political analyst Giorgi Khutsishvili believes that politics is driving the desire to alter the constitution. Saakashvili’s final presidential term ends in 2013, but, as head of the National Movement, he could eventually serve as prime minister, if his party retains its parliamentary majority. The revised constitution would take effect in December 2013; Georgia’s next parliamentary election is in 2012.
“The president himself says that it is important that the same team will continue to rule. … It is like he is using the constitution to perpetuate the power of his party,” said Khutsishvili, founder of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation.
Governing party representatives counter that constitutional reform lays the foundation for a more democratic form of government, since the president and parliament are elected, and the prime minister is placed into office by parliament.
Political analyst Alexander Rondeli agreed that draft constitution created an appearance that the National Movement’s overriding concern was the retention of power. “The current government and current political power is afraid that someone will come to power as president and try to change the current Western-orientated course. They would like to keep him in check,” said Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
“I understand the reasoning why the current political leadership wants to stay in power … but there is an election mechanism to determine that,” Rondeli added.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.