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Overview on development of draft constitutional amendments

By Khatia Kardava
Friday, September 8
In the beginning of August, the Venice Commission under the Council of Europe made its announcement about the cancellation of meeting in Strasbourg that was scheduled in September and initiated by the head of Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio. The meeting should have brought together Georgia’s ruling party and opposition to reach a final agreement on the Constitutional Amendments.

The Venice Commission made it clear, it will proceed with the preparation of an opinion about the revised draft constitution for October’s plenary session and urged the Georgian Parliament for a dialogue before finally adopting the draft.

Development of draft constitutional amendments

On December 15, 2016, the Parliament of Georgia created the State Constitutional Commission consisting of 73 members, including experts and representatives of seven political parties, government agencies and non-governmental organizations . The commission was chaired by Speaker of Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze. The aim of the State Commission was to revise the Draft Constitution of Georgia in the interests of long-term democratic development of the country. Speaker of Parliament Kobakhidze said the format of the new commission will be similar to the previous one launched in 2013, which at that time failed to come up with a final draft.

Regarding the process of constitutional reform, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, an observer to the State Constitutional Commission, underlined that “all stakeholders should seek to reach the widest possible consensus for this major constitutional reform.”

However, on the contrary, the process of drafting the constitutional amendments has intensified polarized opinions among the stakeholders.

Debates on constitutional amendments

The two most contentious issues between the political sides have been: whether to introduce indirect presidential election and when to replace the existing mixed system of parliamentary elections to the proportional system. Though, the majority and opposition have both agreed the move to the proportional system of elections is essential, the debates continue about the timeframe.

Margvelashvili vs. Kobakhidze

The process of constitutional amendments began with the controversy between the President’s office and the Parliament. The President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s initial proposal that the commission be jointly co-chaired by himself, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament was ignored. The controversy between the two bodies ended in boycotting the work of the commission by the President’s administration. This decision of the President was later criticized by the ruling party indicating to the reluctance to cooperate and “discrediting the commission.”

On March 13, the President Giorgi Margvelashvili launched a campaign “Constitution Belongs to All” promising to visit each region to listen to the views and positions of the society about the constitution. According to him, the campaign aimed to increase public participation in the constitutional amendment process before its final approval.

The President’s campaign was not hailed by the ruling party, which considered that “initially, the draft constitution should be developed and only afterwards, the public discussion should be launched. According to the law, the Parliament of Georgia is the initiator and organizer of this discussion,” stated Speaker of Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze.

The confrontation between the Speaker of Parliament and the President increased when the idea of indirect presidential elections was proposed by the Constitutional Commission, which later, was softened by Speaker of Parliament stressing this change would not affect President Margvelashvili’s term in office. Margvelashvili argued with this change the Georgian Dream intended to reduce the President’s authority.

Further, the Speaker of Parliament announced another “concession” stating movement to fully proportional system as envisioned by the draft constitution will be postponed until 2024 when Georgia feels most ready for it. However, this move was seen as an attempt to win next parliamentary elections by the ruling party, according to opponents.

The Civil Society and Opposition

After months of uneasy debates and rounds of discussions, the parliament voted for the amended draft constitution in the first and second readings on June 22 and 23.

The particular criticism of some civil society organization’s (CSOs) and the opposition was dedicated to the decision of the ruling party to postpone proportional electoral system until 2024, which as opponents say guarantees the ruling party to win the most seats in Parliament similarly as its predecessor the United National Movement (UNM) did in previous years.

On August 15, the Georgian Dream party called on the opposition to resume discussions over the constitutional amendments. The opposition parties underlined they were ready to participate in the discussion if the ruling party refuses to abolish direct presidential elections and maintains the constitutional amendment, which envisages movement to the proportional system in 2020.

The opposition also suggested holding a plebiscite to make a final decision regarding the rule of presidential elections, which is envisaged to be held indirectly starting from 2023 with the new amendment. These demands were assessed as “ultimatums” from the side of the Georgian Dream.

“The opposition’s approach is counterproductive and leads us to think the goal of the opposition parties is to avoid a constructive dialogue and consensus,” stated the ruling party on August 25.

Current Developments

In the statement published by the government on September 1, it was announced the discussions over the constitutional amendments will entirely move to the legislative body, which is expected to cast a third vote on the draft in fall session.

The statement issued by the ruling team stipulates the reasons for the lack of a dialogue with the opposition:

"Despite repeated attempts by the leaders of the parliamentary majority, the opposition parties did not answer to the parliamentary majority in what cases they would support the constitutional amendments. Instead the opposition presented several ultimatums as the precondition for renovation of the dialogue with the parliamentary majority. Such counterproductive actions by the opposition parties made it impossible to hold consultations with the parliamentary majority and, therefore, renovate the dialogue," it is stressed in the document.

The opposition parties have responded to the accusations by blaming the government for unilateral cessation of the negotiations. Ten parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties sent a joint letter to the President of Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, on September 5, where they lay “full responsibility” on the ruling Georgian Dream party for the failure to reach the political consensus.

The Venice Commission will provide the final assessment of the draft constitution by the end of October, although the dialogue between the ruling party and opposition has been grounded more on defining controversies rather than reaching a consensus over this period, the majority is certain the assessment of the Commission of the Council of Europe regarding the content of the draft will be positive.