Georgia's Constitutional Changes
1 March 2012:
Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamantary system, in which much power will lie with the office of the Prime Minister. Elections later this year will determine whether current President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, United National Movement, will retain control of government. Medea Turashvili, Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, discusses what implications this might have on Georgia's domestic and foreign policy. 8:14
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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT Officer, here with Caucuses Analyst Medea Turashvili in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office.
Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamentary system, in which much government power will lie with the newly created office of the prime minister. I am speaking with Medea about how this may affect Georgian governance and foreign policy.
Medea, in 2010 some changes to the Georgian constitution were approved, which go into effect over the next year and half or so. What changes exactly were made to the constitution?
Georgia initiated constitutional amendments in 2009, and the constitutional commission was created which was composed of six opposition parties, the ruling party, NGO representatives and academics. They drafted the new constitution, which was adapted in October 2010, but the constitution will enter into force after the presidential elections in 2013.
The main idea of the constitution was to move from the presidential system of government to the rather mixed system, where the executive power is in the hands of the government, which is elected and accountable to the parliament. So, accordingly, the new amendments will diminish the powers of the president and increase those of the prime minister, who becomes the head of the government, with the executive authority over domestic and foreign policy. The prime minister, together with the cabinet, will be elected by a simple parliamentary majority, while the president remains head of the state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces but without the right to initiate laws, to introduce the state budget or hold an official post in a political party.
Parliamentary powers, however, have not been increased. There are a few new functions--one of them was the approval of the cabinet--but other parliamentary oversight mechanisms--such as scrutiny of state expenditures, holding individual ministers accountable and the setting up of temporary investigative commissions--wasn’t strengthened, so the parliament has limited power. For instance, the parliament cannot amend the budget without government consent. The Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional and other legislative matters, noted that the role of the parliament in budget matters is too limited. So even after 2013, much power and influence will still remain in the executive branch.
At this point, Saakashvili, the current president of Georgia, has served out most of two terms, and according to term limits, he will not be able to stand again for president. However, with the changes that are coming to the constitution, is there a chance that he might possibly move to stand for the newly created and empowered position of prime minister?
Technically, there is no prohibition in the constitution against Saakashvili becoming the prime minister, because naturally specific names cannot be written in the constitution. Technically, there is a possibility for him. However, publicly at least, though Saakashvili hasn’t ruled out becoming the prime minister, authorities here in Georgia realize that this could be damaging for the democratic image of the country. Especially in a situation when Saakashvili seeks to contrast himself with Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. We think it is unlikely Saakashvili will be willing to become a prime minister
Although, an interesting observation is that, according to some polls, the Georgian population still would like to see him in power. For instance, according to one poll, 24% of the population said that they want to see Saakashvili as prime minister after 2013. Another survey found that 39% of respondents are positive about Saakashvili staying in power after his second term.
As you said, under the new system, the president is more than merely a ceremonial position. He still would retain some power over, for instance, matters of foreign affairs. Is there a chance that the prime minister and the president’s policies, or perhaps personalities, might clash, and if so, is there is a mechanism for resolving those conflicts?
Yes, the president retains important powers, notably in the field of international relations, the armed forces and during emergency situations. He or she is in the position of establishing direct relations with the parliament, by pressing the government in cases which affect the unity of the state. Accordingly, the Venice Commission concluded that there is a concrete risk of conflict with other institutions, which is enhanced by the fact that the president is directly elected and the government is the expression of the parliamentary majority. So they advised the Georgian legislation to amend the relevant clauses. However, not all recommendations from the Venice Commission were adhered.
In addition, the president has quite a big role in parliamentary affairs. For instance, if the parliament fails to approve the new government three times, the president is entitled to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. The Venice Commission considered the president’s ability to dissolve the parliament as not compatible with European concepts of a constructive vote of non-confidence. Also, the time-frame during which this procedure may continue is four months, which is quite long, which increases the risk of prolonged deadlock and crisis in the government.
One last question. Saakashvili, of course, has been identified with very a pro-Western, pro-NATO policy. Georgia contributes a very large number of troops proportional to its size, for instance, to ISAF in Afghanistan. Is there a possibility that we might see a change from that policy if an opposition candidate were to become prime minister or president?
The most visible opposition at the moment is composed of four political subjects—this is a political unity, “Georgian Dream”, which has around, according to different polls, from 30 to 50% of approval by the population.
This political subject, which is headed by a billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, this political force has indicated that they will follow the pro-Western direction, pro-Western orientation for Georgia. Bidzina Ivanishvili has also indicated that he will likely continue the Georgia contribution to Afghanistan, although the level of contribution, he said, will depend on discussions with society. So he may be reconsidering the decrease of the number of troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, this bloc is comprised of mostly pro-Western parties who have been insisting on European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, the foreign policy of Georgia is likely to continue even if there is a change of power in the country.
Thank you so much, Medea.
Edited for print.