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Georgia: Constitutional changes and succession
THE ISCIP ANALYST
An Analytical Review
Volume XVI, Number 13, 27 May 2010
CAUCASUS REGION by Robyn Angley
Constitutional changes and succession
Amendments to the constitution are not a new phenomenon in Saakashvili’s Georgia. In fact, Georgia’s current politicians seem to view the constitution as something that should be altered to suit shifting political realities, rather than the consistent foundation of a political system. The amendments made to the constitution in 2004, shortly after Saakashvili came to power through the Rose Revolution and the subsequent presidential election are a case in point. In February 2004, the constitution was amended to reestablish the post of prime minister, abolished by Shevardnadze in 1995. The reinstatement of this position resulted from the need to give Saakashvili’s co-revolutionary, Zurab Zhvania, an influential post in the new government.
Now it seems that the constitution once again will be altered to grant one particular politician a powerful post in government. That politician appears to be Mikheil Saakashvili.
The state commission on constitutional reform officially was launched in June 2009 at the behest of the president. However, plans to reform the constitution have been under discussion since at least December 2008. At that time, Saakashvili proposed reforming the constitution in order to strengthen parliament and the position of prime minister at the expense of the presidency. “Our task is to gradually switch to the classical European constitutional pattern,” said Saakashvili, apparently referring to a system of parliamentary democracy. “Although there are various European patterns we will find the one which is the most suitable for Georgia.” (1)
The changes tentatively approved by the constitutional commission on 11 May considerably weaken the executive. The proposed amendments remove the president’s right to reject the budget and his ability to veto laws passed by parliament. The president also loses the right to dismiss the government and to appoint the defense and interior ministers, thereby losing control of most national security issues. (2)
The prime minister, on the other hand, gains the right to appoint and remove government ministers. Under the prime minister’s leadership, the government would be responsible for overseeing and executing policy, both foreign and domestic, and would be answerable to parliament, rather than the president. Significantly, under the proposed amendments, the government and prime minister would be drawn from the party that had won the highest percentage in the parliamentary election.
The envisaged changes would not come into effect until 2013, by which time President Saakashvili will have completed his constitutionally limited second presidential term. Given the dominance of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, the prospective changes to the Georgian constitution may pave the way for President Mikheil Saakashvili to succeed himself as the most powerful man in Georgia. If, as expected, National Movement maintains its current hegemony in Georgian politics, it is entirely feasible that Saakashvili could run for parliament in the 2013 election and, as the senior politician of the winning party, claim the reinforced prime ministerial post according to the newly implemented constitutional amendments. The concept is by no means an unfamiliar one to Eurasia observers. Despite the enmity between the two politicians, Saakashvili appears to be taking a page from the playbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who set the precedent of leaving the executive office only to continue to direct the country’s affairs from the post of prime minister.
While the establishment of a Putin/Medvedev-like diarchy in Georgian politics could represent a technically “constitutional” transfer of power if the amendments go through, such a scenario would do little to enhance Saakashvili’s increasingly questionable democratic credentials. The veneer of legality provided by amending the constitution would not offset the fact that Saakashvili would be manipulating the rules of the game, in order to assure his continued ascendance.
Unfortunately, there is no precedent in Georgian politics for a genuinely constitutional transfer of power in the executive branch. Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ousted from power in a violent coup in 1992. Saakashvili’s predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, on the other hand, resigned in 2003, following elections in which the former Soviet foreign minister tried unsuccessfully to ensure a pro-presidential presence in parliament that would maintain his influence once he stepped down at the end of his second term. Now, with opinion polls indicating that Saakashvili has recovered from the dip in his approval ratings that followed the August 2008 war with Russia, (3) the proposal to change the constitution suggests that Saakashvili, too, will attempt to hold on to power beyond the limits of his second presidential term. If so, he will harm Georgia’s prospects of building institutionalized democracy; the model established by continuing to suit systems to meet personal political goals, rather than long-term national objectives, is a dangerous one.
(1) “Saakashvili speaks about plans to weaken president’s powers,” Russia & CIS Presidential Bulletin, 29 Dec 08 via Lexis-Nexis.
(2) “Commission agrees on basic draft of constitution,” Civil Georgia, 11 May 10 via http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22290.
(3) “Full text: Public opinion survey – pdf,” Civil Georgia, undated via http://www.civil.ge/files/files/NDI%20Survey%20Presentation%20Apr.%202010%20-%20Media.pdf.
By Robyn E. Angley (firstname.lastname@example.org)