Opposition Parties Reject Constitution Changes, Boycott Commission

Ahead of the final meeting of the Constitutional Reform Commission on April 22, seven opposition parties have officially left the body, in protest over the changes which they say will consolidate the power of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG).

These key changes would:

  • Abolish the direct elections of the President, transferring it to the college of electors composed of 300 MPs, local and regional government representatives.

    The opposition protests that according to the draft, the elections would take place without a prior debate on the parliament floor. They also argue, that the suggested format of selecting the electors will give the upper hand to the party which holds the majority in the local councils and will also violate the principle of equal value of vote (more populated regions will have the same vote as small hamlets).

  • To ban creation of party blocs ahead of elections while leaving the 5% threshold intact.

    The opposition says this will further weaken small parties. Unable to form blocs with other small parties or larger parties, they will fail to clear the election threshold.

  • To introduce fully proportional, instead of current mixed proportional/majoritarian system. The votes of the parties that fail to cross the threshold would go to the winner.

    The opposition claims, the system would continue to give unfair advantage to the ruling party by failing to proportionally translate the votes into MP seats. Getting rid of the disproportionality in the nationwide votes and the legislative representation was the stated objective for abolishing the single-seat districts.

When combined, the opposition says these changes would cement the GDDG grip for years to come.

The Constitutional Reform Commission, consisting of 73 members, among them experts and representatives of seven political parties, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, was established on December 15 and was tasked to offer its recommendations by April 30, 2017.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who regards the reform process as a tool in the hands of the ruling party to reduce the presidential powers, has been boycotting the work of the Commission. On March 13, Margvelashvili launched the “Constitution Belongs to Everyone” campaign to engage the public in the constitutional reform process, saying that all previous changes were held behind the closed doors “in the interests of one particular political force” and that “a new tradition” for “jointly planning” the constitution should have been pursued, instead.

Collapsing Process

The State for the People, the party established by former opera singer Paata Burchuladze, which failed in the parliamentary elections in October 2016, was one of the first opposition parties to quit the Commission on April 13. Nika Machutadze, the party’s new head and its representative in the Commission, urged the rest of the opposition to follow.

“GDDG should be left alone [in the commission],” Machutadze said. “The ruling majority sees the constitution as a technical means for strengthening [its hold on] power.”

Two parliamentary parties – the United National Movement (UNM), and the Alliance of Patriots – as well as Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement have followed on April 13, April 19 and April 18, respectively.

And finally, on April 20, the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia, which has the largest opposition faction in the Parliament and non-parliamentary Free Democrats announced their departure in a joint press conference.

“Instead of the democratic electoral system, the Government tries to adapt the electoral system to the interests of the ruling party,” Irakli Abesadze, a member of the Movement for Liberty – European Georgia, said on Thursday.

The Labor Party, which currently remains the only opposition group in the Commission threatens to quit if the initiatives voiced by the opposition parties will not be taken into account before the Saturday’s final vote.

On Thursday, the leader of the party, Shalva Natelashvili urged the Commission to fulfill all requirements of the opposition parties within two days, otherwise, he threatened to leave the commission and start holding protest rallies.

Defiant Majority

“The State Constitutional Commission has completed its work and consequently the boycott will not happen,” Archil Talakvadze, the majority leader said.

He emphasized that the working process of the commission showed an “unprecedented involvement” and “the opposition participated in this process together with the majority.”

“I heard statements from certain opposition parties that they cannot take responsibility for this constitution. There is no problem, we will take responsibility for what we will do,” Talakvadze said.