Georgia set for major presidential, parliamentary election reforms

Georgia set for major presidential, parliamentary election reforms
Directly elected President Giorgi Margvelashvili has been sidelined by the ruling Georgia Dream party
By bne IntelliNews March 22, 2017

A Georgian parliamentary commission is moving closer to agreeing on abolishing the direct election of the president and introducing other dramatic changes on how the head of state and parliament are appointed or elected, reported on March 21.

Changing the electoral system, particularly in terms of the election of MPs, has long been in the making in Georgia. However, the changes are bound to benefit the ruling Georgian Dream party, which controls the parliament and government, to the detriment of smaller, opposition parties. If the changes being drafted are passed and the ruling party controls the appointment of the president as well, there will essentially be no political checks left on its power.

The news service cited Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the constitutional commission. It is looking to replace the direct election of the president with a system based on an indirect election conducted by a convention of 300 delegates. Half would be MPs (there are 150 seats in parliament) and the other half representatives of municipal councils and of the supreme councils in the autonomous Adjara and Abkhazia regions.

The municipal and regional representatives are appointed through a proportional system - the party that wins the local elections gets to appoint a proportional number of representatives according to the votes won. Therefore, the party or parties that won the parliamentary and local elections would decide on whom the president would be.

According to Kobakhidze, the new system would apply from 2023 - the 2018 presidential election will take place through direct voting, just as it has until now.

The news of the approaching changes comes at a time of heightened tensions between President Giorgi Margvelashvili and the parliament. Margvelashvili was supposed to form part of the constitutional commission, but refused at the last minute in December because he was not appointed co-chair.

The winner of the last presidential ballot in 2013, Margvelashvili has been sidelined by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which commands a constitutional majority in parliament and can legislate despite the incumbent's opposition.

While Margvelashvili said that he would help safeguard political pluralism after Georgian Dream secured an outright election victory last October and remains nominal head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, the reality is that his powers are limited as he cannot have the final say on either domestic or foreign policies. Several presidential vetoes of legislative bills have been overturned in recent months.

Relations between Margvelashvili and the government have also been tense. Tensions peaked in 2015 after the ruling party criticised the central bank for its monetary policy and sought to strip it of its regulatory power over the banking sector. Tensions back then were exacerbated by the personal animosities between Margvelashvili and former Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who was known for having an impulsive personality and making controversial statements.

The leading opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), which split into two factions recently, opposes the proposed changes, as do a host of civil society organisations that insist on a direct ballot to appoint the president.

Meanwhile, the mixed proportional and direct system presently used to appoint MPs is to be replaced by an outright all-proportional system, Kobakhidze said. At the moment, 73 of the MPs are appointed in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies and 77 based on how many votes their parties secure in national elections. The former part of the system is to be abolished, and the latter extended to cover all 150 positions in parliament.

The change has long been planned, as lawmakers have complained that the election system is confusing.