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Georgia Elects: Analysis of General Political Landscape and Institutional Changes

Tuesday, September 24
Background. With regard to political transformation and democratic consolidation, October 1st of 2012 was an historic day for Georgia. For the first time in Georgia’s contemporary history, we observed a peaceful transition of power when one political group was replaced by another – an opposition coalition – not with revolution or civil confrontation, but through popular elections: Political power is distributed between two executive branches of the government, thus not concentrated in one hand. On one side we have the government and its leader, the Prime Minister, with strong public support and a high degree of legitimacy, while on the other we have the President, who, under the current constitution, remains a powerful leader equipped with the right to exercise certain powers. However, considering the existing political context and weakening popular support toward the current President and his political group, the president is not able to fully exercise his constitutional authority.

Cohabitation between the two major political groups, Georgian Dream (GD) and United National Movement (UNM) has been a complex and complicated process. Nonetheless, the sides have reached several significant agreements, particularly, regarding the constitutional reforms.

Despite the huge democratic breakthrough that the 2012 parliamentary elections yielded, the upcoming presidential elections will serve to demonstrate a final stage in Georgia’s democratic transformation, as well as show how far the political culture has improved since the transitional period in 2003-2004.

The upcoming elections are crucial in demonstrating two things: First, democratic transition of the political power will be finally consummated when the current presidential term can complete its due course. Secondly, the current political process also involves the transformation from one constitutional model to the other - from presidential to the parliamentary republic.

Hence, this presidential elections will be closely scrutinized by both the international community and local population. The degree of transparency, freedom and fairness of the elections process, and the compliance with international standards, will determine the perceived progress of Georgia’s democratization.

Political Climate. Following information streams in Georgia, one might find certain controversies, without doubt.

Whereas the ruling coalition – GD – assesses the current political landscape as positive, and, compared with the experience of previous years, characterizes this pre-election period as the most competitive and free, officials from the former UNM government, on the other hand, complain about unequal opportunities rendered to parties, a criticism that is echoed by non-parliamentary opposition. While UNM blames the current government for political pressure, selective justice and politically motivated arrests, Nino Burjanadze, the leader of the “Democratic Movement – United Georgia” (DMUG) political party, has been accusing authorities for not providing state funding and free air time for political ads for her party. Local non-government organizations also voice certain criticism and refer to minor infringements.

However, the international community gives a more positive evaluation, describing the political environment as significantly improved even as some challenges remain. Comparing the current situation with the previous pre-election situation in Georgia in 2012, the U.S. pre-election delegation, as well as a pre-election delegation of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), have assessed the overall political environment as free and competitive, and note significant improvements, media included.

The political climate, without a doubt, looks less stressed compared to previous years. Genuine competitiveness is also apparent. Media, and mainstream media sources in particular, voice not only one political stand, but offer different political positions and visions.

…What the new Constitution actually means? The constitutional reform, which will enter into force in full after the October 2013 presidential elections, is a significant shift of concentration of power from the president to both the government and parliament. The President will become a more symbolic political figure, with more limited authority to influence political processes. However, the model to be enforced soon, does not make Georgia a purely parliamentary republic. According to the amendments to the Constitution, the president keeps certain key political instruments. Without getting submerged in constitutional and legal particulars, we will broadly outline four key elements that keep the president’s role a significant one:

1. President as a Commander in Chief. One of the key roles of the president is involvement in national security. In particular, the president remains as Commander in Chief, meaning that the president is still responsible for appointing the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other commanders, although these appointments need government approval and thus neither government nor the president can make this decision independently, but must have mutually agreed positions.

2. President in Foreign Affairs. The president remains a significant player in foreign policy, however, all of his decisions have to be coordinated with the government. The president can hold negotiations with other States and international organizations, can sign international agreements and treaties, and appoint Ambassadors of Georgia and other diplomatic representatives to other countries but with the government approval. New constitutional norms require that two branches of power, the president and the government, must have a common approach in terms of foreign policy, or at least reach a compromise as to a common consensus.

3. President and Government. The most important policy lever that the president can exercise in the political process is his role in forming the government. Although the president does not personally make a decision on the composition of government, s/he can create obstacles and push political groups to compromise and consider his/her opinion to certain degrees. In particular, the president has to name a candidate on the post of prime minister as suggested by the winning party or the largest parliamentary group. The nominee has to be approved by majority of members of parliament - that is 75+1 members. In case of resistance from the president, parliament can vote the same candidate; however, to approve, three-fifths (90 votes) of the parliament must vote in favor. If there are not enough votes, the president can dismiss the parliament and call for new parliamentary elections. In practice, this means that if a candidate for the post of prime minister is not supported by three-fifth of parliamentarians, the president may bargain with political parties and request concessions. A winning political party that lacks 90 votes in the parliament, must therefore negotiate with the president or the political opposition. The president or opposition might demand a political price from the parliamentary majority in exchange for supporting the head of the government’s candidate. If the opposition and the president represent the same political group or coalition, then the concession price for the majority could be higher.

In the case of a newly elected president with high public support and perceived legitimacy, the political weight of the president might be even higher. If negotiations between political groups in the parliament, on the one side, and the president, on the other, come to a deadlock, the president can dismiss the parliament and announce extraordinary elections. In both cases, a significant factor of power is the political context. In other words, what could the implications of extraordinary elections be for each political subject and will they benefit or harm their political positions.

4. Impeachment of the President. The procedure of impeachment of the president still remains a complex process. It is necessary for the parliament to go through several stages. The procedure can be launched by one-third of members of the parliament. The issue then must be discussed by a constitutional court. Only if the court proves violation of the constitution, or the existence of delinquency in president’s action, does the parliament have a right to discuss the president’s impeachment. The final decision must be made by two-thirds (100 votes) of the parliamentarians. Such a complex procedure for presidential impeachment almost ensures that the president cannot be challenged by the parliament or government in a multiparty environment, and in case of political confrontation between different branches, the president with high probability remains in his/her position.

Conclusion. Analysis of the Georgian Constitution makes it obvious that despite significant decrease of presidential authority, the president will still remain an important political figure, equipped with more than merely symbolic or representative notions. What is important here is the political context, which may play in favor of or against the president’s exercise of power. In the current political environment, when the source of the power is concentrated in the prime minister’s hand, authority of newly elected GD candidate might be formal, or depend on how much the government will share responsibilities with the president. Resignation of the current prime minister and appointment of a new one would change the power distribution significantly. The new prime minister and the president will divide the authority, and when making decisions on policy, the opinions of both will be taken into consideration.

In the case of victory of an opposition candidate, we expect that the newly elected president would attempt to use all possible levers that the constitution provides to challenge the existing ruling coalition, both in the government and the parliament. To summarize, the president in neither case is symbolic, but a strong actor in internal and external politics, whose voice and political stands must be considered in the process. This factor further underscores why the current elections figure so importantly in Georgia’s political evolution, and history.

Note: From September 24 through October 31, as part of its Weekly Report on Georgia/Caucasus published on Tuesdays, CGS Group will offer the independent analysis on the upcoming presidential elections in Georgia being held on Sunday, October 27, 2013. We will be reviewing local and international media, and providing in-depth analysis of political stands and policy programs of the candidates, as well as including official statements, campaign speeches and information distributed by campaign teams of the candidates.