The President and the Prime Minister

In October of 2013, Georgia elected a president who is staunchly pro-west, speaks fluent English and has long and deep experience in the US funded NGO sector. Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s new president was also, at the time of his election, was relatively unknown outside of Georgia. Within Georgia he was seen as a newcomer to politics by many. He had served briefly as Minister of Education in the Georgian Dream (GD) government before being nominated to be the ruling coalition’s nominee for the presidency. Margvelashvili was so widely believed to have owed his election to the political whim of then prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili that in the English language media and punditry, at times it felt like “hand-picked by Bidzina Ivanishvili” was Margvelashvili’s middle name, or some kind of official title.

Margvelashvili became president at almost the same time Irakli Garibashvili took over from Ivanishvili as Georgia’s prime minster. Although the constitution clearly makes the prime minister more powerful than the president, it was still expected that the two would share power somewhat. Most thought this arrangement would be easier than the previous 12 months that had been marked by a period of awkward cohabitation between a GD prime minister and President Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the opposition United National Movement (UNM). In the months since Margvelashvili became president, however, relationships between the two offices, and two office-holders, have in many respects been more rocky than they were during the period of cohabitation.

The President and Prime Minister have squabbled about the symbolic, such as who should sign the EU Association agreement or represent Georgia at the UN, as well as the significant such as how much power the president should have to make appointments or convene a meeting of the National Security Council. In addition to these jurisdictional battles, there has been genuine rancor between the two men. Further, the President has also been the target of criticism from Ivanishvili who remains very influential in Georgia despite no longer being the prime minister.

The clash between the President and the Prime Minister has taken on an increasingly unpleasant tone as the President has felt more marginalized by the Prime Minister and the government with each passing month. In recent weeks the tension has risen to the point where the President has half offered and half threatened to resign. While this is, among other things, an unfortunate waste of the talents of President Margvelashvili and provides a distraction for observers of Georgian politics, the origins of this clash as well as its overall impact should be considered too.

Many countries have both a prime minister and a president with the former serving as head of government and the latter as head of state. However, comparing the Georgian system to, for example, those of Italy or Germany, is a bit misleading. The Georgian system differs from the Israeli or German ones in at least two significant ways. 

First, formal roles and responsibilities, while still favoring the Prime Minister, are much more evenly divided in Georgia. The President of Georgia has real constitutional powers in foreign policy where he is charged with appointing and dismissing ambassadors, and negotiating treaties and other agreements. Additionally, the Georgian president is the commander and chief and can schedule elections. While clearly these do not make the president the head of government, these powers are not insignificant. The Israeli and German presidents sign laws and receive credentials of foreign diplomats but do not have as much constitutional power as Georgia’s president. The German president has more constitutional power than the Israeli president, but less than the Georgian one. In Georgia, the relatively substantial powers given to a presidency that is largely viewed as weak and symbolic naturally leads to some conflict within the government.

Second, in Georgia, unlike the other two countries the president is directly elected by the entire population. Being elected, rather than appointed by the legislature, means that the president must build direct relationships with the voters and the media before becoming president. In reality, Margvelashvili was elected in a non-competitive election on the strength of his affiliation with the GD block, but the electoral foundation of the Georgian presidency again suggests it is more than just an entirely symbolic office.

Dividing powers between two nationally elected leaders with different political bases of support is not an easy or particularly natural way to structure a government. In Georgia, it is partly the legacy of constitutional changes made in 2010. According to many, then President Saakashvili was seeking a way to remain in power after he waste be term limited out of the presidency in 2013. The plan most likely was for Saakashvili to transition to being prime minister following the 2012 election and then to choose a loyal successor to run for president in 2013. The UNM never had a chance to implement this plan because the 2012 election did not turn out quite the way they had expected.

Thus, when the GD won control of the legislature in October of 2012 they inherited a flawed constitution that had been largely tailored so that one man could remain in control of Georgia. The constitutional arrangements in place at that time led to the period of cohabitation where new Prime Minister Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili were forced to share powers. If these two larger than life figures had genuinely had to share power, even for a year, Georgia would have been in a difficult position. However, Saakashvili, after his party lost the election largely removed himself from the governing of Georgia, allowing the new GD government more powers than the constitution granted them. 

The current disputes between Margvelashvili and Garibashvili are, in some respects sharper, but less significant than those that existed between the two offices when they were held by different parties. Today the two bicker about who should sign what or convene what meeting, but less frequently concrete issues of policy. In this regard, the tension between the Prime Minister and President are a bit like what has often been said about politics within academia, the fights are so intense because they are about so little.

While the complex relationship between the President and Prime Minister cannot be ignored by any observer of Georgian politics today, it is also easy to overstate the importance of this conflict. Although, it is clear that the President has not been able to carve out a role for himself and this his efforts have, in his own words been “thwarted” by the rest of the government, the overall impact on the Georgian government is not dramatic. It is clear to citizens and policy makers in Georgia as well as to diplomats and other foreigners that Prime Minister Garibashvili is by far the more powerful, with regards to both formal and informal power, of the two. Attributing other problems of governance to competition between the President and Prime Minister is inaccurate and draws needed away attention from other issues.

In many countries, including many democracies, defining the roles of the various institutions of government is an ongoing task that never really goes away. Constitutional arrangements that are vague about where the powers of one office ends and those of another begin can be found all over the world. Working these things out are part of the political life of many countries. The issue may be more acute in Georgia than in most, but, in the big picture, it is hardly sui generis.

Within the Georgian government, the clear winner of the spat between Garibashvili and Margvelashvili is Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Ironically, Alasania was briefly drawn into presidential politics in early 2013 when he was stripped of the position of deputy Prime Minister by then Prime Minister Ivanishvili for floating his name as a possible presidential candidate for 2013. Today, Alasania is the most popular politician in Georgia, at least in part because he is not involved in domestic political fights. Additionally, many of Georgia’s allies are more comfortable working with Alasania than anybody else in the government.

The solution to the tension between the President and the Prime Minister is to revise the constitution, but there are difficulties associated with this. The constitution was so frequently changed in the previous government that Georgians are wary of more changes to the constitution. Moreover, finding the right time to change the constitution is not easy. Had the GD government sought to to do this while Saakashvili was president, they would have rightly been seen as trying to consolidate power and restrict the opposition. If the government tries to change the constitution and reduce the powers of the president now it will be seen as a power grabbed aimed at damaging Margvelashvili. Nonetheless, making this change in the not too distant future, at least before the next presidential election, will be very helpful. The current division of executive power arose from a specific, and highly personalized, political context. It has not worked when two parties are forced to share the power or when it both positions are held by members of the same political block. The GD has clearly not been able to make a quirky constitutional arrangement work well, but doing something about it will require some political forethought.

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