The election that occurred earlier this month demonstrated that elections and democracy are improving in Georgia, but it also reinvigorated concerns about a pattern of one party dominance reemerging. There were moments in the last four years when it seemed to many that Georgia could be moving towards a two party system. The simple fact of the United National Movement’s (UNM) survival, even despite arrests and indictments of several of their leaders, was unusual by recent Georgian standards and suggested that the Georgian Dream (GD) was not as committed to consolidating one party dominance as the UNM had been when they came to power in 2003-4.
The recent election, however, raises questions about the future of multi-party politics in Georgia, This is not, as might initially be suspected, due to any efforts of the GD to fraudulently increase their margin of victory in the election. Almost all election monitors agreed that had not occurred. Rather, the failure of the UNM to grow beyond their base and of parties like the Free Democrats and Republicans to take enough voters away from the GD, contributed to electoral victory for the GD that, pending the outcome of the second round elections on October 30th, could give the GD a constitutional majority. If that happens the GD will have enough votes in parliament, not only to pass more or less any law they want, but to make changes to the constitution as well.
Given the likelihood that the GD will either have a constitutional majority or something very close the question of what they will do with that majority is very important. At the moment, there is some reason for concern. Shortly after the election, it was reported that the GD was going to explore constitutional amendments that would focus on two issues: making the President appointed by parliament rather than directly elected by the people, and defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. If you programmed a computer to arrive at two proposals that would be bad for Georgia and damaging to the image the GD seeks to project internationally, it probably would have arrived at these two issues. The government has not affirmatively stated their commitment to making these amendments and the Prime Minister has suggested other approaches to amending the constitution. However, at this writing it remains very possible that these two amendments will be part of any constitutional changes.
A constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman would be a bad mistake for several reasons. First, it is never good to write discrimination into a constitution. The arguments in favor of this amendment are firmly on the side of reaction and intolerance and have been discredited in many countries around the world, particularly those that Georgia most admires. Second, as Georgia continues to move closer to Europe and becomes more integrated into European economics and culture, public opinion in Georgia will change. This is precisely why supporters of this amendment want it in the constitution, because they know time is not on their side. Thus, if this amendment is passed it will, in a few years, be out of synch with Georgian public opinion and be a reminder of a less tolerant time for many Georgians. Third, given the efforts the Georgian government is undertaking to demonstrate to the west that it is genuinely western in its outlook, it is not wise to pass an amendment that sends the precise opposite message to most western governments as well as to the citizens of those countries. Georgia does not need its image in Europe or the US to be as another country that has laws discriminating against LGBT people. This is a particular problem for a country that seeks to increase western tourism and present itself as a culinary and cultural hub.
Talk of amending the constitution to make the president appointed by parliament rather than directly elected by the people is also problematic, albeit for different reasons. The Georgian constitution, and the division of power between the President and the Prime Minister is an awkward construct, more the product of the ambitions of former President Mikheil Saakashviili than of any persuasive constitutional theory. Nonetheless, it has worked surprisingly well over the last few years.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was elected in 2013, has proven to be both a check on the government and a clear voice for democracy, reform and human rights in Georgia. Margvelashvili has been able to serve this role partially because of his political skill, but also because he is not responsible to anybody other than the voters. He is outside of the other political structures and has an independent electoral base. That base was, of course, initially created for him by the GD and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, but he has been able to put it to good use.
If the Parliament were to appoint both the Prime Minister and the President it would be dividing power among two executives who do not differ in how or by whom they were elected. In that scenario, dividing the power, even if only minimally, between the two office holders would create confusion without any democratic or political rationale.
Amending in the constitution in this manner would also be an unambiguous sign that the GD is trying to consolidate power and become not just the dominant, but essentially the only relevant, political force in the country. The next presidential election is currently scheduled for 2018. That means that two years from now the Georgian people will have the opportunity, if they so desire, to reign in the power of the GD by electing somebody of a different party or who is critical of the GD leadership. Removing this option by changing the constitution will make it easier for the GD to monopolize official political life in Georgia.
In addition to possibly creating further obstacles on what has proven a very treacherous and winding road that may or may not lead to a multi-party democracy, efforts to consolidate power like this send the absolute wrong message to international actors and play directly into the hands of the GD’s domestic critics. Opponents of the GD are already darkly warning that after this election the GD will tighten its one party grip on the country. Given the magnitude of the GD victory that is both a real concern and perhaps even a political inevitability. It also may be an overstatement as, heated rhetoric notwithstanding the GD spent a lot less effort consolidating its power than its opponents would like to think. Similarly, winning a big majority of seats is not the same as undermining democracy. However, by quickly pushing for reforming constitution and getting rid of an independent elected president, the GD is creating problems for themselves, and for Georgia.
The GD won an impressive victory in this election, one that is likely to be increased by the second round of elections, but it they have also benefitted from an electoral system that turns small margins of votes into medium sized differences in seats, and in the case of this election, medium sized vote margins into large differences in seats. Accordingly, while the GD has the support of the people, they do not enjoy quite the mandate that their likely constitutionalmajority suggests. In this context, it is hard to view the proposed change to the presidency and the constitution as anything other than an attempt to consolidate power. Moreover, it is a move that originates with fear and weakness, not with the strength and confidence that might be expected from a party that just won such a resounding election victory. Eliminating the elected presidency suggests a fear of any powerful critical voices, rather than a belief that the GD vision and policies can carry the day.
The best way the GD could use their likely constitutional majority to deepen Georgian democracy and help build a genuine multi-party system would be to, at some point in the not too distant future, tinker with the electoral system to close this discrepancy between votes and seats. One easy way to do this would be to abolish the single mandate seats altogether, but they could also replace these single mandate districts with larger multi-member districts or even lower the party list threshold.
Significantly, nothing the GD is trying to do now is illegal or unconstitutional, nor have they committed fully to these amendments. They won this election and the election was generally viewed as free and fair. They benefited from opponents like the UNM that allowed themselves to be captured by the personal ambitions of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, the failure of like-minded parties like the Free Democrats and the Republicans to run together and, in general, opponents who neither coordinated nor executed a good strategy for the single mandate districts. The GD now finds itself pulled between a natural urge to enjoy the spoils of a legal and fair election win and the need to put short term political advantage to the side and do what is best for the longer term political development of the country. This is a tough conundrum, but it is clear that, at the very least, slowing down on any constitutional reforms would be the right thing to do, and in the long run would strengthen the GD, particularly internationally.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.