Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Power Shifts in Georgia

President loses some powers, but his allies use vote to show they still count.
By Sopho Bukia
  • Georgian parliament. (Photo: Akhali Gazeti)
    Georgian parliament. (Photo: Akhali Gazeti)

Parliament in Georgia has voted to change the constitution to restrict the powers of President Mikhail Saakashvili. While the president was already a much-weakened figure, the tactics that his allies employed during the vote may help ensure their political survival.

Georgia is shifting from a presidential to a parliamentary system, and these constitutional changes were designed to remove clauses that in theory would have allowed Saakashvili to dissolve parliament and appoint a new government this month.

The ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which took power after a landmark election in October, and Saakashvili’s defeated United National Movement, UNM, have been discussing the amendments since late last year.

According to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the changes needed to go through if a constitutional crisis was to be averted.

Parliament backed him on March 21, with all 135 members including those from the UNM in favour of the amendments.

An important vote had come earlier, when the UNM minority managed to force a “preference ballot”, a procedure by which legislators indicate their support for a bill before it comes to a formal vote. The opposition approved of the changes, but wanted to use the preliminary vote as a show of strength and to demonstrate that Georgian Dream did not have the numbers to force through the changes on its own.

The speaker of parliament, Ivanishvili ally David Usupashvili, agreed to the UNM’s wishes, although not without raising objections.

“I have taken a very difficult decision. I don’t understand why a preference ballot is necessary, but we should not respond to folly with folly,” Usupashvili said.

Opposition members proceeded to boycott the preliminary vote, leaving Georgian Dream with only 93 votes – seven under the 100 they needed to alter the constitution.

After the official vote, Ivanishvili expressed satisfaction, but added that “the National Movement and its members would get more credit from society if they and their leader [Saakashvili] behaved properly, and if they had the courage to carry on without all these games”.

Saakashvili insisted his party’s tactics had been significant, as a way of avoiding being coerced into changing sides.

“The National Movement has proved that such methods don’t work,” he said.

While analysts agreed with the government view that limiting the president’s powers was crucial to avoiding a political crisis, many said the UNM also made unexpected gains in the process.

One analyst, Khatuna Lagazidze, said that the UNM’s prospects looked bleak before it successfully forced a preliminary vote, in its first real win since the October election.

“By forcing the preferential vote, the National Movement did two things – it maintained the unity of its team and reassured its supporters, and in addition they showed the West that the party is still alive and to be reckoned with,” she said.

At the same time, Lagazidze said it would be a misconception to think the UNM was already back on the road to power. She noted that a number of its leading members are still facing prosecution for actions dating to the years the UNM spent in power.

“We have some major court cases ahead, and these could bury the political careers of many National Movement leaders,” she said. “They do have a chance of coming back to life now, but it isn’t 100 per cent.”

Some analysts say the UNM’s best chance of survival would come if Saakashvili and other past leaders were to stand aside and allow others to step up with different policies.

“To date they have seen their salvation in always speaking with one voice, but it’s now absolutely clear that if that voice always reflects the Saakashvili view, then it’s going to move further and further away from reality,” said Giorgi Khutsishvili, head of the International Centre for Conflict and Negotiations. “That would sink the National Movement as a political team.”

Sopho Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Rustavi-2 broadcasting company in Georgia.

More IWPR's Global Voices