Georgia’s president: to elect or select? Focus on presidential plebiscite ignores more important issues

The Georgian parliament recently proposed amendments to the constitution that could further reduce the role of the president (which is already minimal) to an almost a ceremonial role.

However, if this happens, the next president would still maintain impressive titles like ‘head of state’ and ‘commander-in-chief’ in times of war. In other words, if the ruling party, which happens to have a constitutional majority, enacts the amendments, the next president will be ‘presiding’ in an etymological sense only.

Though there are several constitutional amendments being proposed (abolishing the National Security Council, making changes to the electoral system, re-defining marriage etc.), it is the amendment concerning the president that has some political parties and NGOs calling for a plebiscite on whether or not to eliminate direct presidential elections. 

However, the outcome of any plebiscite will not be binding in nature, and serves only in an advisory capacity, allowing elected officials to factor-in public opinion while they determine how the next president is selected. Of course, broader public participation in the form of a plebiscite would only strengthen democracy in the country, but its results would have no legal weight or mandate. 

So, the question is: Why hold a plebiscite for electing the president only? This strikes me as suspicious, and makes me think that those opposing the amendment hope that the current president will stay in politics long enough to set up a new movement, or at the very least, stay on long enough to win another direct presidential election. 

For those not familiar with Georgia’s recent political history, it is important to understand that directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990-1991) Georgia was a strong presidential state. However, by the time Mikheil Saakashvili reached his second presidential term (2008-2013), constitutional amendments were already being made, setting Georgia on course towards the parliamentary model. 

Saakashvili decided to take a page from the Putin/Medvedev book. Following the parliamentary format, after his second presidential term, Saakashvili would then become the prime minister, which would effectively extend his rule of the country for several more years. But his strategy did not work. Saakashvili lost the 2012 elections and the winner inherited a constitution that did not seem to reflect his political agenda.  

Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s current president, easily beat his opponents in 2013 because he was the protégé of then Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Nevertheless, soon after the elections, the relationship between the two began to deteriorate. Truth be told, Margvelashvili has demonstrated quite an unexpected sense of political resistance and persistence. His popularity has not suffered much since he was elected, and he always ranks among the top-three most-trusted politicians in the country. Indeed, while it is important to start one’s own political movement, it is not necessarily an assured precondition for success.   

Again, why not a plebiscite? People could then decide the future of Georgia’s presidential institution. But wait, don’t we need to seek opinions from those who are qualified to answer this question? Do we, Georgian civil society, really know how our elected officials are going to transform the presidency? The answer is – not really. In late 2014, when GORBI asked a representative sample of the Georgian population if they knew what kind of power the next president would wield, one-in-five had no knowledge, and slightly more had a completely incorrect understanding – 19% and 22% respectively. 

Chart 2: Q. In your opinion, will the next president enjoy more, less or the same amount of power? 

Source: GORBI, Georgia, nationwide survey, 2014  

So, until we implement a broader public information campaign, it is perhaps naïve to ask people about the subject. However, the question remains: do we need a president elected via popular vote whose mandate is nominal at best anyway? Moreover, do we need the exorbitant costs associated with such elections, and the costs of the lavish palace in which he/she will reside? Maybe.

But without a doubt I can say that an honest electoral system is much more important. Not to mention, little time has been spent considering the ramifications of ‘defining’ or ‘redefining’ marriage, which could easily spark sudden anger among homophobic groups and individuals.  

Hence, holding a plebiscite only on the presidential election issue seems like an unsophisticated marketing maneuver. Inevitably, the state will just end up paying a big bill. And regardless of my personal skepticism, if a plebiscite contributes to the creation of a new political movement that will be competitive and sustainable – then let there be a plebiscite! 

GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. Since 2003, GORBI remains an exclusive member of Gallup International research network for its two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial.  


Author: Merab Pachulia, GORBI