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MPs Discuss Constitutional Changes on Presidential Powers
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 21 Mar.'13 / 20:35

Lawmakers started discussing constitutional amendments on presidential powers at the parliamentary session on Thursday afternoon (see below details of parliamentary discussions).

The amendment, first tabled by the Georgian Dream coalition in December, offers depriving the President of his right to sack government and appoint new one without Parliament’s approval – the power which the President gained through constitutional changes in early 2004, shortly after Mikheil Saakashvili was elected for his first presidential term.

In recent months this constitutional amendment was the key political issue pushed by the GD coalition, pressing President Saakashvili and his UNM party to voice clear-cut position on whether they think or not the President should have such, as it puts it, “dictatorial” powers. President Saakashvili and his UNM party downplay this constitutional amendment saying that it’s not a major issue that should be the focus of political process; Saakashvili said for multiple times that he has no intention whatsoever to make use of this constitutional right and to sack the sitting government and appoint new one without Parliament’s approval.

As the voting day in the Parliament drew near, how the proposed amendment should be voted became focus of the debate.

GD although holds majority in the Parliament, it falls short of 100 seats required for passing constitutional amendments.

UNM announced late on March 19, that it’s ready to support GD-proposed constitutional changes, but on the condition if at first the Parliament holds a non-binding, test vote to see whether Georgian Dream has enough votes or not to endorse the bill. UNM argues that test vote is needed to demonstrate that contrary to some Georgian Dream MPs’ claims that there are some lawmakers within the UNM ready to break party line, the UNM keeps its unity and it’s not possible to endorse constitutional amendment by ignoring opposition’s opinion. UNM also said that after test vote, it would give GD as many votes as it required for garnering 100 votes, needed for passing constitutional amendment.

GD responded that no test vote is required and UNM should vote for the amendment if it deems that such a constitutional amendment is needed. Final decision whether to hold non-binding, test vote or not should be made after the debates in the parliament just before the draft amendment is put on binding vote.

For more background see:

Below are details of discussions as reported live on this page:

16:05 - When opening the session, Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili noted that there were many lawmakers attending the session. He said smiling it might be a good sign for today’s session – apparently referring to the fact that vote for constitutional changes requires high quorum. 125 lawmakers underwent registration before opening the session. After that lawmakers discussed an issue on the agenda, not related to constitutional changes;

16:17 – Lawmakers start discussing constitutional amendments with its first hearing. GD MP Manana Kobakhidze took the floor; she was a chairperson of the 20-member commission (with GD and UNM having six members each, as well as civil society representatives; UNM lawmakers, however, then withdrew from the commission), which led public discussions of the proposed amendments. MP Kobakhidze says that this constitutional amendment was initiated for the purpose to avoid any “political crisis” by depriving the President of his current power to sack the sitting government and appoint new one without Parliament’s approval;

16:30 – GD MP Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, took the floor to present details of the proposed constitutional amendment. He says that according to the proposed changes in case of cabinet’s resignation or if it is sacked by the President the latter will have no right to appoint new government without Parliament’s approval; the sitting government will have to continue performing its duties before the new cabinet is confirmed. He also says that as a result of public discussions the initial draft was amended. Initial draft also envisaged removing a clause from the constitution, which bans the President to dissolve the Parliament within six months before the presidential elections. But the final draft keeps this limitation and specifies that the President will have no right to dissolve the Parliament in a period from May 1 till inauguration of newly elected president;

16:38 – UNM MP Gigi Tsereteli asks MP Khmaladze about rational behind this proposal in the view that presidential powers will anyway be reduced after the new constitution goes into force after the presidential elections in October, 2013.

16:39 – GD MP Khmaladze responds that these changes will be in force only before the new constitution goes into effect and are required in order to prevent potential political crisis in a period before the presidential elections;

16:43 – GD MP Shalva Shavgulidze now speaks about arguments in favor of the proposed changes, reiterating that these amendments were required to provide proper checks and balances and secure political stability. He also says that proposed amendment was in line with recommendations which were tabled by the Venice Commission back in 2004 when the existing provision in the constitution was first introduced. MP Shavgulidze says that this amendment is “needed for our country” and expresses hope that it would be approved unanimously by the Parliament;

16:53 – UNM MP Pavle Kublashvili took the floor; he says “we have no question marks in respect of the substance of the proposed constitutional amendment”. He, however, then said that “the form” how the discussions were ongoing on the proposal took a wrong turn when GD started resorting to “intimidating the parliamentary minority”; he also said that GD’s rhetoric that the constitutional amendment would be any way endorsed because there are some MPs in UNM ready to break their party line was unacceptable. MP Kublashvili said to show that it is not the case a test vote was proposed;

16:56 – UNM MP Nugzar Tsiklauri says that everything was clear about the substance of the proposed amendment and the President himself also declared for multiple times that he was not going to use his powers in respect of appointing new government. He then reiterated UNM position about the need to at first hold non-binding, test vote in order to demonstrate that it is not possible to endorse constitutional amendment without cooperation with the UNM;

17:02 – UNM MP Sergo Ratiani said that GD should realize that it does not control all the branches of government and should say no “to twisting arms” of opponents;

17:09 – GD MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili, who leads the largest faction within the parliamentary majority group, took the floor. He says that the GD’s goal is not either to show its force or to reveal “weakness” of UNM; he says that if there is an agreement on the substance of the proposed constitutional amendment, then this issue should not become a stumbling block for cooperation; he also spoke against a proposal to hold test vote;

17:18 – UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili says that GD parliamentary majority holds key to whether this proposal will be passed or not; he says the issue is not about the substance, but it’s about whether it will be possible or not to say no to tactic of “intimidations, blackmailing”; he says such approach should be rejected. He says that UNM needs test vote because for months GD was telling UNM that no matter of its position these amendments would be passed any way because GD already has more than 100 votes; he says that test vote was needed to demonstrate actual distribution of power within the Parliament. He says that the “issue is simple”: if GD wants this constitutional amendment it should agree on test vote, otherwise take responsibility for the failure of adopting this amendment, because it won’t be able to pass it by “twisting arms” of the opponents;

17:29 – UNM MP Akaki Bobokhidze says that GD was repeating stating that unity within the UNM was only a mere formality; so to rebuff these claims, holding of test vote was needed; he requested the parliamentary chairman to accept this proposal and hold the non-binding, test vote before putting the constitutional amendment on the binding vote; (according to procedures it is up to the parliament speaker to decide whether to hold a test vote or not);

17:36 – GD MP Giga Bukia tells UNM lawmakers that test vote is needed for President Saakashvili to show that there is unity within his party; he tells UNM MPs to “set yourselves free” of President Saakashvili’s “influence”. He says that no one doubts about unity with the UNM, but showing it by test vote was “a whim” of President Saakashvili; he says that UNM MPs should vote in a way as they think it is right without any kind of test votes;

17:46 – MP Kakha Okriashvili, who chairs six-member parliamentary faction consisting of those lawmakers who have defected UNM, says that his faction supports the proposed constitutional amendment;

17:49 – GD MP Gubaz Sanikidze tells UNM MPs that the issue is simple and UNM should decide between ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – to vote or not without holding any non-binding, test vote; he tells UNM MPs: “you want this test vote because even you failed to clarify what is happening within your own ranks”; he also says “Saakashvili is past” and calls on UNM lawmakers to reject him. “No one is trying to destroy you; you have been destroyed on October 1,” MP Sanikidze said, causing remarks from the chamber by UNM MP Giorgi Baramidze. “You have been politically destroyed on October 1,” MP Sanikidze repeated; he also said that everything would be called by its right name today;

17:59 – GD MP Irakli Chikovani says that UNM offer to GD that it will “add its votes” is unacceptable. “No one needs your votes to be added,” he said. If this constitutional amendment is not passed today, he said, it will show that UNM is “a victim of one man” – President Saakashvili; Chikovani said that Saakashvili turned into “heavy burden” for UNM;

18:02 – One half of the chamber, the one occupied by UNM lawmakers, is now almost empty;

18:13 – Many UNM lawmakers are now back in the chamber, listening to a speech by GD MP Davit Berdzenishvili;

18:13 – GD MP Davit Berdzenishvili says that President Saakashvili’s rhetoric “is directed against” his own UNM party; he says that Saakashvili’s efforts are aimed at “finding all the possible pretexts for this constitutional amendment not to be adopted.” He says that now it is up to each and every UNM lawmaker to decide whether President Saakashvili will be able to materialize his “whim” or not.

18:19 – UNM parliamentary minority leader, MP Davit Bakradze, now takes the floor;

18:25 – UNM parliamentary minority leader, MP Davit Bakradze, focused on two aspects of the issue – substance and form. He said that UNM adopted new constitution back in 2010, envisaging significant cut of presidential powers, which will go into force later this year and that already showed UNM’s position about the substance of proposed constitutional amendment. He then said that use of this constitutional right by the President was completely ruled out and then added: “I do not see my place in the President’s team” if he uses this right; he then again reiterated that there was no chance of the President dismissing the sitting government and appointing the new one without Parliament’s approval.

Bakradze also said that the main subject of dispute was “the form”; he then again reiterated that GD’s rhetoric of recent months that they already have enough votes to pass the proposal without UNM’s consent and on the other hand warning UNM that its stance on the issue would define its future was something that was making cooperation difficult. He also said that to put an end to speculation that UNM was not united over this constitutional issue holding of the test vote was needed. Bakradze asked GD MPs: if this constitutional amendment was really so important for the country, then why they should reject UNM’s proposal on test vote?

“The worst thing that triggers my major concern is that we are failing to make step towards each other even when we agree on the substance,” MP Davit Bakradze said, adding that “there is one step between us, one small step” and that’s holding non-binding, test vote.

18:36 – Many of the UNM lawmakers leave the chamber for holding consultations;

18:37 – MP Davit Saganelidze, leader of the parliamentary majority group, said that “this constitutional amendment is not important for me”, because he’s sure “Saakashvili will not dare” to sack PM Ivanishvili’s government. “But this is more important for you, because we have to work together for next four years, because I do not want you to become politicians who will leave this chamber today totally bankrupted,” MP Saganelidze said.

18:49 – UNM parliamentary minority leader Davit Bakradze requested for a break; Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili accepted the request and announced break till 19:30;

19:07 – Discussion of the constitutional amendment with the first hearing is over and the voting is now ahead expected when the session resumes after the break at 19:30. The break before the vote was requested by the UNM lawmakers, which are holding internal consultations. At one point during the parliamentary discussions UNM parliamentary minority leader Davit Bakradze and Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili met briefly outside the chamber. According to the regulations, it is within the authority of the Parliamentary Chairman to decide whether to hold a test vote or not before putting the draft amendment on the binding vote;

19:21 – News agency, InterPressNews, is reporting that Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili and another lawmaker from GD, Irina Imerlishvili, who chairs the parliamentary committee for procedural issues, are holding meeting with senior lawmakers from the UNM;

20:12 – After the break, which was longer than scheduled, the Parliament is about to resume its session;

20:15 – Parliamentary Chairman Davit Usupashvili says that the long break was used for “analyzing the situation and for preparing for right decision.” He says that the parliamentary discussions showed that there is no disagreement on the substance of the proposed constitutional amendment, but there are differences on the form and how the process developed;

20:25 - Usupashvili announces that he accepts UNM’s proposal on holding test vote, because “we cannot respond to whims with whims.” He also tells GD parliamentary majority to accept this decision with understanding.

Before making this announcement Usupashvili said that last minute consultations during the break were ongoing on the one hand between UNM and GD and on the other hand within UNM and GD coalition as well. He said that “a compromise proposal”, on which he did not elaborate, was also table in the course of these consultations; he, however, said this proposal was not accepted by UNM and President Saakashvili. Usupashvili also said that consultations were also ongoing with PM Ivanishvili before taking final decision.

He said that the GD coalition, as the governing force, was responsible for the situation in the country and it should remain committed to its pledge to help UNM to be part of the process. He said that in different situation, if it was not about such an important issue, “I would have decided otherwise” and would not have allowed test vote “because I see no reason in holding it. He, however, repeated that because of the motive which was behind this constitutional amendment, as he said, to give the opposition opportunity to contribute and be part of the process, he was agreeing on test vote. He also noted that he knew there were also different opinion among some GD lawmakers, but called on them to accept his decision with understanding.

20:26 – UNM parliamentary minority leader, Davit Bakradze, says that he welcomes Usupashvili’s decision. “I think this is a right decision, which will allow us to agree on the issue, which is important for the country… We achieved the decision which will be good not for us or good for you, but good for the country,” Bakradze said.

20:29 – 134 parliamentarians underwent registration before the non-binding, test vote;

20:31 – Test vote shows 93 lawmakers, seven short of required, supported constitutional amendment;

20:33 – After the test vote, constitutional amendment was put on actual vote and it recieved unanimous support - 135 votes.

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