Rather than generate enthusiasm and buzz, the adoption of a new constitution in Georgia seems to have exposed a vast reserve of popular political apathy.
The constitution, which would allow the head of parliament’s majority party to be named as prime minister, secured parliamentary approval on October 15 by a wide margin – 112 to 5. The post of prime minister would carry primary responsibility for daily government affairs. The new constitution will go into effect in 2013.
Despite changes that could possibly pave the way for President Mikheil Saakashvili to remain in power as premier after his presidential term expires in 2013, Georgian opposition parties remained silent during the year-long process to approve the new basic law. The handful of opposition parties represented in parliament took part in the September debates about the constitution, but, vastly outnumbered by Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the legislature, they lacked the clout to block the vote.
The largest opposition party in parliament, the Christian Democrat Movement, voted for the constitution after negotiating for limited changes that reduced some aspects of the new prime minister’s power.
Opposition leaders in recent years have been vocal and nettlesome in resisting Saakashvili’s administration, with street protests being their favorite means of expressing dissent. But the mass protest option wasn’t available to the opposition during the constitutional approval process mainly because the people wouldn’t take to the streets.
“Protests became very common, but I think that time is over,” said political analyst Andro Barnovi.
Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Kachachkishvili, a regular public opinion pollster, agreed that Georgians are “tired” of protests. “You cannot keep permanent protests in society -- it needs some kind of stability, some kind of silence,” Kachachkishvili added.
Many Georgians paid scant attention to the constitutional approval process. The document did not have to be submitted for a popular referendum to gain approval: it merely required parliamentary passage.
In several man-on-the-street interviews in downtown Tbilisi, EurasiaNet.org only found one respondent who felt able to comment about the constitutional changes. Olya, a 47- year-old newspaper vendor, said that she had heard that the new constitution is good because it will "allow the president to sit out his term" and that will bring stability.
The lack of televised debates by national broadcasters may have contributed to the lack of public interest. Political talk shows were not broadcast during August, a traditional vacation month, and regional discussions about the draft constitution were covered, loosely, as news events.
Sozar Subari, a former-public-defender-turned-opposition-activist, complained that no party was willing to take the risk of taking their complaints to the streets. “If one party would have started a campaign, asked people to come out on the streets and only a thousand people came out, that would have been a blow for them,” he said. “Opposition parties were afraid of that.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.