Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
It all eventually boiled down to a request for a dry-run vote, a demand that appeared to fulfill no other aim than for the president’s party to try and show they could torpedo the amendments if they chose to do so.
Many Georgians agree that the true heroes of the day were the majority and minority leaders, Dato Usupashvili and Dato Bakradze, who somehow maintained their zen throughout.
“What worries me is that we are failing to take steps toward each other even if we have reached an essential agreement,” Bakradze commented as he asked Parliamentary Chairperson Dato Usupashvili to allow the test vote.
Fair enough, Usupashvili eventually said, adding that such key matters as a constitutional overhaul should be a result of bi-partisan compromise. “We must put an end to the practice in Georgia, when the former ruling political forces were disappearing from political life after losing power," said Usupashvili. "We will fail to achieve democracy if this practice continues."
In the end, the UNM had their little test vote and the Georgian Dream stood poised to get the amendment it wanted, and Georgia sighed with relief. But the mature political dialogue didn't last for long.
Eyes shining, the president soon appeared on TV with high-pitched declarations of victory, and finger-wagging at the prime minister for allegedly "the most disgraceful pressure methods," supposedly akin to those of "Russian gangsters of the 1990s." Ivanishvili, meanwhile, claimed credit for the successful end of the drama, saying that all of it was his design.
And ordinary Georgians, fatigued by their leaders' never-ending, parochial battles, went back to eye-rolling.