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Presidential Address – Time when Observance of the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure becomes Obligatory

On 2 May 2018, Giorgi Margvelashvili, the fourth President of Georgia, before the end of his presidential tenure, delivered his last annual address before the country’s legislative organ on the most important issues of the state of the nation.

The format of the President’s address was approved at the session of the Bureau of the Parliament on 30 April 2018 and did not envision the President’s participation in the debates. It is true that the Administration of the President of Georgia did not have any objections in regard to the format. However, Giorgi Margvelashvili demanded a change of format immediately during the session and requested his participation in the debates. The President of Georgia took offense after his request was rejected by the Speaker of the Parliament and left the chamber in protest.

The Speaker of the Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, clarified that the President’s demand was legally unjustified and granting his request would have breached the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure. Despite this position, the Speaker still decided (at that time the President was no longer in attendance at the session) to propose to the MPs that they deviate from the Rules of Procedure and have a vote on whether or not to grant the President’s request. However, there were not enough MPs willing to accede to the President’s demand. Therefore, the parliamentary session continued in the format previously envisioned by the Rules of Procedure and without the President’s participation.

Of interest is to what extent would making an exception to allow the President’s participation in the debates have violated the Rules of Procedure and how principled were the MPs in fully observing these rules.

Chapter 35 of the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure, which regulates the relations between the President of Georgia and the Parliament of Georgia, include only one article (article 200). The article allows having two different formats of the parliamentary session once the Presidential address is over. One of them envisions addresses of the parliamentary factions and another envisions the debate format. However, neither the aforementioned article nor the general norm of regulating the political debates (article 136) provide a detailed procedure as to how the political debates should be conducted during the presidential address. Specifically, the Rules of Procedure do not determine the form in which it is possible to have the President’s clarifications on issues raised during the political debates.

As stated by the Speaker of the Parliament, to offset the constraint imposed upon the President (to limit his participation in debates) is to grant him the right to deliver concluding remarks. However, of note is that the Rules of Procedure do not envision the delivery of concluding remarks from the President. Therefore, it is evident that giving the President right to deliver concluding remarks does not stem from the literal reading of the Rules of Procedure but, instead, is a practice introduced to make the process more efficient.

If there had been the political will, it would have been easy to avoid the political embarrassment. However, neither the President, who voiced his dissatisfaction in regard to the format only during the parliamentary session (the President did not object to the format approved by the Bureau) nor the Speaker of the Parliament tried to do so. Irakli Kobakhidze openly admitted that, in fact, deviation from the Rules of Procedure would have been the optimal outcome. However, he did not even consider that option until the process had become unpleasant. The Speaker of the Parliament did indeed propose to the MPs to have a vote to change the format. However, the formulation of the question made it visible that the proposal was of a formal nature and in fact it was not aimed to achieve a compromise solution. Specifically, the MPs were supposed to answer the following question: “Do you agree that during the annual address of the President of Georgia in regard to the most important issues of the state of the nation that the President be allowed to regularly take part in the debates?” In the case of the President’s regular involvement in the debates, the process would most likely have become chaotic and neither the Speaker nor the majority of the attending MPs were in favour of this. Of note is that in order to make the process more constructive, multiple suggestions were voiced, including one to divide the time allocated for final remarks into several portions. This would have allowed the President to periodically become involved in the debates

Of particular interest in the whole process is the unprecedented mobilization of MPs in defence of the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure whereas for many years there has been an absenteeism of persons accountable to the Parliament of Georgia during hearings (that is, members of the Government of Georgia) which constitutes not only a severe violation of the Rules of Procedure but an absolute disregard toward them (see FactCheck’s article on this topic).