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Why do we need a directly elected president?

In political life of Georgia, election of the president is a hotly debated issue along with the work of the Constitutional Commission. While the existing regulations provide for election of the head of state through universal, equal and direct suffrage, the possibility of indirect election is now being discussed. 

According to paragraph 1 of Article 69 of the Georgian Constitution, the President is the head of the state of Georgia and a guarantor of integrity and national independence of the country. 

The role of the head of state as a guarantor of the integrity of the country, as an arbiter of constitutional bodies, as a constitutional-legal institution that has the ability to resolve a political crisis, is better realized in the case of direct elections. 

Indirect elections reduce the degree of legitimization of the head of state, since the president is elected not by the majority of voters, but by a party that won the parliamentary elections with the support of only part of the constituents. This will reduce the political weight and significance of the country's leader as a symbol of Georgia's unity.

Elections are the most important form of direct democracy, allowing voters to participate in political processes in a direct manner, express their free will and influence the decision-making process. In the parliamentary model of governance in Georgia, in the system of supreme state bodies the president is the only official person directly legitimized by the people and elected on the basis of direct, universal suffrage. Therefore, the deprivation of people who are the source of power, their right to directly elect the president, will be a step backward in the way of strengthening democracy. This will reduce citizens’ perception of their power and will lead to their frustration and alienation from political processes. 

From constitutional and legal point of view, the president is a stand-alone figure that doesn’t belong to any of the branches of the government, with the role of an arbiter, which is especially important for any possible confrontation between the government and the parliament. In order for the leader of the nation to be able to fulfill his/her function of an arbiter during a political crisis or a confrontation between parties, it must be the public support not the parliament that provides his/her legitimacy. 

Only the directly elected president will be able to have independent position and dare to defend different position before the parliament (confront the parliament). 

President’s independence is especially important for exercising important powers like vetoing legislative acts, judicial appointments, dissolving the parliament, selecting candidacies for offices envisaged by the Constitution. 

Indirect election of the president is arguably less justified considering Georgia’s unicameral parliament. Allowing decisions to be made by a unicameral parliament formed through a mixed or proportional voting system would mean allowing dominance of decisions of the majority party, while in a bicameral system such risk is mediated by an independent chamber of regional representatives. Different terms of service for members of different chambers and periodic renewal of composition of each legislative chamber provides additional guarantee for more representativeness and the reflection of a wide range of different positions among electors of the president.  

On the other hand, parliamentary system of governance and a unicameral legislature pose the risk of concentrating the supreme power in hands of a single party. This happens when different branches of the political power (legislative and executive) are fully controlled by the majority party that has won the parliamentary elections. This will also allow the majority party to exercise indirect control over the judiciary as well, considering that the legislative authority participates in the process of judicial appointments together with the president: selection of members of the constitutional and the supreme courts, selection of some members of the High Council of Justice, which in turn ensures selection of judges for common court. 

Under such circumstances, political and constitutional role of the president becomes especially important. Having the president chosen by the Parliament would mean that there would no longer be a body at the highest level of the government that will be free from the majority party’s influence. 

Indirect elections may lead to having a president who is controlled by a majority party and is biased in favor of the majority that chose him/her. Since the president can serve two terms, it is most likely that he or she will choose not to confront the parliamentary majority, even with a valid reason, since they hold the mechanism for the re-election. On the other hand, since the president holds the power to dissolve the parliament, the parliament will make sure to choose the candidate who is acceptable be loyal as much as possible to the parliamentary majority.

Proponents of the president’s indirect elections argue that directly elected president usually has more demands and the desire to gain superiority in the system of state bodies, which may pose a risk of authoritarianism, concentration of power in hands of a single ruler. Such argument has no merit for countries with parliamentary systems, since narrowly regulated powers of president make the threat arguably unreal. 

Interestingly, majority of European states with parliamentary systems practice direct presidential elections. Direct and universal suffrage guarantees that the elected official – the leader of the nation – will be the president of the whole country, not just a representative of a concrete group. 

Naturally, none of these rules are a panacea and the Constitution of a concrete country should take into account the local context and experience, and should be responsive to local challenges and needs. Therefore, in light of the existing situation in the country, weak democratic institutions, lack of political trust towards these institutions and the powers that the ruling party enjoys, weakening direct democracy is less than desirable.

Maintaining direct elections for the leader of the nation in a fledgling democracy like Georgia will prevent turning the president with already limited powers into a hostage of the ruling party’s authority. This way, the president’s power as the head of the state will derive from a mandate from the majority of constituents and s/he will be acting as the president of the state, not of a concrete political force/party.