On November 17, thousands of opposition party activists gathered in front of the Georgian parliament building, on Rustaveli Avenue, where the “Rose Revolution” took place in 2003. The main demands of last Sunday’s “National Opposition Rally” included the resignation of the government of Giorgi Gakharia, the formation of a “temporary cabinet,” and the holding of extraordinary parliamentary elections at the beginning of next year according to the German electoral model. The Georgian opposition argues this model is fairer than the current mixed majority-proportional system, which strongly favors the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (Civil.ge, November 17).
Almost all Georgian political parties—with the natural exception of the GD—took part in the protest on Rustaveli Avenue. Opposition leaders called the rally “a gathering of angry citizens.” And demonstrators blocked the parliament building (Civil.ge, November 17).
The current political escalation kicked off on November 14, when the parliamentary majority voted against a constitutional amendment to transition the country to a fully proportional electoral system (Civil.ge, November 14). Ivanishvili and other GD leaders had promised the opposition back in June that the government would abandon the existing mixed majority-proportional system and hold next year’s parliamentary elections using ballots with only party lists. That concession was supposed to mollify the opposition following fierce clashes between protesters and police on Rustaveli Avenue. The crowds of demonstrators were furious at the government’s invitation to Georgia of several Russian State Duma deputies and the latter’s arrogant behavior while in Tbilisi. When law enforcement cracked down on the demonstrations, hundreds were injured, and two civil activists, including a young girl, lost an eye from rubber bullets (see EDM June 24)
Following weeks of protests, the ruling party was able to stabilize the situation only after Ivanishvili spoke on all national television channels and offered to hold the 2020 elections according to the proportional model—abandoning majoritarian single-mandate constituencies.
During the November 14 vote, only 101 members of parliament (MP) voted in support of the constitutional reform; the measure would have needed 113 votes to pass (Parliament.ge, November 14). All opposition factions in the legislature voted in favor of the reform, but many GD deputies opposed it. Their leader, Mtskheta district MP Dmitry Khundadze, said that if the country moves to a fully proportional electoral system, it will be impossible to build lasting majorities in the parliament, leading to frequent changes of governments, chaos and destabilization (Kvira.ge, November 15). But as local political analyst David Avalishvili told this author, in fact, deputies elected in the districts are more concerned that they will lose their privileges and will not be able to win seats in the parliament after 2020 (Author’s interview, November 16).
Ivanishvili asserted that the constitutional amendment failed because many GD MPs went against the will of the party chairperson and he “could not convince them of the advisability of such a reform” (Newsgeorgia.ge, November 14). But a significant portion of Georgian society does not believe these deputies would dare go against the party leader and billionaire, who is considered the informal head of government.
Immediately after the amendment was rejected in the legislature, several pro-Western deputies from the GD, including deputy speaker Tamara Chugoshvili, announced their withdrawal from the ruling party. As a result, Georgian Dream lost its parliamentary supermajority (Civil.ge, November 15).
The opposition calls the incident “an insult to and humiliation of the whole of society.” One of the leaders of the European Georgia (EG) faction in parliament, Sergo Ratiani, said in a November 14 interview with the author that the “consolidated opposition” will fight via “peaceful and constitutional methods” to force Ivanishvili to carry out democratic reforms and stop his “usurpation of power.”
“Bidzina Ivanishvili and his team so far have refused all our compromise proposals. We are not tired and are always ready to voice constructive initiatives, despite the fact that the reputation of Ivanishvili and his party has been completely undermined after the events of November 14,” Ratiani emphasized (Author’s interview, November 14). He later declared that the EG had formally introduced a bill to the parliament to hold general elections in 2020 using the so-called German electoral system, which would arguably allow for the formation of a more “balanced” and pluralistic parliament, not dominated by one particular political party (Author’s interview, November 16).
The constitutionalist Vakhtang Khmaladze contends that a majority of 76 votes is enough for the adoption of the German electoral system. But a member of the GD political council, former speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, has already rejected this proposal, advising the opposition to prepare for the 2020 elections according to the current, mixed system (Author’s interview, November 17).
The outcome of the confrontation around the electoral system largely depends on the position of Georgia’s Western partners, which have been expressing deep concern. The United States’ embassy in Tbilisi urged “all Georgian stakeholders, including the government, all political parties, and civil society, to work cooperatively in a calm and respectful manner to move forward in line with our shared commitment to strengthening Georgia’s democracy.” Moreover, the US embassy underlined the “critical importance” to include in any proposed reforms the “recommendations of international and local observer organizations,” which address the “shortcomings noted in the 2017 and 2018 elections” (Ge.usembassy.gov, November 14).
Meanwhile, US Representative Adam Kinzinger, who had initiated the Georgia Support Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives, stated that he was “shocked to hear about the collapse of promised reforms in the Georgia Parliament” (Kinzinger.house.gov, November 14).
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) co-rapporteurs for the monitoring of Georgia, Titus Corlățean and Claude Kern, express their “deep regret at the failure of the Georgian Parliament to pass the Constitutional amendments” (Civil.ge, November 14).
A mixed proportional-majority election system has operated in Georgia since 1990, when the first multi-party elections were held in the country. According to this model, half of the deputies in the 150-seat parliament are elected via party lists and the other half in single-member majority districts. Thanks to this electoral system, one party (usually the ruling faction) always managed to secure a constitutional majority in the legislature after every parliamentary elections over the last 29 years.
In contrast, proponents of the German electoral system—which prioritizes matching election outcomes more closely with the actual proportion of votes cast—may help Georgia strengthen and consolidate its democracy in accordance with its obligations to under the Association Agreement with the European Union as well as the US-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership. This could prove particularly valuable considering the political, economic and military pressure Moscow is putting on Georgia ahead of the elections (see EDM, October 10).