Proposed Election Reforms Define Fault Lines in Georgian Political Landscape

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 75

Davit Bakradze, Chairman of Georgia’s Parliament.

Georgia is in the throes of difficult consultations among key election stakeholders over much touted reform in the electoral code. The electoral reform talks between the government’s representatives, Davit Bakradze, Chairman of Georgia’s Parliament, and a coalition of eight non-government oppositional parties was launched on November 10, 2010 after the sides reached an agreement to bring about changes in the electoral system.

However, talks seemingly collapsed on March 25 when Davit Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party and a member of the group of eight opposition parties (National Forum, Conservative Party, Republican Party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, Georgia’s Way, New Rights, Christian-Democratic Movement and the Party of People), said that the National Movement, which is the ruling party led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, cast off “rational and well-founded” proposals from the group. On the same day, Pavle Kublashvili, a National Movement’s senior lawmaker, accused the opposition of using the “language of ultimatums,” which is “unacceptable” to the governing party (Civil Georgia, March 25).

What brought the negotiations to a halt is a major divergence over amendments to the current system for electing deputies to the Georgian Parliament. Georgia’s voting system splits the number of seats at the Parliament into 75 allocated to party list (also known as the bloc vote) on the basis of proportional representation and another 75 seats assigned to winners of single-mandate electoral districts in first-past-the-post races. The electoral threshold required for the party lists to enter the Georgian Parliament is set at 5 percent and candidates in single-mandate districts need to clear a 30 percent threshold (the current electoral code provides that runoffs must take place if no candidate receives 30 percent plus one of cast votes (Civil Georgia, March 25; April 5).

On April 5, “Opposition 8” unveiled its latest proposals to revamp the electoral system and to “give room to continuation of talks,” according to Irakli Alasania, leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats (part of the coalition). Overall the package of reforms offers the authorities to substitute the current system for something that resembles the German model, which the ruling party initially suggested during the early stages of the negotiations. The proposal proffers that that two-third of Members of Parliament (MPs) will be elected according to a regional-proportional system based on party lists, while one-third of MPs will be elected through the majoritarian system. Effectively, this means that the number of seats in the regions will hinge on how many votes a political party is able to gain at district level. The electoral threshold is to be set at 50 percent and in the event that no candidate can garner 50 percent plus one, the two candidates who received the most votes will stand a runoff election. The proposals mean that the number of majoritarian districts will be downsized, from 75 to 50 (Civil Georgia, March 25; April 5).

The “Opposition 8” contends that the system that is now place does not provide for adequate representation of the vast majority of the Georgian voters. It is expected that a 50 percent electoral threshold would incline an MP to be more accountable to a greater majority of the voting public. Indeed, “Opposition 8” wants to assure that if 50 percent of the total number of voters supports a party, then the number of seats in Parliament for that party must not exceed 50 percent of the total number of seats.

The National Movement clinched 48 of the 75 parliamentary seats in the regional-proportional system in the May 2008 parliamentary election. But more important, its candidates were winners of 71 of the 75 seats among single-mandate districts. Accordingly, the current opposition forces consider that their best chance to send representatives to the parliament and obtain a broader base of support of voters is through a proportional electoral system. The ruling party’s response is that the first-past-the-post system reflects the most democratic election format. A regional-proportional electoral system would lead to under-representation for many regions of the country.

The “Opposition 8” offered fresh proposals to put the talks back on track, Petre Tsiskarishvili, the parliamentary leader of the ruling majority  National Party, accused the opposition camp  of proposing complicated electoral code reform for its own narrowly defined interests. “The opposition ignores the interests of the people; it plays the game of representing. These parties can barely attract 20-30 people in their party offices in Tbilisi and then turn around and try to obtain seats in the parliament by means of negotiations. This is completely contrary to the main principles of free elections; the parliament must represent the will of the people, not the interests of a dozen people who meet in party offices and decided between themselves the number of seats one party should receive.” For the opposition, Tsiskarishvili’s reaction to its proposals demonstrates that the National Movement is running out of arguments and wants to put an end to the negotiations by discrediting the eight party opposition’s recommendations (Kviris Palitra, April 4, 2011).

The opposing parties could be accused of inconsistency from one election to the other. In the May 2008 parliamentary election the governing majority kept the winning margin in single-mandate districts at 30 percent at the opposition’s behest, the latter having entertained the hope that with such a low percentage of votes cast, it could win some districts with greater ease (EDM, June 19, 2008). Now, however, the eight party opposition demands an increase of the threshold to 50 percent, hoping this time that this will act as a serious barrier for the ruling party to overcome in getting its candidates elected.

Some parties have been unwilling to participate in the talks to reform the electoral code. The so-called non-parliamentary opposition, now led by the newly-formed Georgian Party, claims that it represents the “real opposition.” For many years it has been saying that only street actions will bring about true democracy or at least pressure the ruling party to make some real concessions. A long deadlock in negotiations between the ruling party and the “Opposition 8” would play into the radical opposition’s hands and could trigger the rebellion that it constantly foresees.