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Analysis | What kind of electoral system do Georgians actually want?

9 March 2020
Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

After the Georgian Government reached an agreement with the opposition over the country’s electoral system for the upcoming parliamentary elections, CRRC Georgia examines what kind of system Georgians actually want.

On 8 March, Georgia’s political leaders agreed on a new electoral system under which 120 seats will be allocated via proportional elections and 30 seats will be allocated via direct election of candidates. 

The long-fought-over electoral reform was a compromise which represents two steps forward after three steps had been taken back.

The debate over Georgia’s electoral system fueled last year’s political crisis. As the parliament ditched a promised constitutional amendment instituting fully proportional elections for the legislature instead of the current mixed system, opposition parties and civil society groups hit the streets of Tbilisi to protest. 

[Read more: Georgian opposition vows to blockade parliament following weekend of protests]

EU-mediated talks between the government and opposition also stalled after the arrest of prominent opposition leader Gigi Ugulava, and disagreement over the interim model of elections.

While both the ruling Georgian Dream Party and the opposition argued that their own initiatives were publicly popular, a recent CRRC Georgia survey shows that the public is more ambivalent than might be expected and sometimes inchoate in their views. 

While the majority of those aware that Georgian Dream buried the constitutional amendments assess this negatively, Georgians are split when it comes to potential models for the electoral system.

CRRC Georgia’s omnibus survey, which was fielded in mid-January, showed that over three-quarters of Georgians (76%) were well aware that the ruling party did not pass constitutional amendments. 

Most (60%) who had heard of the failure to pass the amendments disapproved of the decision. About a fifth (23%) of Georgians approved of parliament’s decision not to vote in favour of the amendments, while others did not know what to say.

Attitudes vary by partisanship. Almost half of the Georgian Dream supporters (44%) that were aware of the failure to pass the legislation view the failure negatively.

In contrast, those who support opposition parties overwhelmingly disapprove of Georgian Dream’s failure to pass the amendment.

Note: Party identification was coded as follows: supporters of the UNM, European Georgia, Lelo, Civic Movement, Girchi, and For New Georgia were categorised as ‘Liberals’. Supporters of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, the Democratic Movement, and Labour Party were grouped in ‘other’.

While it is now clear what electoral system the 2020 parliamentary elections will be conducted under, what did the public want? Suggested proposals for electing MPs to parliament were confusing and potentially hard to grasp for the general public. 

The initial proposal suggested and then ditched by Georgian Dream was to have a fully proportional system without any electoral threshold. 

Later, the governing party proposed retaining the current mixed electoral system while the opposition supported a ‘German model’, which leaves the mixed model of representation but allocates additional seats to reflect the popular vote.

To avoid such confusion, respondents were separately asked whether they supported specific components of these systems. First, respondents choose between whether they preferred voting for only majoritarian candidates, only for parties, or for both. 

Next, those who supported either voting for parties alone or a mixed system were asked whether they approved of having a threshold. Finally, respondents who preferred a mixed electoral system were asked whether they preferred allocation of seats proportional to the popular vote.

Overall, the survey suggests that a plurality (47%) of Georgians support a mixed model of elections to parliament where citizens vote for both parties and individual candidates. 

Only 14% support party-list voting only, and 15% think that Georgians should only vote for specific candidates. 

About a quarter of Georgians have ambivalent feelings: 14% say that it does not matter to which model Georgia sticks to, while 11% say that they don’t know. 

Attitudes are similar across party lines with the exception of liberal opposition parties. Among their supporters, 38% think that Georgians should vote for candidates only, while 29% prefer to vote for parties.

In the initial draft of amendments, Georgian Dream proposed getting rid of the electoral threshold in order to ensure representation of relatively minor political groups. According to the survey, those who prefer a proportional (14%) or mixed model (47%) of electing MPs, overwhelmingly (85%) support retaining one.

Supporters of a mixed model of electing MPs tend to support a proportional distribution of seats. Around half of the supporters of a mixed model (51%) support a party-list vote or a mixed system where seats are assigned proportionally to the popular vote.

Around 27% support either a majoritarian system or the current, mixed system. 

Thirty-six per cent of Georgians are ambivalent — they either do not have a preferred way of electing MPs, do not know, or refuse to answer on these questions.

Note: Support for different models of allocating mandates is the combination of two different questions. Respondents who support fully proportional representation and those who are for a mixed system and proportional allocation of mandates within mixed representation are grouped into the proportional allocation group. Those supporting full majoritarian representation fall into a separate category. Respondents who prefer a mixed system and do not favour distribution of mandates per the vote share are grouped together. Those who do not have any preference in terms of seat allocation (‘Don’t know’, ‘Refuse to answer’, and ‘Does not matter’) are put into the ambivalent category.

Importantly, much of the public is inchoate in their attitudes towards the electoral systems. Overall, those who found it unacceptable to ditch the amendments are more likely to support a system which ensures proportional allocation of seats than those who were fine with the failure to pass the electoral reform (46% versus 37%). 

Yet, 27% of the public who thought that it was unacceptable to ditch the constitutional amendments also report that they do not support the proportional allocation of seats. 

The key challenge for Georgia’s electoral system is whether it can represent political parties proportional to their popular support. Neither the current mixed system nor a majoritarian system necessarily yields proportional allocation of seats.  

Indeed, in the past, proportional representation has almost never happened, with the exception of the highly contested and polarised 2012 parliamentary elections. 

Importantly, there is a relative consensus among Georgians that have partisan sympathies. A plurality of Georgian Dream supporters (42%), and the majority of those sympathising with both the liberal (53%) and conservative (56%) opposition parties prefer models ensuring proportional representation. 

Those who are not affiliated with any political party, declined to disclose their preferences, or do not know are more likely to be ambivalent.

In short, the preference for a mixed model of parliamentary elections prevails among Georgians. This suggests that voters in Georgia may want to see at least some politicians with connections to their communities in parliament. 

Still, a plurality of partisan voters prefer an electoral system yielding proportional representation, both in the governmental and opposition camps. 

The findings of CRRC Georgia’s omnibus survey substantiates the argument that there is a considerable consensus across party lines for having a variant of a mixed system where the final tally of seats is assigned relative to the popular vote. 

Electoral rules often reflect compromises made by political groups. The current opinion of Georgians also hints that Georgians would prefer a balance be struck between more radical proposals.

The dataset, the questionnaire, and the replication code used in the above article can be found here. To find out more about CRRC Georgia’s omnibus surveys, click here.

This article was written by David Sichinava, Research Director at CRRC Georgia. The views presented in the article do not necessarily represent the views of CRRC Georgia or any related entity.

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