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Suspicions grow of a Georgian Dream U-turn on proportional elections

31 July 2019
A woman counting ballots during the 2018 presidential election. (Photo: Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The ruling Georgian Dream party responded to last month’s street upheavals with several compromises, including an offer to change the country’s electoral code. While most groups welcomed it, no concrete steps have yet been taken.

‘There is a suspicion that [the Chair of Georgian Dream, Bidzina] Ivanishvili will drag his feet in implementing a proportional electoral system’, Aleko Elisashvili, leader of Georgia’s Civic Movement, an opposition civil society organisation told TV Pirveli on 30 July.

Despite promising to implement comprehensive reforms that would transition the country to a fully proportional electoral system in time for the 2020 elections one month ago, the ruling Georgian Dream party has made no indication that they have begun to work on the issue. 

‘The parliamentary process to introduce the constitutional amendments has not been initiated to date and this worries me a lot’, Levan Tsutskiridze, the head of the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy (EECMD), a regional NGO, told OC Media. ‘The constitution […] mandates public discussions of the changes to be introduced, so time is of the essence’.

A recent poll by Transparency International suggested that 45% of Georgians desire a fully-proportional electoral system for the elections in 2020, with only 22% against. Many are also unhappy with the political choices they are presented with. In a separate poll carried out by the International Republican Institute, 36% of respondents stated that there was not a single political party which represented them.

Since 2012, Georgian politics has been dominated by Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, with UNM offshoot European Georgia also making an impact.

But recently, this duopoly has started to show cracks. In 2017 Alexander Elisashvili, a long-standing anti-establishment politician critical of the two parties, came in second place in the Tbilisi mayoral elections — the Mayor’s Office has been controlled by allies of either Georgian Dream or the UNM since 2004.

In the latest IRI poll, 28% did not identify a favourite party while another 55% did not name even their second choice. Additionally, 36% found it hard to claim that at least one political party represented them.

Reformers despite themselves?

A transition to a fully-proportional electoral system has long been advocated for by the majority of opposition parties and major civil society organisations in the country. In 2017, Georgian Dream finally addressed the issue, but not without serious resistance from within its own ranks. 

That year, Georgian Dream proposed that the country should indeed transition to a new electoral system, but only in 2024.

A group of 12 opposition parties submitted 240,000 signatures proposing to axe the mixed-majoritarian system as early as in November 2015. (Photo: Liberali)

Several Georgian Dream MPs elected in majoritarian districts have been vocal in opposing any change to the electoral system and Georgian Dream insisted up until this June that keeping the mixed electoral system until 2024 was the only working compromise they could agree to within the party. 

Speaking to OC Media, the EECMD’s Levan Tsutskiridze warned it was still possible that the ruling party would backtrack on its promise and ‘blame something or someone for the failure to push forward the changes’. 

‘There might be some “rogue” majoritarian MPs that vote against the change “on their own initiative” or something else might come up’,  Tsutskiridze said. ‘Unfortunately, there are still several bleak options open to not do what was promised’.

A spokesperson for Georgian Dream denied to OC Media that the party had had any change of heart on the issue.

Pressured by protest

Ivanishvili’s proposal to implement a fully proportional electoral system for the 2020 elections came three days after the violent dispersal of anti-government protestors in Tbilisi on 20 June. 

The clashes, which followed a controversial address by Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov from the seat of the speaker of the Georgian Parliament, resulted in 240 people being injured — with some protestors sustaining serious injuries including permanent loss of vision. 

During a 24 June press conference, Bidzina Ivanishvili promised a fully-proportional electoral system citing his party's need to be responsive to the popular mood.

The resignation of Speaker of the Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze on 21 June and a transition to a proportional electoral system were among several demands initially voiced by the protestors, as well as by the opposition UNM and European Georgia parties.

In the days following the 20 June clashes, protestors also called for the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who they hold largely responsible for the violence. Protest leaders have said that his resignation is their ‘third and final demand’ — which if met, would see them ‘go home’.

The post–20 June protests identified Gakharia as being responsible for excessive police force that inflicted life-altering trauma to several, including two protesters that have lost vision in one of their eyes (Mari Nikuradze / OC Media)

[Read on OC Media: 5 violations by police during the Tbilisi clash]

A ‘more representative’ system?

There is a strong consensus among smaller political parties and civic groups in Georgia that the country needs to move beyond the rivalry between Georgian Dream and the UNM, and many agree that the latest proposals from the ruling party might provide an opportunity.

In Georgia’s current single-chamber parliament of 150 members, 77 MPs are elected with a proportional system from party lists while the remaining 73 are elected as party members or independent candidates through single-member (‘majoritarian’) electoral constituencies.

71% of those polled by NDI last December failed to name a majoritarian MP that represented his or her constituency.

In the majoritarian voting system, a candidate wins their seat when they obtain more than 50% of votes, either in an initial vote or a run-off. Hence, a potentially large number of voters casting their ballots for those losing even marginally (e.g. with 49%) receive no representation. 

Critics insist this causes a discrepancy between the political mandate in the legislature and the proportion of actual votes cast. 

Georgian Dream, which garnered less than half of votes (48%) in the 2016 parliamentary elections, received 75% of seats in parliament and enjoyed a constitutional majority.

Ten parties would have been represented in parliament, as opposed to the four that did win seats, had the 2016 election been held with a fully proportional system.

The alternative fully-proportional electoral system would abolish single-member mandates and rely solely on proportional voting to allocate seats. 

Why a zero threshold?

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now the Honorary Chair of the UNM and is currently wanted by Georgia for ‘exceeding official powers’, warned from exile soon after Ivanishvili’s proposal that anyone who would accept it is either a ‘fool’ or ‘bought’. 

He said the only real alternative is snap parliamentary elections under a fully proportional system. 

There are indeed aspects of the new electoral reform that have left critics unsure of Georgian Dream’s ultimate goal. The two most controversial are a ban on pre-election blocs and no minimum threshold for the percentage of votes needed for a party to enter parliament. 

Lowering or cancelling the threshold was not among the demands of the protest movement that started on 20 June.

This would, for instance, jeopardise the Power is in Unity opposition platform (a coalition between the UNM and nine smaller opposition parties) which would, under the new reforms, be forced to run separately.

According to Levan Tsutskiridze, the biggest parties have the most to lose from the initiative — ‘hence the immediate reaction from Saakashvili, who sees the danger’ — while smaller parties like the Free Democrats (formerly headed by former Defence Minister Irakli Alasania) will benefit the most.

The European Georgia Party, which split from the UNM in early 2017 and is currently the largest parliamentary opposition group, have insisted on pressuring Georgian Dream to fulfil the promise they made on 24 June.

The Alliance of Patriots, a right-wing opposition party that garnered six seats in 2016 elections, and the libertarian Girchi Party, which has no seats in parliament but whose presidential contender came in sixth with 2% of the vote, also endorsed the initiative.

‘Girchi agrees to moving to a fully-proportional system and supports a zero threshold — not as a one time measure for 2020. If it makes sense for the next elections, it’s not clear why they should not be in place afterwards’, Girchi member Levan Jgerenaia told OC Media

Civil society organisations including the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), warned that the absence of any threshold would bring risks of political fragmentation and could also encourage inter-party deals behind closed doors.

The 1992 convocation of the Georgian parliament, which was elected under a mixed system with a 2% threshold, resulted in 24 parties in the legislative body, which some on Georgian social media have remembered as a chaotic period. 

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