Georgian opposition parties and the ruling United National Movement (EEM) reached partial agreement last week on the format for long-anticipated talks
on election reform. Those talks, in which 15 political parties have agreed to participate, are scheduled to begin on November 17, and will take place weekly.
But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has already vetoed
one of the most important draft proposals the opposition parties unveiled last month as a basis for discussion, saying he "will never agree" to it.
The reform proposals
were jointly drafted by eight Georgian opposition parties: the National Forum, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, Georgia's Way, the New Rightists, the Christian Democratic Movement, and the People's Party. The proposals focus on how parliament is elected and four related issues: how election commissions are selected, voter lists, election-day procedures, and how election-related complaints are assessed.
The most significant of the five sets of proposals focuses on how the parliament is elected. It represents an attempt to reverse changes pushed through parliament in early 2008 in violation of an oral agreement between the authorities and some of the same opposition parties that formulated the new reform proposals.
The constitutional changes enacted in 2008 reduced the number of parliament deputies from 235 to 150, 75 of them elected according to the party-list system and the other 75 in single-mandate constituencies. On that occasion the parliament nixed at the last minute the opposition proposal, to which it had earlier acceded
, that the majoritarian lawmakers would be elected from 19 electoral districts.
It is that proportional-majoritarian system, in which the number of seats a party gains in any one of the mega-constituencies will be proportionate to the percentage of votes it receives, that the eight opposition parties now again seek to introduce in the hope of undercutting the huge majority (71 of 75 majoritarian seats) currently held by the EEM.
Saakashvili, however, has already said he will not permit the opposition to deprive individual villages and rural districts of their representation in parliament.
Visiting the village of Shamgona near the border between Georgia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia on November 11, Saakashvili said the opposition "has no idea" what problems the rural population faces. "Everything is negotiable except leaving the residents of Shamgona without parliamentary representation," civil.ge quoted him as saying.
The opposition parties further advocate cutting the number of Central Election Commission members from 13 to seven, one from each party currently represented on the commission. The seven commission members will propose three alternative candidates for commission chairman, who will be selected by the country's president.
In order to reduce to a minimum the leeway for multiple voting (a perennial complaint), the opposition proposes the introduction of biometric technologies, including a database of voters' fingerprints. Further proposed innovations intended to minimize fraud are the installation of closed-circuit TV at all polling stations and electronic scanning of ballot papers during the vote tabulation.
The final proposal entails establishing a five-person panel to rule on election complaints. That panel would comprise one judge from the Appeals Court and four lay judges selected by those political parties that polled at least 4 percent of the vote in the May 2008 parliamentary elections and 3 percent in the local elections two years later.
The opposition reform proposals were enumerated in a statement released on October 4. The authorities waited more than three weeks before implicitly rejecting them as a basis for negotiation.
Parliament Chairman David Bakradze told journalists
on October 28 that "I am ready to meet with all those political parties that are ready to come to parliament without any preconditions and ultimatums, but with a willingness to compromise.... [The process of] improving the electoral environment should be based on mutual trust, negotiations, and agreement between the parties, and I do not think that ultimatums or preprepared documents will contribute to that process." Parliament deputy Giorgi Gabashvili (EEM) similarly commented that "cooperation doesn't mean coming with already prepared recipes."
Irakli Alasania, leader of the opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats, denied that the opposition proposals constituted "preconditions" and reaffirmed the readiness of the opposition parties to begin talks, Caucasus Press reported on November 1.
And on November 15, parliament deputy speaker Levan Vepkhvadze of the opposition Christian Democrats faction urged EEM lawmakers to refrain from statements that could hamper the planned dialogue. Vepkhvadze implicitly criticized
Saakashvili's a priori veto of any change to the way in which the 75 majoritarian deputies are elected as constituting the kind of precondition that Bakradze had earlier termed unacceptable.
Pavle Kublashvili of the EEM denied
, however, that Saakashvili's November 11 statement was either an ultimatum or a precondition.
Republican Party leader David Berdzenishvili for his part suggested that the authorities "are not happy" at the prospect of the talks and would do their best to thwart them. He said the opposition should avoid creating a pretext for the EEM to opt out of the talks.
It seems likely nonetheless that the authorities will agree only to proposals that do not pose a danger to the EEM's continued domination of the legislature. If so, the imminent negotiation process, while contributing to the illusion of democratic give-and-take, will ultimately contribute as little to promoting democratic freedoms as did the year-long deliberations on amending the Georgian Constitution.