Even before the putative date (May 30) of next year's Georgian municipal elections has been confirmed, opposition parties are expressing concern that amendments to the election law proposed by the authorities will give President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) an unfair advantage over its opposition rivals.
An inter-party working group for electoral reform was established in March, but most opposition parties boycotted its sessions until two months ago. It currently comprises representatives from the ENM, the Christian Democratic Movement, the extra-parliamentary opposition Union of Traditionalists; Our Georgia-Free Democrats; the Conservative and the three extra-parliamentary opposition parties that belong to former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania's Alliance for Georgia (Republicans, New Rightists, and Our Georgia - Free Democrats).
At the most recent session of the working group, on October 20, it became clear that the ENM has modified its position with regard to the direct election of the mayors of the country's five largest cities (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Poti, and Rustavi).
As of mid-September, some leading ENM parliamentarians argued against any direct mayoral elections
. But at the October 20 session, ENM parliamentarian Pavle Kublashvili said the party now opposes direct elections in Kutaisi, Batumi, Poti, and Rustavi, but favors holding them in Tbilisi, albeit on the winner-take-all principle, meaning that the candidate who polls the most votes is declared the winner, however low that figure happens to be.
David Berdzenishvili of the Republican party pointed out
that failing to set a minimum required percentage of the vote would give the authorities' candidate a first-round victory even if 70-75 percent of Tbilisi voters voted for other candidates.
The opposition is demanding direct elections in all five major cities, with the proviso that a mayoral candidate should garner 50 percent plus one vote in the first round to win outright.
The opposition representatives at the October 20 working group session also unveiled several more proposed amendments to the election law. They entail forming election commissions on a parity basis (six members to be nominated by the GEM and six by opposition parties; in 50 percent of local election commissions the chairman would be nominated by the ruling party and the secretary by the opposition, and vice versa in the remaining 50 percent); making video footage of the vote publicly available; and stringent checking of voter lists, which the opposition is convinced still contain the names of between 700,000-800,000 voters (of a total of 3.5 million) who are either deceased or currently living outside Georgia.
According to Berdzenishvili, the ENM rejected all those proposals
. Kublashvili was nonetheless quoted as saying after the session that "I hope there will be some degree of consensus within the group over these issues."
The two sides also remain at odds over how the Tbilisi municipal council should be elected. Berdzenishvili said after the October 20 session that the ruling party wants 30 members of that council to be elected in single mandate constituencies and the remaining 17 on the basis of party lists.
The opposition for its part wants Tbilisi divided into four-mandate districts, in which each party participating in the ballot would nominate four candidates, and voters would choose among individual candidates from different parties.
The opposition might, however, compromise and agree to single-mandate constituencies, provided that 50 percent of the council members are elected in single mandate constituencies and 50 percent on the basis of party lists. Under that model, Berdzenishvili explained, voters would be given two ballot papers, one to vote for a specific candidate and the second for a specific political party.
On October 29, the existing Tbilisi municipal council, which is dominated by the ENM, made public separate proposals
for re-dividing the city's six districts into 30 smaller sub-districts.
Even though it is not yet clear whether electoral districts will be reconfigured in accordance with that sub-division, the opposition Labor party immediately criticized that proposal as intended to facilitate falsification of the vote, and it called on all other opposition parties to declare a boycott of the municipal election.