Addressing the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., on March 17, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia wants to be "not only the No. 1 reformer or the No. 1 corruption fighter," but also the country which has "the cleanest elections."
He went on to describe as "good" the consultations that began last fall with eight opposition parties on amending the existing election law. But those consultations are now at a standstill
following the unveiling by Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement (EEM) of draft amendments that fail to take into account most opposition proposals.
The consultations began last November
inauspiciously, with the EEM rejecting a priori proposed amendments tabled by the eight opposition parties -- the National Form, 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.
Parliament speaker Davit Bakradze's stated rationale
for that rejection was that "[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 pre-prepared documents will contribute to that process."
The most significant of the opposition's proposals focused on how the parliament is elected. They represent 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 parliamentarians 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 parliamentarians 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 hoped to introduce in the hope of undercutting the huge majority (71 of 75 majoritarian seats) currently held by the EEM.
Saakashvili, however, said he would not permit the opposition to deprive individual villages and rural districts of their representation in parliament.
The opposition parties further advocated 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 would 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 proposed 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 EEM's counterproposals include increasing the number of majoritarian mandates, in line with a recommendation contained in the OSCE International Observation Mission's final report on the 2008 parliamentary election to split into smaller units constituencies where the number of registered voters exceeds 100,000. There are currently 10 such constituencies: five in Tbilisi, plus the cities of Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Gori, Rustavi, and Batumi.
The EEM accordingly proposed increasing to two the number of majoritarian parliamentarians to be elected in such constituencies, offering three options: altering the ratio of majoritarian proportional mandates to 83:67; increasing the total number of parliamentarians to 158 (83 majoritarian plus 75 proportional); or increasing the number of MPs to 166 (83 majoritarian plus 83 proportional).
But People's Party representative Aleko Shalamberidze pointed out that insofar as the constitutional amendment reducing the number of parliamentarians to 150 was approved in a nationwide referendum, the latter two options are untenable. He urged the EEM
to come up with a single, workable variant.
In response to a second OSCE IOM recommendation, the EEM proposed lifting the ban imposed in 2008 on independent candidates registering to contest single-mandate constituencies.
In a partial concession to the opposition parties' original demands, the EEM proposed drawing up new voter lists for the city of Tbilisi based on biometric passports. The opposition had called for that innovation to be introduced countrywide, but the EEM objected on the grounds of the cost, which it estimated at 200 million laris ($117.16 million), according to Caucasus Press on March 7. The opposition countered with an estimate of 70 million laris. Pavle Kublashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's legal commission, was quoted by Caucasus Press on March 9 as saying the introduction of biometric voter lists was contingent on unspecified international donors footing the bill.
Opposition parliamentarian Levan Vephkhvadze of the Christian Democratic Movement was nonetheless cautiously optimistic, predicting on March 9 that further consultations on the issue of biometric registration could lead to consensus within four to six weeks.
Other opposition representatives were less hopeful. Vakhtang Khmaladze of the Republican Party, one of the authors of Georgia's first post-Soviet constitution and election legislation, complained that the EEM's proposals fail to address such issues as voter registration, procedures on polling day, the election system, election commissions, how disputes should be resolved, and the role of the media. All those issues, Khmaladze said, are germane to the holding of fair elections.
Former Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, now one of the co-leaders of the opposition Georgian Party, had argued even before the consultations began that the best legislation in the world cannot guarantee free and fair elections unless the leadership of the country concerned knows that there will be "a tough reaction" in the event of fraud, Caucasus Press reported on October 13.
Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze similarly argued in November that if the authorities really wanted to improve the election environment they could do so without consulting the opposition. He predicted that the talks would end in a compromise law that leaves "black holes that will serve as a new tool for rigging elections."
Reaching a consensus between the authorities and the opposition on election law amendments that will create a "level playing field" for all parties participating is not simply an end in itself. Speaking in February at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Our Georgia-Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania warned that Georgia's radical opposition is simply waiting for the consultations to fail in order to launch a new wave of antigovernment protests.
Nika Laliashvili of the Christian Democratic Movement similarly told journalists after a meeting in Tbilisi last week in Tbilisi with visiting OSCE Chairman in Office Audronius Ažubalis that "we stressed again that a group of political parties has completed the presentation of its proposals on improving the electoral environment, and unless the authorities support them, they will automatically open the door to those forces that intend to replace government by resorting to violence," according to Caucasus Press on March 16.