The talks, which got under way in November, are stalled due to the inability of the two sides to reach agreement on the introduction of biometric identity documents (to preclude multiple voting), on how many parliamentarians should be elected from single-mandate constituencies, and by what procedure. Each side blames the other for the deadlock: The eight opposition parties participating in the talks accuse the authorities of being unwilling to compromise; the ruling United National Movement (EEM) denounce the opposition's recourse to the "language of ultimatums."
On March 23, the opposition parties issued their most strongly worded statement to date, saying that they would resume negotiations only if the EEM takes "appropriate steps," meaning the introduction of a biometric voter register for the entire country, not just for Tbilisi as the EEM has proposed, plus "reform of the electoral system to maximally secure distribution of seats in parliament in proportion to the number of votes a given party receives."
They further warned that failure to reach an agreement with the opposition would preclude the holding of democratic elections, and the next parliamentary ballot due in 2012 would be "a struggle between the people and a leadership out to usurp power."
The EEM has ruled out the introduction of biometric identity documents countrywide on the grounds that the cost would be prohibitive. The opposition rejects that argument, pointing out that Bolivia, which is five times the size of Georgia with double the population, managed to collect all the required data in just over three months. According to the opposition, the total cost of issuing the Bolivian documents was $75 million; the EEM claims doing so would cost Georgia $110 million.
Alarmed at the prospect that the talks could collapse, four NGOs that have been attending them as observers -- the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, the New Generation New Initiative, and Transparency International Georgia (TI) -- appealed on March 25 to both sides to resume consultations with the aim of reaching a timely agreement on "issues that are important for improving the election environment."
But the opposition representatives failed to show up for the next round of talks (on March 30) and issued a new statement again accusing the EEM of unwillingness to compromise over the number of majoritarian constituencies. Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rightists said the opposition has set a deadline of May 31 to reach agreement.
Then on April 5, the eight opposition parties unveiled two alternative new proposals for the election of majoritarian candidates. As explained by opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats party leader Irakli Alasania, those proposals are aimed ensuring that the total number of mandates, both majoritarian and proportional, that a given party receives reflects accurately the total number of votes cast for it under the proportional system.
Echoing the March 23 opposition statement, Alasania said the authorities should not "close this space for political dialogue," as doing so could trigger a wave of radicalization and thus plunge Georgia into a repeat of the political turmoil of the 1990s.
The opposition's earlier proposal, which according to Republican Party Chairman David Berdzenishvili is favored by Council of Europe experts, remains on the table. It envisages electing 50 percent of deputies under the party-list system and the remaining 50 percent under a regional-proportional system, meaning that individual constituencies would be represented by one, two, three or four deputies, according to the number of voters.
Under the first of the opposition's two new proposals, the number of majoritarian parliamentarians would remain unchanged at 75, but the total number of mandates a party receives would not exceed the percentage of votes it received under the party list vote. In other words, if a party receives a greater percentage of majoritarian mandates than it receives in the proportional vote, the number of proportional mandates would be reduced accordingly.
Alternatively, the opposition suggested reducing the number of majoritarian mandates from 75 to 50 and raising the threshold for election from single-mandate constituencies (one of the bones of contention in the run-up to the May 2008 parliamentary ballot) from 30 percent to 50 percent. That would increase the chances of a run-off, in which an opposition candidate would have a better chance of defeating the EEM's candidate.
Pavle Kublashvili, who heads the Georgian parliament's Legal Affairs Committee, rejected those proposals out of hand, saying the opposition "today burned the last bridges."
Opposition politicians believe the EEM is itself divided. Katsitadze said that the EEM representatives to the talks admitted as much last month. Alasania, for his part, said there are figures within the EEM who understand the need to reach a compromise agreement. But President Mikheil Saakashvili adamantly opposes any change that would deprive individual communities of the right to elect "their" lawmaker.
Alasania attributed Saakashvili's hard-line stance to his desire to secure the maximum possible majority in the next parliament, given his aspiration to retain power after the expiry of his second and final presidential term in January 2013 by becoming prime minister. The sweeping constitutional amendments approved in October 2010 transfer to the prime minister many key powers currently invested in the president, and the choice of prime ministerial candidate devolves onto the parliament majority faction.