As Georgia braces for an election year, its parliament has taken an early step toward remedying a perceived imbalance in political districting, but concerns about the fairness of the vote are likely to persist.
Ten months ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections, lawmakers began the process of amending the election law in line with the demands of international election monitors and the country's Constitutional Court.
Meanwhile, signs are emerging of tensions not only among the country's most senior politicians but also among the five parties aligned in the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, whose popularity has reportedly plummeted to around 15 percent.
On December 11, lawmakers passed in the first reading by a vote of 82 to eight an amendment to the Electoral Code intended to reduce existing size discrepancies among the country's 73 single-mandate constituencies. (The remaining 77 parliamentarians are elected under the proportional system.)
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had repeatedly criticized those discrepancies as undermining the principle of equality of the vote, and in May, Georgia's Constitutional Court ruled that the boundaries between electoral districts should be changed to minimize that lack of equality and ensure that the number of voters in individual constituencies does not vary by more than 10-15 percent.
The amendment envisages changes to the boundaries of 60 constituencies. Tbilisi, where almost one-third of the country's estimated 3.48 million voters live, will be redivided into 18 constituencies in place of the current 10.
However, in 14 constituencies across the country, voter numbers still fail to meet the optimum percentage requirement, although constitutional expert Vakhtang Khmaladze noted that the electoral boundaries may undergo further changes during the second reading of the bill.
Opposition parliamentarians nonetheless remain convinced that the changes will not guarantee a level playing field for the parliamentary ballot due in the fall of 2016 and are geared primarily to ensuring that the ruling GD coalition preserves its parliamentary majority.
Akaki Bobokhidze of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) criticized the proposed redistricting as "illogical" and potentially damaging, insofar as in some cases two or more tiny electoral districts with little in common have been merged to create one larger one. Zurab Abashidze (Free Democrats) described the changes as "illogical" and "a step backwards."
Call For Dialogue
Both parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties have been campaigning for the past year for the total abolition of the majoritarian component -- a move favored also by President Giorgi Margvelashvili -- prior to the 2016 election, and its replacement with a regional-proportional system. GD argues that it is not possible to introduce the regional proportional-system in the time remaining but that it will be done before the 2020 parliamentary ballot.
In late September, the extraparliamentary New Rightists, Liberty, Free Georgia, the Reformers, the Civic Union for Liberty, the European Democrats, the Union of Traditionalists, the United Democratic Movement, the Political Movement of Veterans and Patriots, and the National-Democratic, Labor and Christian-Democratic parties -- but not the ENM -- began collecting signatures in support of their demand that the 2016 elections be held under the regional-proportional system.
They submitted more than 240,000 signatures (200,000 are required) to parliament on November 10. Two days later, the leaders of the 12 parties released a joint statement calling on GD to embark on a dialogue on all "problematic" aspects of the existing electoral system, including also the composition of electoral commissions, access to free airtime, and measures to preclude the use of "administrative resources" by the ruling coalition to ensure its candidates win.
As several political commentators had predicted, GD ignored that call for dialogue. It did nonetheless solicit opposition proposals concerning a second planned amendment that would raise from 25 to 50 percent the proportion of votes required for victory in single-mandate constituencies. No such proposals have yet been made, parliament deputy speaker Zviad Dzidziguri (GD-Conservative Party) said last week.
Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whose Democratic Movement-United Georgia party is not represented in the current parliament, has construed the proposed changes as an attempt by GD to mold the electoral system to its own advantage with the aim of clinging to power.
But that argument is at odds with the most recent opinion poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, according to which GD's support had plummeted by 10 percent between April and late August/early September, and stood at 14 percent.
If that figure is an accurate reflection of voter preferences, why then should GD court humiliation by raising the threshold for victory in single-mandate constituencies to 50 percent? Abashidze too expressed doubt that GD, or any other party, would garner half of the vote.
Similarly open to question is whether, as some opposition politicians assume, GD will indeed contest the 2016 ballot in its current composition, in light of the disagreements between its five members, in particular distrust of the Republican Party, which is the second-largest faction within GD with 10 lawmakers.
The Republicans had unequivocally backed switching from the present majoritarian-proportional to a regional-proportional electoral system, but as the party's former chairman, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, admitted in late September that, in order to prevent the coalition collapsing, they reluctantly supported GD's insistence on retaining the majoritarian component until after the 2016 ballot.
Speaking at a Republican Party conference last week, parliamentarian Ivliane Khaindrava recalled speculation in the run-up to two by-elections on October 30 that some GD members were hoping that opposition Alliance of Patriots of Georgia candidate Irma Inashvili would defeat Republican Tamar Khidasheli and thus create a pretext for sidelining the Republicans within the coalition.
The Alliance of Patriots was formed in December 2012, and within months then-Prime Minister and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili was referring to it as a potential "third force" in Georgian politics, alongside GD and the ENM. It placed fourth in the local elections of June 2014.
In the NDI opinion poll referred to above, just 5 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Alliance of Patriots if elections were held the next day, compared with 15 percent for the ENM, 14 percent for GD, and 31 percent undecided.
The perception that the Alliance of Patriots might prove a more congenial coalition partner for other GD members than the Republicans is difficult to reconcile with its demands for electoral reform and the belligerent rhetoric of some of its members. One of the alliance's leaders, Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, was quoted in late November as warning that "If they want a fight, they'll get a fight, just like under [former President Mikheil] Saakashvili.... We won't let anyone usurp power."
Addressing the Republican Party conference last week, Usupashvili sought to downplay the differences of opinion among GD's constituent members. He pointed out that "the coalition is composed of parties and of thousands of party members and activists, who naturally do not all hold the same opinions. Coalitions are formed not only on the basis of unity of ideas and visions, but also on the basis of tolerating each other. If we can't tolerate each other, we shall not be able to accomplish anything. I cannot recall any alliance or electoral bloc, any round or square table, with healthier relationships than exist in this coalition. The coalition has established an unexampled precedent of unity in this country."
He added, however, "[P]lease do not demand that [coalition members] should all love each other so dearly that they cannot envisage even breaking bread in each other's absence."
At the same time, Usupashvili declined to either affirm unequivocally that the Republicans will remain part of the coalition until next year's election or say what conditions the party might set for doing so.
One opposition politician who hopes to capitalize on the electorate's disillusion with GD is former Defense Minister and Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania. In an extensive interview last week with InterPressNews, he attributed that disillusion to the incoming government's incompetence and inability to deliver on GD's campaign promises.
He said his party has launched a series of meetings with the population at large, and appeared confident that he could muster enough support to defeat GD at the polls.
Alasania said there is no political force with which he considers it possible to form an electoral alliance, but he did not rule out joining a coalition government. He did not, however, name possible coalition partners.