Three years after its resounding defeat in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, Georgia’s former ruling United National Movement (ENM) has launched a new campaign to push for the resignation of the present government and preterm parliamentary elections. Its chances of securing the support of, and acting in cooperation with, other opposition parties to achieve that end are minimal, however.
Meanwhile, splits have reportedly emerged within the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition over proposed amendments to the constitution that would change the way the next parliament will be elected. Those proposals constitute yet another bone of contention between GD and the opposition.
The ENM announced its plans a week ago, during an October 5 demonstration outside the business center in Tbilisi of GD’s billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013. Even though Ivanishvili has maintained a low profile for the past two years, the ENM, and some Georgian analysts, remain convinced that he continues to dictate policy behind the scenes, and that Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili is little more than Ivanishvili’s puppet. Former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania wrote recently that “those who agree with [Ivanishvili’s] vision are promoted, while those who disagree are fired.”
Accordingly, the ENM lays the blame for the setbacks Georgia has sustained since GD’s advent to power squarely on Ivanishvili. Addressing the October 5 demonstration, Giga Bokeria, one of ENM’s leaders, characterized Ivanishvili as “the man who controls the entire country,” and who “for the past three years has been engaged solely in crushing those forces in society that pose a threat to him.”
Bokeria said the only “legitimate way” out of what he termed the present “catastrophic situation” is preterm elections, which should take place “as soon as possible.”
ENM parliamentarian Sergo Ratiani for his part said the ENM will begin consultations with all political forces with the aim of convening mass protest demonstrations to pressure the government to resign.
To date, however, not a single political party has sided with the ENM. Three parties -- Kartuli Dasi, Democratic Movement-United Georgia (headed by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze), and the New Rightists -- have rejected its invitation, while Alasania’s Free Democrats, which quit GD in November 2014, insist that the next parliamentary elections should take place “within the constitutional time frame,” meaning in October 2016.
That reluctance is paralleled by negative perceptions of the ENM as reflected in a poll conducted in March-April by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. Just 13 percent of respondents identified the ENM as the party closest to them; with 21 percent, GD did not fare much better. Attendance at the October 5 protest in Tbilisi was reportedly limited to a few hundred ENM supporters.
Some observers have suggested that the ENM’s primary objective in announcing “consultations” with other political forces was simply to try to sow panic within the GD ranks and to improve its own image with the Georgian electorate and the international community.
At the same time, as noted above, GD is under pressure in light of the ongoing acrimonious disagreement over how and when the existing electoral system should be changed. At present, in line with constitutional amendments passed in December 2011, 77 parliamentarians are elected in majoritarian single-mandate constituencies. The remaining 73 lawmakers are elected under the proportional (party-list) system from parties that receive at least 5 percent of the vote.
Critics of that model, including the OSCE’s Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, point to the huge discrepancy in the size of single-mandate constituencies -- the largest has over 150,000 voters, the smallest, fewer than 6,000 -- which Georgia’s Constitutional Court ruled in late May violates the principle of equal suffrage.
Discussions on changing the electoral model began one year ago, when a group of NGOS proposed to the authorities the creation of a working group to draft amendments to the exiting electoral law. When no response was forthcoming, extraparliamentary parties set about drafting amendments that provided for the abolition of the single-mandate constituencies.
In late May, a coalition of eight NGOs and 14 political parties (not including the ENM), with the backing of Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, signed a joint petition arguing that under the present system, the number of parliament mandates a party receives is not directly proportionally to the number of votes cast for that party, and many votes are thus wasted. They therefore asked parliament to switch to a split system in which 75 parliamentarians would be elected under the proportional system and 75 under a regional-proportional system in which the country would be divided into multimandate constituencies, each of which would elect a specific number of lawmakers under the proportional system. This was one of three alternative models put forward in February-March 2008 by the 10 opposition parties aligned in the National Council, but rejected by the ENM.
It was envisaged that the requisite changes to the constitution would be made in time for the October 2016 parliamentary elections to be held under the new model. GD, however, responded by proposing a two-stage reform that entails preserving the current system with minor changes until after 2016, and only then abolishing single-mandate constituencies in favor of a regional-proportional system. That approach does not, strictly speaking, contravene the Constitutional Court ruling, which as parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili has pointed out, called for changing the rules under which majoritarian constituencies are formed, rather than abolishing them. The changes proposed included altering some constituency boundaries to make the number of voters more uniform and increasing from 30 percent to 50 percent the number of votes required for a first-round victory in a single-mandate constituency.
The ENM, which five years ago fought tooth and nail to preserve the majoritarian system, boycotted a parliament session scheduled for June 10 to protest what it termed GD's "unilateral decision" on the legal framework for the October 2016 ballot.
On September 18, the Georgian parliament set up a 10-member commission tasked with overseeing the statutory one-month public discussion of the blueprint for electoral reform unveiled by GD in June.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties began collecting the 200,000 signatures required for initiating a debate on their demands for the abolition of single-mandate constituencies prior to October 2016.
Both initiatives appear doomed to failure, however. First, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission advises against enacting changes to electoral law less than one year before elections are scheduled to take place. Meeting in December 2014 with a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation, parliament speaker Usupashvili had said a decision on whether to scrap completely or redraw the boundaries of the single-mandate constituencies needed to be taken by February-March 2015, to allow for revising the electoral code well before the parliamentary ballot due in October 2016.
Second, GD, which controls 86 of the 150 parliament seats, is unlikely to be able to muster the three-quarters majority (113 votes) required to pass the constitutional amendments on which the planned reform is contingent, because at least some majoritarian lawmakers fear they would lose their mandates as a result of switching to the new system, and would therefore vote against it.
Giorgi Kakhiani, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Procedural Issues, said in early June that the proposal to scrap the majoritarian constituencies has “more opponents than supporters” within the parliamentary majority.
Usupashvili, whose Republican Party unequivocally favors switching from the majoritarian to the regional-proportional system, tacitly admitted two weeks ago that in light of the lack of unity within GD, there is no way this could be done before the October 2016 parliamentary ballot. He said any attempt to do so would lead to the collapse of the coalition, which is not in Georgia’s best interests. And it would also, Usupashvili pointed out, necessitate preterm elections that would have to be held under the existing system.
GD’s failure to enact the proposed reform prior to the October 2016 parliamentary ballot could compound the animosity between Prime Minister Gharibashvili and President Margvelashvili. The latter’s parliamentary secretary, Giorgi Kverenchkhiladze, remarked in early June that “it is not clear why the introduction of a fair electoral system should be delayed for 5 1/2 years.” He expressed confidence that the proposed switch to a fully proportional system could be made by early spring of 2016, “given the political will.”