Georgia's Constitutional Court recently corroborated what lawyers and experts have been saying for years -- some aspects of the country's election law are patently unfair and need to be changed.
In a ruling handed down in late May , the court found that the law violates the principle of equality in the election of lawmakers in single-mandate constituencies.
Yet even though virtually all of Georgia's political parties accede to the argument that reform is needed, there is no consensus among them as to how extensively the current system should be amended, or on the timeframe for doing so. Both parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties want a new system in place before the parliamentary ballot due in October 2016.
At present, in line with legal amendments enacted in July 2011, 73 of the total 150 lawmakers are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 according to the proportional system among those parties that garner a minimum 5 percent of the vote. The objections of the opposition and of international organizations focus primarily on the enormous discrepancies in the size of the single-mandate constituencies. The largest has over 150,000 voters; the smallest, fewer than 6,000.
On May 30, just two days after the Constitutional Court ruling, 14 extraparliamentary political parties and eight NGOs signed a joint petition, based on a Memorandum of Civic Accord drafted during six months of discussions, calling on the government to replace the single-mandate constituencies with multi-mandate ones without delay.
They argued that "in order to guarantee a democratic and equal election environment that encourages competition, it is imperative to change the existing system" in which, they said, "voters' ballots are not proportionally translated into mandates [won by parties in parliamentary elections], the number of wasted votes is high, and equality of suffrage is not observed."
The proposed switch from single-mandate constituencies to a regional-proportional system would, however, necessitate amending the constitution, and it is considered unlikely that the minimum 113 parliamentarians would vote in favor of doing so during each of the required three readings.
The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition responded to the May 30 petition 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 former ruling United National Movement (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. The ENM was not among the signatories of the May 30 petition.
The current debate over electoral reform is the third since 2008. On both previous occasions, the then-opposition camp, which included the Republican and Conservative parties and the National Forum, all now members of GD, sought unsuccessfully to replace the single-mandate constituencies with a regional-proportional system.
In the spring of 2008, the ENM initially agreed to a proposal by the opposition National Council to divide the country into 19 election districts that would elect a total of 50 MPs. The mandates were to be divided as following: Tbilisi --10; Samegrelo and Imereti -- five each; Shida Kartli, Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, and Adjara -- four each; and South Ossetia, Samtskhe-Djavakheti, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, Guria, Svaneti, Racha-Lechkhumi, and Abkhazia -- two each.
But at the last minute, the ENM reneged on that provisional agreement and pushed through constitutional amendments altering the ratio of majoritarian:proportional seats from 50:100 to 75:75 and reducing from 50 percent to 30 percent the minimum number of votes needed to win election in a single-mandate constituency.
Two years later, in October 2010, eight opposition parties unveiled a new blueprint for electoral reform that similarly entailed dividing the country into multi-mandate constituencies, with the number of lawmakers to be elected in each contingent on the size of the constituency, and a 5 percent threshold for representation.
They also proposed changing the composition of the Central Electoral Commission to ensure the representation of all parties represented in the existing parliament; the introduction of biometric passports to minimize multiple voting and other kinds of fraud; and new streamlined procedures for addressing election-related complaints.
The UNM waited five months before unveiling its counterproposals. Rather than abolish the single-mandate constituencies outright, it advocated increasing to two the number of lawmakers elected from the 10 constituencies (five in Tbilisi plus Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi, Gori, and Zugdidi) with over 100,000 voters, and suggesting three possible models for the majoritarian:proportional ratio.
The UNM flatly rejected the introduction of biometric passports nationwide on grounds of the estimated cost, but agreed to their distribution in Tbilisi. The opposition rejected those proposals, insisting on a revision of the system to ensure what it termed the fair distribution of parliament mandates in strict proportion to the share of the vote a given party receives.
In late June, the ENM secured the support of four of the eight opposition parties that had hitherto rejected its follow-up proposals for a new model that entailed increasing the number of lawmakers to 190, of whom 83 would be elected in single-mandate constituencies and 107 on the basis of party lists.
But Avtandil Demetrashvili, the constitutional lawyer who oversaw the drafting in 2009-10 of amendments to the Georgian Constitution, queried the legality of increasing the number of parliamentarians, as did three watchdog groups.
The proposed increase was duly shelved in December 2011. Instead, the parliament adopted constitutional amendments, setting the majoritarian:proportional ratio set at 73:77, and guaranteeing any party that garners 5 percent of the vote six parliament mandates. The revised election law was passed in the third reading on December 27.
The current dispute could exacerbate existing tensions within the GD leadership. President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was the moving spirit behind the May 30 conference, advocates scrapping the majoritarian component in order to create "a pluralistic political environment." Parliament speaker Usupashvili signed the opposition's March Memorandum of Civic Accord demanding change, but made clear that he did so in his capacity as a rank-and-file parliamentarian.
Margvelashvili's parliamentary secretary Giorgi Kverenchkhiladze told journalists on June 8 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 it could be done by spring of 2016, "given the political will." It seems unlikely, however, that the parliament will address the issue before its spring session ends on June 26.