Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hailed on June 28 the acceptance by a handful of opposition parties of new and controversial election law amendments proposed by his United National Movement (EEM) as bringing to a successful conclusion talks that began last fall on revising the existing election law to ensure the 2012 parliamentary ballot is truly free, fair, and democratic.
But opinions differ as to whether the authorities' proposed changes are legal. Meanwhile, other moderate opposition parties that participated in the talks have rejected the EEM's proposed changes out of hand as intended first and foremost to perpetuate the EEM's comfortable parliament majority, rather than create the "level playing field" repeatedly called for by international election monitors.
The procedural and logistical shortcomings in the existing electoral system were discussed in detail in the final report by the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission on the May 2008 Georgian parliamentary election. They include campaigning by government officials for the ruling party; inaccurate voter registers that open the door to multiple voting; errors in the counting and tabulation of ballots; lack of transparency in acting on complaints; and huge discrepancies between the number of voters in individual single-mandate constituencies.
That final report advocated either enacting a new election code, taking into account past OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, or alternatively amending the existing legislation in consultation with "all major political entities" and key civil society organizations.
In early October, a group of eight opposition parties (the National Forum, Conservative Party, Republican Party, People's Party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, Georgia's Way, the New Rightists, and the Christian-Democratic Movement) duly made public their joint proposals for reforming the electoral system. Those proposals focused on five specific issues: how many law-makers should be elected by what procedure; the composition of election commissions; introducing bio-metric passports to preclude multiple voting and voting by persons either deceased or no longer resident in Georgia; voting day procedures; and the evaluation by election commissions of complaints.
Under the existing law, 75 of the total 150 parliament deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and 75 on the basis of party lists. The opposition initially proposed a regional-proportional system under which the 75 single-mandate constituencies would be replaced by larger multi-mandate constituencies, with the number of deputies to be elected in each directly proportional to the number of registered voters.
In early March, the EEM responded with counter-proposals that entailed increasing the total number of mandates, and increasing the majoritarian-proportional ratio. At the same time, the EEM 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 counterproposals, and on March 23 warned they would resume negotiations only if the EEM takes "appropriate steps," meaning the introduction of a biometric voter register for the entire country 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," meaning that if a party receives a greater percentage of majoritarian mandates than it receives in the proportional vote, as the EEM did in 2008, the number of proportional mandates would be reduced accordingly.
Appeals in late March by four Georgian NGOs and in early April by EU ambassadors in Tbilisi to resume the talks failed to break the deadlock.
On April 5, the eight opposition parties unveiled two alternative new proposals for the election of majoritarian candidates. They set a deadline of May 31 for the EEM to respond, which the EEM failed to meet. At the same time, the EEM began conducting separate talks with the Christian Democratic Movement and the National Democratic Party.
On June 24, the EEM in turn unveiled a new set of proposals. One entails raising the total number of law-makers from 150 to 190, of whom 107 will be elected from party lists and the remaining 83 in single mandate constituencies. A second would ensure the accuracy of voter lists by establishing a special commission composed of equal numbers of representatives of the authorities, NGO, and those political parties that accept the EEM proposals.
A third proposal doubles the maximum amount a political party may receive as a donation from either a single person or a single company. It also envisaged allocating to parties that poll more than 5 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections 1 million laris ($601,395) to cover election-related expenses, on condition they endorse the EEM's proposals. The daily "Akhali taoba" on June 27 quoted expert Soso Tsiskarishvili as rejecting that provision as "insulting" and "a blatant attempt to bribe unprincipled political forces."
The Christian Democratic Movement and the New Rightists both formally accepted the new EEM proposals, as did the National Democratic Party and Industry will Save Georgia. The New Rightists on June 27 described the proposals as "not good," but "better than nothing." The Christian Democrats and New Rightists simultaneously withdrew from the "opposition eight."
The six remaining moderate opposition parties that participated in the talks rejected the most recent amendments on June 27, saying the changes proposed are superficial and will not fundamentally improve the conditions under which elections are held. They specifically criticized the amendment allocating 1 million laris to any party that endorsed the proposals by 6 p.m. local time on June 27 and garners a minimum of 5 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary ballot. (The New Rightists insisted that provision be extended to all parties that surmounted the 5 percent threshold in 2012, according to Caucasus Press on June 28. It is not clear whether their acceptance of the package as a whole was contingent on that change.)
In a written statement, the opposition "six" made clear their dissatisfaction not just with the substance of the changes the EEM proposed, but with the way it secured minimal approval for them by resorting to "the language of ultimatums, political horse-trading, and blackmail," and by systematically rejecting opposition recommendations.
It remains unclear, however, whether the EEM proposal to increase the number of parliamentarians to 190 is legal. In November 2003, voters approved in a referendum a constitutional amendment setting the maximum number of parliamentarians at 150. Avtandil Demetrashvili, the professor of constitutional law who oversaw the drafting in 2009-1020 of amendments to the Georgian constitution, told civil.ge that an amendment enacted by means of a referendum can only be annulled by a further referendum. Three watch-dog groups -- the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, the International Society for Free Elections and Democracy, and Transparency International Georgia issued a joint statement on July 1 in which they too questioned the legality of increasing the number of parliament mandates without a referendum.
But EEM parliamentarian Akaki Minashvili argued that the 2003 referendum was unconstitutional because "changing a law by means of a referendum is unconstitutional." He is the first person to question the legality of the 2003 referendum.
Majority parliamentarian Pavle Kubashvili has ruled out any further discussion of the amendments on the grounds that "it is impossible to reach agreement and consensus with everybody." He said the EEM will now set about implementing them. The "opposition six" has nonetheless pledged to parlay their campaign into a large-scale civic struggle to establish conditions for free elections, and has already appealed for backing from the NGO sector and the diplomatic corps. What form the next stage of its campaign will take is as yet unclear: the daily "Akhali taoba" on July 1 quoted Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri as saying that it is "impossible to guarantee free and fair elections by sitting around the negotiating table wearing a tie."