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Fierce Debate Rages over Tbilisi Mayor, City Council Elections
/ 22 Jun.'05 / 21:05
Nino Khutsidze, Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

Opponents say that after gaining an advantage through the recent creation of a favorable Central Election Commission, the government is now trying to design an election system for the capital city, Tbilisi’s, Mayor and City Council which will guarantee the ruling National Movement party’s success in next year’s local elections.

Rule of City Council Election

The opposition parliamentarians staged a walk out on June 22 during the session of the Parliamentary Committee for Regional Policy and Self-governance, in a protest against the government-backed draft law over the rule of election of the Tbilisi city Mayor and City Council (Sakrebulo). The opposition claims that if passed the law will establish a “one-party dictatorship” in the capital city, where about 1/3 of country's voters reside.

Opposition Conservative party leader MP Koba Davitashvili said on June 22 that the new rule for electing a City Council was “a surprise” even for some parliamentarians.

The new draft foresees a shift from the proportional, party-list based elections for the council to a first-past-the-post "winner takes all" system.  Instead of being appointed by the President, the Mayor would be elected by the City Council.

According to the government-backed proposal, each political party can nominate two or three candidates for City Council membership in each of the constituencies. There are a total of ten constituencies in the capital. In the largest constituencies – Saburtalo, Nadzaladevi, Gldani, Samgori and Isani – the parties can nominate three candidates in each, while in each of the remaining five, relatively small constituencies, each party can nominate only two candidates.

The party which garners the most votes in each of the constituencies, will gain a seat in the City Council.

“This means, that if one party garners 20% of the votes, another – 17% and the third one – 15% [in one of the constituencies], only the party with 20% of votes will gain seats in the City Council, while the votes cast for those parties which are in second and third place will actually be ignored,” MP Koba Davitashvili told Civil Georgia on June 22.

MP Alexandre Shalamberidze from the ruling National Movement party told Civil Georgia on June 22 that this method of electing a City Council, which is based on “semi party-list, semi majoritarian [individual] system” was recommended by the Council of Europe. But MP Davitashvili said that the principle proposed by the government is “unprecedented.”

Davitashvili also said that the parliamentarians from the ruling party slightly changed their position and proposed a so called "compensatory list" - those parties which are able to garner at least 4% of votes in all ten constituencies will be able to endorse one or two members to the City Council.

But this proposal can hardly satisfy an angered opposition. Non-partisan MP Levan Gachechiladze described the government-backed proposal as “the model which enables the government to gain total control in Tbilisi.”

Race for the Mayor’s Office 

These debates over the rule for electing the Tbilisi City Council have overshadowed the controversy which persists over the method of electing city Mayors. Currently, the Mayors of Tbilisi and the Black Sea port of Poti are appointed by the President.

According to the government-backed proposal, the Tbilisi city Mayor will be elected indirectly, by the elected City Council among its members.

The opposition, which sees the Tbilisi Mayor position as a political counterweight to the President, demands direct elections of the Mayors. Representatives from the opposition Republican and Conservative parties, as well as from the public movement 'Forum for Welfare and Democracy' submitted  a request on June 16 to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to launch a collection of Georgian voters’ signatures to hold a referendum on whether or not to hold direct elections of regional governors and city Mayors. The CEC should respond to this request within one month. If the answer is positive, the opposition parties will have to collect at least 200,000 signatures.

But the opposition fears that even if a referendum is held, the authorities will do their best to drag-out the procedures involving the enforcement of the referendum’s outcome. “Meanwhile, the time for local elections – autumn 2006 – will come and the government will hold elections in accordance with the proposed rule [indirect elections],” MP Koba Davitashvili said.

The opposition claims that the authorities “are afraid” of a directly elected Mayor because then the Tbilisi Mayor is bound to become “a serious political figure.” Approximately one-third of the Georgian voters live in the capital city Tbilisi, which is the country’s financial, economic and political center.

The ruling party charges that the question that is being put to a referendum is based on an incorrect interpretation of the current debate. The opposition plans to put a question to the population whether they think the City mayors should be elected. The ruling party says that this issue is already decided by the Constitution, which says  Mayors shall be elected, and the real debate is on whether the elections should be direct or indirect. The ruling party also points out that the new draft precludes any direct interference from the central authorities - the Council itself nominates the Mayor and is free to select any candidate.

Meanwhile, the unofficial race for the Mayor's position has already started. Observers say that incumbent Tbilisi Mayor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, 33, who was appointed by President Saakashvili last April, has little chance of retaining his position if direct elections occur.

Opposition Conservative party leader MP Koba Davitashvili, once President Saakashvili’s ally, has already announced his ambition to become Tbilisi's Mayor. No other politician has yet officially announced their intention to run for the Mayor’s office, however the Georgian media speculates that MP Giorgi Arveladze, who is the National Movement’s political secretary, MP Beso Jugeli, who is also from the ruling party, and non-partisan MP Levan Gachechiladze also want to take over the Mayor’s office. This latter potential candidate was one of the founders of the opposition New Rights, but quit the party last year. Gachechiladze is also the founder of Georgian Wines and Spirits (GWS) company.

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