As adoption of new local self-governance bill nears its end in the Parliament, focus now shifts on electoral system under which local elections should be held either in late spring or early summer.
Along with local councils (Sakrebulo), under the new self-governance bill, direct election of mayors in twelve towns and heads of more than six dozen of municipalities (gamgebeli) will take place during the upcoming elections.
Election date has yet to be set, but it should be either in late May or in June, when four-year term of incumbent local self-governing bodies expires.
Electoral system, a wide-ranging arrangements for elections, which involve, among many other issues, make up of constituencies, rules and procedures of electing Sakrebulos, gamgebelis, mayors, party-list and majoritarian candidates, has always been a matter of heated debates in Georgia ahead of elections, whether national or local.
A minimal threshold of votes required for a candidate, running either for a mayoral office or for gamgebeli, to be declared an outright winner in the first round without needing a runoff is the issue that has already become a subject of debates.
Threshold for electing mayor in Tbilisi is currently set at 30%, meaning that a candidate, who wins more votes than others, but not less than 30% is an outright winner of the race.
Higher threshold increases chances for a runoff. When some of those parties, which are now united in the GD ruling coalition, were in the opposition back in 2010, they were pushing for having a 50%, or at least 45%, threshold for electing Tbilisi mayor.
Even a draft of by-law, accompanying package of local self-governance bills, envisaged increasing of threshold to 50%. This draft was passed with its first reading together with the main package in December.
But on January 16 PM Irakli Garibashvili announced that the GD was offering to set the threshold for electing mayors at 40% and for electing heads (gamgabeli) of municipalities at about 33%.
On January 24 the GD parliamentary majority postponed adoption of this draft by-law with its second reading. GD said that the issue would be discussed as part of broader electoral system reform, which has to be elaborated within an inter-faction group, uniting representatives of political parties.
Non-parliamentary opposition parties are insisting on having 50% threshold; they argue that 40% threshold is “tailored” for GD’s Tbilisi mayoral candidate Davit Narmania, who is now minister of infrastructure and regional development.
UNM, which introduced 30% threshold when it was the governing party, seems not trying to prioritize this issue. “Our position has not changed about it,” MP Mikheil Machavariani of UNM said.
Several election watchdog and advocacy groups, who carry weight in debates on various issues, weighed in on January 24 calling for setting a 50% threshold.
In a joint petition the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Transparency International Georgia, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and Open Society - Georgia Foundation also said that the threshold should be the same for both mayoral race and election of gamgebelis.
A vice-speaker of parliament from GD ruling coalition, Manana Kobakhidze, said on January 24 that higher threshold increases chance of second round and at this stage it would be more appropriate to avoid it in order to save taxpayers’ money.
Another issue prioritized by several civil society organizations in their joint petition in respect of electoral system is to replace single-seat districts with multi-member constituencies, as well as to change the rule how majoritarian members of Sakrebulos are elected from these constituencies.
Like the Parliament, Sakrebulos too are now elected through mixed system, part of Sakrebulo members are elected in majoritarian, single-mandate constituencies, and another part through party-list, proportional contest. Elections in single-mandate constituencies are held through first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system.
The petition calls for having multi-mandate constituencies and for introduction of block vote system (also known as multiple non-transferable vote), wherein a voter can cast as many ballots as there are available seats.
The four organizations said that both of these proposals – increasing threshold to 50% and introduction of multi-mandate constituencies with block vote system – are possible to put in practice in a relatively short period of time that remains before the local elections.
“The authorities should ensure timely political decision over these issues and introduction of such an electoral system, which will contribute to holding of fair elections and which will better reflect the will of voters expressed in elections,” reads the petition by four non-governmental organizations.