Parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, met on February 17 with leaders from several non-parliamentary opposition parties to discuss electoral system reform ahead of the local elections, expected in June.
The meeting came amid PM Irakli Garibashvili’s announcement that the Georgian Dream ruling coalition agreed to set minimal threshold for electing both mayors and heads of municipalities (gamgebelis) in the first round of vote at 50%, instead of initially proposed 40% and 33%, respectively.
Non-parliamentary opposition parties welcomed the announcement; but their representatives also stressed after the meeting with Usupashvili that it was not enough for improving the electoral system.
Along with a group of civil society organizations, non-parliamentary opposition parties are also demanding change of the rule and system of electing majoritarian members of Sakrebulo. They call for replacing single-mandate constituencies in which majoritarian members of Sakrebulos are elected through first-past-the-post vote with multi-mandate constituencies and introducing block vote system.
Another key issue is funding of the parties. Although the Georgian Dream floated an idea to more than triple “base funding” for parties, which will garner at least 3% in the local elections from current GEL 150,000 to GEL 500,000, some non-parliamentary opposition parties described the move as an attempt by the authorities to “bribe” small parties and to “silence” them on key electoral system issues.
“If they really want to strengthen parties, it should be done ahead of the elections and not after the elections,” Nino Burjanadze, leader of Democratic Movement-United Georgia, said after the meeting with Usupashvili.
In his remarks before journalists after the meeting, Davit Usupashvili indicated that while before TV cameras many non-parliamentary opposition representatives usually try to be dismissive of funding issues, calling it a “bribe” and “bait”, during the discussions behind the closed doors they engage in a “serious conversation” on funding issues.
To address non-parliamentary opposition parties’ concerns over funding ahead of the local elections, GD has offered a scheme, which, if introduced, will be linked to parties’ representatives in election administrations, and which will also encourage the small parties to unite in election blocs.
Each party is eligible to have its representative in election precincts and election district commissions; these representatives, although they are not members of election administration, play an important role in terms of acting as observers of their respective parties on the ground across the provinces.
In order to allow parties to hire representatives at the polling stations on the election day, the state allocates GEL 100 to a party per each precinct and GEL 150 per each district election commission. But only the ‘qualified parties’ are eligible to this funding – these are those parties, which won at least 3% of the vote by running either separately or in a bloc with other parties in the most recent parliamentary or local elections.
Davit Usupashvili said that GD is ready to apply this funding scheme to those parties as well, which do not fall under the category of “qualified.” But, according to the proposal, these small parties will only become eligible to this scheme if they unite in a single election bloc and the aggregate votes cast to each of the party in this bloc in the most recent parliamentary or local elections make 2%.
Non-parliamentary opposition is also protesting against a provision of proposed amendments to the election code, according to which a candidate running for the post of mayor or gamgebeli cannot at the same time run for a seat in Sakrebulo; non-parliamentary opposition parties are against of this provision because, they say, in the condition of their scarce human resources, the provision will limit their ability to nominate candidates in many constituencies.
One of the controversial issues, which is likely to be raised by many election observer organizations, is a provision of the proposed draft, which does not allow independent candidates to run for the post of mayor or gamgebeli.
While independent candidates, nominated by “initiative groups”, can run for majoritarian seat in Sakrebulos, a candidate willing to run for either mayor or gamgebeli’s post should be nominated by a political party or an election bloc, according to the proposed draft.
In its recommendations after the 2010 local elections, OSCE/ODIHR international election observation mission called on Georgia to allow independent candidates to contest municipal elections.
Parliamentary committees will start discussion of the draft amendments to the elections code on February 18.
Planned changes also includes lowering of threshold from current 5% to 4% for the party-list, proportional contest for seats in Sakrebulos in provinces, like it is in Tbilisi, meaning that a party garnering at least 4% in elections will be able to endorse its members in respective municipality’s Sakrebulo.