Parliament passed on February 19 with its first reading election-related package of bills to put the electoral system it line with new local self-governance law envisaging direct election of mayors in twelve cities and heads of all municipalities across the country during the local elections in June.
Among key changes are:
Lawmakers from UNM parliamentary minority group mainly stayed away from engaging actively in the parliamentary debates on specific aspects of the GD-proposed package of legislative amendments and instead used discussions to highlight their concerns over general electoral environment, which, UNM says, is exacerbated by politically motivated arrests and pre-trial detention of several local officials, who are UNM members, in the regions; a group of rights organizations have also voiced their concerns over these cases.
In his speech during the discussions UNM MP Pavle Kublashvili acknowledged that the proposed package makes “improvements” in number of the norms, but added that “electoral environment is not only about legislative norms.” He said that investigation should be carried out if there is a suspicion of wrongdoing, but sidelining opposition candidates in provinces from campaigning ahead of the local elections by putting them in pre-trial detention for suspected white-collar crimes “may cause questioning of legitimacy of the elections.”
For that reason UNM lawmakers refused to participate in voting of the amendments to the election code, which was passed with 80 votes to 0. But as it turned out four of those votes from GD MPs were a result of so called ‘ghost voting’, wherein a lawmaker casts vote instead of an absent colleague. “I am ashamed about such cases,” parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili said.
Before the vote, discussions were briefly interrupted by verbal exchange between UNM MP Akaki Bobokhidze and GD MP Giorgi Tsagareishvili, caused by personal reasons, rather than by dispute over election code; during the dispute MP Tsagareishvili tossed a plastic bottle at MP Bobokhidze, who was not hit. Parliament marshals, overseeing rule and order in the legislative body, had to escort both of the lawmakers from the chamber upon parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili’s order.
Threshold for Electing Mayors and Gamgebelis
Minimal threshold for electing mayors and gamgebelis in the first round of vote without requirement a runoff was one of the most discussed issues in run-up to approval of the bill with its first reading.
Before the new local self-governance law, Tbilisi was the only city in Georgia where mayor was elected directly and the threshold in the capital was set at 30%, meaning that a candidate winning more votes than others but not less than 30% would have been declared an outright winner.
Up until February 17 the GD ruling coalition was insisting on having threshold set at 40% for electing mayors in Tbilisi and in other eleven towns and 33% for electing heads of municipalities (gamgebeli) – proposal, which was strongly opposed by non-parliamentary opposition parties and a group of civil society organizations.
GD members’ main argument was that higher threshold was increasing chance of second round and that it would have been more appropriate to avoid it in order to save taxpayers’ money. GD’s proposal of 40% and 33% threshold had already been reflected in the draft of amendments submitted to the Parliament, when PM Irakli Garibashvili announced on February 17 that GD agreed on setting 50% threshold for electing both mayors and gamgebelis.
Along with mayors and gamgebelis, voters will also elect in June local councils, or Sakrebulos, in Tbilisi and about six dozen of municipalities.
Although introducing some important changes in terms of lowering threshold in party-list contest in provincial municipalities and increasing number of seats distributed through party-list rule in most of the Sakrebulos, in overall system of electing local councils remains largely the same.
Like the Parliament, Sakrebulos are also elected through mixed system – part of local council members are elected in majoritarian, single-mandate constituencies, and another part through party-list, proportional contest.
Under the existing legislation a party or an election bloc, which garners at least 5% of vote in local elections will be able to endorse its members in Sakrebulo of respective municipality. This threshold in capital Tbilisi stands at 4%.
The proposed bill envisages lowering this threshold from 5% to 4% for provincial municipality Sakrebulos, like it is in Tbilisi.
Majoritarian members of Sakrebulos are elected in single-mandate constituencies through first-past-the-post, winner-take-all rule.
This rule is maintained under the proposed package of legislative amendments.
A group of election observer and legal advocacy organizations have been calling on the authorities for changing this system by replace single-mandate constituencies with multi-seat ones; they were also insisting on 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.
Majoritarian/Party-List Distribution of Seats in Sakrebulos
Currently number of seats allocated under the party-list contest is 10 in most of the Sakrebulos. Several large cities are exceptions, among them Tbilisi, where 25 seats are for grab under the party-list contest and remaining 25 are majoritarian seats; the number of party-list seats stands at 15 in some other cities, including Kutaisi, Batumi and Rustavi.
The proposed bill envisages increasing number of party-list seats from 10 to 15 in Sakrebulos of most of the municipalities. Number of majoritarian seats varies depending on the size of a municipality.
This change, combined with lowering of threshold for party-list contest in provinces to 4%, increases smaller parties’ chances for endorsing more of their members in Sakrebulos (provided that they clear the 4% threshold).
Distribution of seats between members of Sakrebulos elected under party-list and majoritarian system will remain unchanged in “self-governed” cities. Tbilisi Sakrebulo will still have 50 seats evenly divided between party-list and majoritarian members.
15 party-list seats and 10 majoritarian seats will remain in Kutaisi, Rustavi and Batumi. 10 party-list and 5 majoritarian seats will remain in Sakrebulos of Poti, Telavi, Mtskheta, Gori, Akhaltsikhe, Ambrolauri, Ozurgeti and Zugdidi. Mayors of these towns will be elected directly for the first time in local elections, expected in June.
In 2010 local elections there were total of 670 party-list seats for grab in all Sakrebulos of 64 municipalities (now the number of municipalities will be increased because of creation of more “self-governed” cities under the new local self-governance law). Total of majoritarian seats contested across the country four years ago stood at 1,025. GD MP Zviad Dzidziguri, who chaired inter-faction group which drafted the package, said that as a result of increasing number of party-list seats in most of the Sakrebulos, its overall number will almost equal to those of majoritarian seats across the country.
Who Can Nominate Candidates
One of the controversial issues, which is highlighted by many election observer organizations, is a provision of the bill, 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.
One of the provisions of the bill envisages banning a person to be a candidate for mayor or gamgebeli and simultaneously to also be in a party-list to run for Sakrebulo seat. 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.
According to the proposal, parties or election blocs, which will garner at least 3% of votes in the local elections will receive state funding to cover campaign expenses in an amount of maximum GEL 500,000.
The proposal also envisages increasing funding of party representatives in election administrations. 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. Under the existing law the state allocates GEL 100 to a party per each representative at a precinct and GEL 150 per each representative at district election commission on the election day. The proposal envisages increasing this funding by GEL 50.
But only the ‘qualified parties’ are now 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.
The proposal envisages applying this funding scheme to those parties as well, which do not fall under the category of “qualified.” But 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%. Aggregate votes cast to more than dozen of parties and election blocs, other than GD and UNM, in 2012 parliamentary elections was less than 5%.
On top of other types of state funding, according to the existing law, GD and UNM, which had the best results in the 2012 parliamentary elections, are eligible to GEL 600,000 each in 2014 because of upcoming local elections.
The proposal now is to obligate these two political forces to direct at least 15% of this GEL 600,000 towards buying airtime for campaign ads in at least seven different local TV stations in provinces (those which are not nationwide broadcasters). The scheme means that total of at least GEL 180,000 should go to regional television stations from GD and UNM during the campaign ahead of local elections.
But those regional TV stations, which will sell their airtime for political ads to GD and UNM under this scheme, will be obligated to provide free airtime to those several small parties, which do not currently fall under the category of ‘qualified’, but became eligible to one-time state funding last year ahead of the presidential elections.
The package of legislative amendments may undergo some revisions before and during second hearing in the parliament.