Parliament passed with its first reading on Friday a proposal to redistrict single-mandate majoritarian constituencies amid at narrowing huge disparity in number of voters between single-mandate constituencies for next year’s parliamentary elections.
Redrawing of electoral boundaries has been proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in an attempt to on the one hand maintain much-criticized existing majoritarian component of the electoral system for 2016 parliamentary elections and on the other to address the long-standing issue of huge disparity in size of single-mandate constituencies.
The Georgian Constitutional Court ruled in May, 2015 that existing electoral districts undermine equality of vote because of large discrepancy in size of single-mandate constituencies – ranging from over 150,000 voters in the largest one to less than 6,000 voters in the smallest one.
‘Unfair’ Mixed Electoral System
Debates in the Parliament over the GD-proposed redistricting mostly focused on the existing electoral system in general; more detailed discussion specifically on how each electoral district is redrawn under the proposal is expected during the second reading of the bill.
Georgia has mixed electoral system in which 73 lawmakers in 150-seat Parliament are elected in 73 majoritarian, single-mandate constituencies, and remaining 77 seats are allocated proportionally under the party-list contest among political parties, which clear 5% threshold.
A large group of parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties, as well as civil society groups and election monitoring organizations are pushing for scrapping of the majoritarian component of the system.
Opponents’ main argument is that the existing mixed electoral system is “unfair” because it can potentially produce distribution of seats in Parliament different from those reflected in proportional, party-list election results.
Difference between distribution of seats and votes received in party-list contest was obvious in the previous Parliament, when then ruling UNM party was holding over 79% of seats although receiving slightly over 59% of votes in 2008 parliamentary elections. That was because UNM at the time won all but four single-mandate, majoritarian constituencies across the country.
But it was not the case in 2012 elections, when overall seats won by Georgian Dream coalition and UNM, both in majoritarian and proportional contests, mainly matched share of votes they won in party-list contest.
Mismatch, however, was evident in the 2014 local elections for Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo), where a similar system is applied, when although receiving 46% of votes in party-list contest, GD gained 74% of seats in Tbilisi Sakrebulo because of winning all but one single-mandate, majoritarian constituencies of the capital city.
Some of those parties, which are now in the GD ruling coalition – Republican Party, Conservatives, National Forum – were themselves pushing for scrapping of the majoritarian component when they were in the opposition. GD coalition agrees to scrap the majoritarian system only for post-2016 elections.
UNM party, which is now in the opposition and is calling for this system to be replaced, was strongly against of it when it was in the government.
Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party said in late September that there was disagreement within the GD about scrapping the majoritarian component for next year’s election and his party had to agree on maintaining the system for 2016 elections in order not to cause collapse of the coalition.
During the debates on proposed redistricting on December 10 UNM lawmaker Mikheil Matchavariani told GD MPs that by maintain the existing system they were repeating “mistake” of the previous government.
“It is obvious that you have no political will to [change this system] like we [UNM] had no such [will] when we thought that we could have maintained power by maintaining the majoritarian system,” MP Matchavariani said.
MP Irakli Chikovani of the opposition Free Democrats said that GD’s resistance to change the electoral system demonstrates the ruling coalition’s “fear” that it may lose majority in the Parliament if elections are held under the proportional system.
New Political Center-Girchi (pine cone), a new political party launched by four former UNM lawmakers, was proposing replacing existing single-mandate majoritarian constituencies, with multi-mandate ones.
GD MP Zviad Dzidziguri of the Conservative Party told lawmakers when presenting the bill that the proposed redistricting might “not be popular” move, but it became necessary to put the to put the majoritarian component of the electoral system in line with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
The proposal will significantly narrow discrepancy between the size of constituencies through merging of some small constituencies and splitting of large ones.
Currently boundaries of single-mandate constituencies mostly coincide with those of administrative borders of municipalities.
It will no longer be the case if the proposed bill goes into force.
Election observer organizations, including OSCE-led international election monitoring missions, have been repeatedly raising the issue of disparity among constituencies for many years in their election monitoring reports.
In its Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters, the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, the Venice Commission, recommends that the maximal deviation from the average size of a constituency should not exceed 10%, and “should certainly not exceed 15% except in special circumstances.” Reference to this norm is also made in a decision of the Constitutional Court.
Back in 2011, then Georgian authorities were telling the Venice Commission, that it would have been too difficult politically to carry out a complete redistricting and to move away from the confluence of electoral district and municipal boundaries.
In Georgia’s case an average size of a constituency is roughly 47,698 voters, if counted based on data according to which there are total of 3,482,021 voters in Georgia.
Under the proposed redistricting, most of the constituencies will fall within the margin of 10-15% deviation norm.
In the existing boundaries, which coincide with those of municipalities, only about 12 out of 73 election districts fall within 15% deviation norm.
Under the proposed redistricting there are 14 constituencies where departure from this norm will be beyond 15%.
For instance single-mandate constituency in Mestia, which will not be redrawn as a result of this proposal, has roughly 8,000 voters, which is far less than the average size.
Along with Mestia, no change will apply under the proposed redistricting 12 constituencies – Sagarejo; Gurjaani, Akhmeta; Mtskheta; Khashuri; Akhalkalaki; Ninotsminda; Sachkhere; Chiatura; Tskaltubo; Senaki, and Poti.
The remaining 60 constituencies will be redistricted.
The capital city of Tbilisi, where almost third of the country’s voters reside and which now consists of ten single-mandate constituencies, will be divided into 18 constituencies. Boundaries of those planned 18 constituencies, however, are not yet defined.
Rustavi, wich has about 104,000 voters, will be divided into two single-mandate constituencies; as a result the city will elect two majoritarian MPs instead of one, according to the proposal.
Some small neighboring municipalities, which currently represent separate single-mandate constituencies electing one majoritarian MP each, will be electorally merged, but administratively will still remain separate municipalities.
For instance Dusheti, Kazbegi and Tianeti will merge into a single one-seat district with total of roughly over 42,000 voters.
The similar merger will also apply to Signagi and Dedoplistskaro; Tsalka and Dmanisi; Ambrolauri and Oni; Tsageri and Lentekhi; Abasha and Martvili; Tsalenjikha and Chkhorotsku; Shuakhevi and Khulo.
Some other constituencies will face different kind of redistricting, involving incorporating part and not the entire adjoining municipality.
For instance Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, which after the reform will elect three instead of one majoritarian MP, will incorporate electorally several villages of Terjola municipality. Batumi will be divided into three single-mandate constituencies and they will also incorporate neighboring Khelvachauri municipality and some villages from the Kobuleti municipality.
Opposition lawmakers argued that GD-proposed “artificial cutting and axing” of districts was still failing to provide for equality of suffrage and hence was not in line with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
GD MP Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said that boundaries of some election district might be further reviewed during the second reading of the bill. He also stressed that he sees no reason to believe that the proposal is not in line with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
Parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, said: “I am sure many of the issues will be clarified during the second reading.”
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgia’s largest election monitoring non-governmental organization, which has criticized the GD-proposed redistricting, reiterated in a statement that “the best option” to address electoral system problems is to scrap majoritarian component and to move to fully proportional system.
“Regrettably the authorities have not accepted this recommendation of non-governmental organizations, political parties and experts,” ISFED said.
GD coalition has also pledged to replace plurality vote for electing majoritarian MPs with majority vote. That entails increasing the vote threshold required for an outright victory in the first round from the current 30% to 50%. The GD coalition, however, has yet to submit a relevant legislative amendment to the Parliament.