Parliament passed with its second reading on December 18 Georgian Dream-proposed bill on redistricting single-mandate constituencies.
The draft has been revised in order to narrow even further discrepancy in size of electoral districts by merging some remaining small constituencies and further dividing larger ones.
For instance Tbilisi, which is currently divided into 10 single-mandate districts, was redistricted into 18 constituencies by the initial draft, but the revised one envisages dividing the capital city into 22 electoral districts; in addition, the village of Martkopi from the neighboring Gardabani municipality will be electorally merged into one of Tbilisi’s electoral districts.
GD MP Gia Zhorzholiani, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that the initial draft was revised in order to put the proposal completely in line with the Constitutional Court’s decision, which 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.
Citing “international practice” and Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters, the Constitutional Court said in its decision that maximum deviation from average size of a constituency should not be exceeding, without any exception, 15%. However the Code, cited by the Constitutional Court, in fact says that departure from this norm should not exceed 15% except in special circumstances such as protection of a concentrated minority and sparsely populated administrative entity.
In the initial draft most of the constituencies were falling within the margin of 10-15% deviation from the average size of a constituency by number of voters. But there were 14 constituencies, where departure from this norm was beyond 15%.
GD MP Zviad Dzidziguri, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that under the revised draft there are 12 districts where departure from an average size is between 10% and 15% and there is not a single district that would be larger or smaller by more than 15% of average size.
But this attempt to put all the districts technically within this norm has led to situation, when there might be a town that is geographically isolated from rest of its electoral district. It has further fueled the criticism from opposition lawmakers, who were slamming proposal, including its initial version, as “artificial cutting and axing” of districts.
For instance, town of Mestia in high-mountainous region of Svaneti is currently a separate single-mandate constituency and remained such in the initial draft. It has only 8,300 voters, which is far less than the average size of a district (about 47,300 voters).
According to the revised bill Mestia will be electorally merged with a district, which also unites Ambrolauri, Oni, Tsageri and Lentekhi from the Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region. Mestia to Lentekhi is a 270-300 kilometer drive.
“Of course it [the proposed redistricting] is not an easy solution,” GD MP Zviad Dzidziguri said during the debates. “This is a radical one aimed at eradicating imbalance in size of districts.”
Currently boundaries of single-mandate constituencies mostly coincide with those of administrative borders of municipalities.
It will no longer be the case after the proposed redistricting bill goes into force.
Change will not apply only to 8 out of total 73 constituencies – Sagarejo; Gurjaani, Mtskheta; Khashuri; Sachkhere; Chiatura; Tskaltubo and Samtredia. In the initial draft number of constituencies remaining in their current borders stood at 13.
Opposition parties, both the parliamentary and non-parliamentary, are against keeping single-mandate constituencies and are calling for the majoritarian component of the electoral system to be scrapped by 2016 elections.
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.
“You are losing 2016 parliamentary elections and cutting and tailoring of districts will not help you,” MP Khatuna Gogorishvili of the UNM opposition party told GD lawmakers during the debates on December 18.
“It [the proposed bill] does not provide for equal size of districts; it is not built upon consensus of political parties and the proposed redistricting is artificial,” said MP Pavle Kublashvili of the New Political Center.
MP from Free Democrats opposition party, Zurab Abashidze, criticized the revised bill as “disastrous, amorphous and worse” than the initial draft. He also said that the proposed redistricting will “confuse” voters.
The bill has to be approved with its third and final reading, but no major change can be introduced in it before the final vote.
The GD ruling coalition said that it plans a separate bill, which will 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%.