Georgia’s legislative amendments, redrawing single-mandate constituencies, are an “important step forward” to hold elections respecting the principle of equal suffrage, the Venice Commission, Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs said, but it also criticizes the legislation for lacking specific method for establishing constituencies and criteria for permitted deviations in the number of voters among districts.
The Venice Commission, which has reviewed the legislation jointly with experts from OSCE’s democracy and rights arm ODIHR, also noted concerns of “many electoral stakeholders” as the process of drafting the bill lacked “transparency, impartiality and broad engagement.”
The Venice Commission also notes as “a matter of concern” the fact that boundaries of 30 out of 73 single-mandate districts still remain to be delimitated – the process expected to be finalized just several months before the October 2016 parliamentary elections.
Redrawing of electoral boundaries was proposed by the ruling GD coalition in an attempt to on the one hand maintain existing majoritarian component of the electoral system for 2016 parliamentary elections – something the opposition parties are strongly against of, 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 electoral districting, which had existed for many years, was undermining 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.
The bill, approved by the Parliament in December and signed into law by President Giorgi Margvelashvili in January, has significantly narrowed discrepancy between the size of constituencies through merging of small districts and splitting of large ones. The legislation was sent to the Venice Commission in January, after it was already adopted.
In parallel, the Parliament also changed the rule of electing majoritarian MPs in single-mandate constituencies, replacing plurality vote with majority vote. Under the previous rule a majoritarian MP candidate with more votes than others, but not less than 30%, was declared an outright winner of the race. According to the new rule, threshold required for an outright victory in the first round has increased from 30% to 50%. A second round runoff should be held if none of the candidate garners more than 50% of votes.
A joint opinion of the Venice Commission and ODIHR says that they “positively note the amendments related to the redrawing of single-member constituencies and to the threshold to elect members of parliament under the majority system.”
“The amendments pertaining to the redrawing of constituencies represent an important step forward to hold elections respecting inter alia the principle of equal suffrage. Deviations among the number of voters in constituencies that previously undermined the principle of equal suffrage have largely been addressed in line with previous recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR and the Venice Commission,” it says.
But it also said that the election code “could benefit from certain revisions to ensure the effectiveness of these new provisions, as well as their full compliance with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards.”
“In particular, the amendments do not provide a specific method for establishing constituencies… [Amendments] do not specify criteria for permitted deviations in the number of voters, and do not sufficiently address the issue of managing future boundary reviews,” the Venice Commission said.
On the process of how the redistricting was drafted, the Venice Commission said that “consultation on the proposed boundaries suffered from a lack of stakeholder engagement, which further undermined the inclusiveness of the process.”
“Stakeholders also raised concerns over the process of disregarding other important considerations, such as existing municipal divisions as well as historical, geographical and demographic factors, and stated that the process could be used for obtaining short-term political objectives (gerrymandering),” it said.
Experts from the Venice Commission and ODIHR visited Tbilisi in February and met with the Speaker of the Parliament, representatives from parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, the Central Election Commission (CEC), the presidential administration, and civil society as well as international organizations working in the electoral field in Georgia.
While the boundaries of 43 single-mandate districts are already defined exact delimitation of remaining 30 constituencies has yet to be finalized. That includes planned 22 constituencies in Tbilisi; 3 in Kutaisi; 3 in Batumi, and 2 in Rustavi. According to the legislation, the Central Election Commission has to define precise boundaries of those constituencies no later than June 1. The District Election Commissions would then have until 1 July to verify and finalize constituency boundaries under their respective control. But specifically for the upcoming elections in October, the boundaries should be finalized before April 1 and verification should be made by June 1.
“There remains limited time to finalise the redistricting and to ensure that all potential contestants as well as voters are sufficiently informed of all changes,” the Venice Commission said. “These late changes might disadvantage some political parties and candidates and thus may be perceived as politically biased. Moreover, the late finalisation of boundaries may pose a challenge to ensure that voters are sufficiently informed as to the changes to their electoral constituencies.”