Presidential Palace, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Civil.ge/Eana Korbezashvili
Speaking to Imedi TV on March 18, Parliamentary Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said the constitutional reform commission, tasked to offer its recommendations by April 30, 2017, is coming closer to agreeing on a draft. The key changes would see abolishing of the direct presidential elections and electing the legislature through fully proportional contest, rather than the current mixed proportional/majoritarian system.
According to Kobakhidze, as the ruling Georgian Dream - Democration Georgia (GDDG) party long wished, the President will no longer be elected through a popular ballot. In a minor compromise, GDDG went back on electing the President by the parliament. Instead the Commission is moving to voting in the President through a combination of the parliamentary and “regional" votes. Vakhtang Khmaladze, member of the constitutional reform commission and former MP from the Republican Party, has authored this proposal.
He explained on March 18 that the President will be elected by a convention of 300 delegates, 150 of whom will be members of the Parliament and the remaining 150 - from the local municipal councils and the Supreme Councils of the Autonomous Republics of Adjara and Abkhazia. “These delegates will not be elected by a [party holding] majority in the local municipality councils, they will, instead, be chosen in proportion to party representation [in the councils],” Khmaladze explained. If passed, this rule would apply starting from the 2023 Presidential Elections. The upcoming 2018 Presidential Election would take place through a direct ballot.
Both adjustments were clearly aimed address the criticims levelled against GDDG, which holds the Constutitutional majority and was accused of wishing to weaken the presidency due to an acrimony with the current President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Nonetheless, the changes did not go down well - a group of civil society organizations, opposition political parties and the administration of President Giorgi Margvelashvili came out squarely against.
Commenting on the proposal on March 16, head of President Margvelashvili’s administration, Giorgi Abashishvili, slammed the decision, saying that “the Georgian people should not be deprived of the right to elect the President directly,” and that they “should be able to elect the President [directly] in 2018 and in subsequent years.”
MP Salome Samadashvili of the United National Movement criticized the proposal, saying that it “lacks reasoning on why the President should be deprived of its high legitimacy.”
Gigi Tsereteli of the Movement for Liberty-European Georgia stated that “an active, efficient President, who is directly elected, is necessary for balancing the institutional conflicts.”
“Taking into account the interests of voters and the democratic development, we believe that the President should be elected directly ,” the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the Transparency International Georgia (TI) and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) said in their joint statement on March 16.
“Abolishing the direct presidential elections is not a requirement for [instituting] a parliamentary model [of governance], since in many European countries with parliamentary system, the Presidents are elected directly despite their limited powers,” the statement reads.
If the direct elections are to be abolished, the organizations added, “it is important not to apply this rule to the next presidential elections scheduled for 2018, but introduce it only from 2023.”
“Only in this case, it will be possible to avoid the perception of the process as being targeted against specific individuals,” they also said.
The idea on changing the mode of presidential election has been floated by some GDDG lawmakers from the onset of the constitutional reform process. The ruling party lawmakers, most notably Irakli Kobakhidze, have claimed that the current institutional arrangement is deviates from the classical Parliamentary system and that thus needs to be brought to its “standard” form. President Margvelashvili regards the Commission as a tool in the hands of the ruling party, aiming to curtail the presidential powers. He has spoken ardently in favor of keeping the direct presidential elections, citing the right of “the people” to elect the head of state.
Currently, voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats are distributed proportionally in the closed party-list contest, where a party or a party bloc must clear a 5% threshold to enter the Parliament.
According to the proposed version, the 5% threshold will remain, but the majoritarian districts will be abolished in favor of an all-proportional, closed party-list contest. Controversially, the unallocated seats (calculated from the percentage of wasted votes) will only be granted to the political party which won most votes in the elections.
The electoral blocs will no longer be eligible to run for parliamentary seats, making it harder for the smaller parties to enter the Parliament on the coattails of the larger political parties, which has so far been a dominant practice.
The new electoral system, according to Kobakhidze, will ensure “the right balance” between “the two legitimate objectives of the electoral systems – pluralism and stability [of the constitutional system].”
Kobakhidze’s enthusiasm was again, not shared by the three major civil society organizations.
Pointing out that the number of unallocated seats “may reach 10% or more of total mandates,” ISFED, TI and GYLA stated that the proposed rule would only exacerbate the already glaring disproportion between the party’s nationwide support as expressed in the number of votes and its parliamentary mandates.
Opponents of the mixed electoral system often illustrate their opinion with the 2008 and 2016 Parliamentary Elections, where the final share of ruling party seats in the Parliament (80% and 77%, respectively) significantly exceeded the country-wide share of their votes in the party-list contest (59% amd 49%, respectively).
“The desire for ensuring [Government] stability is understandable, but achieving the goal through this method is unfair and unjustified. The change will be senseless, if the proportional election system as unfair and disproportional [as through the system currently in force],” they added.
The NGOs said the abolishment of the right to run in electoral blocs is particularly “radical" and "unreasonable". “This step will be particularly unacceptable if a 5% threshold is maintained and the proposed rule for unallocated seat distribution is approved,” they added.