Author Archives: Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili

Presidential Profile – Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s non-partisan President

Giorgi Margvelashvili, 47, the fourth president of Georgia was elected in 2013 with 62 percent in direct popular vote. Prior to his presidential nomination, he served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education and Science in the government of PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Although viewed as a non-partisan President right now, Margvelashvili was picked and nominated by Bidzina Ivanishvili himself for the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition in May 2013. With the victory of the Georgian Dream candidate in the presidential race, cohabitation, tense relations between the executive government (Georgian Dream) and the President Mikheil Saakashvili (United National Movement), came to an end. However, Giorgi Margvelashvili began a new era in the history of Georgian Presidency with the country moving from a president-centric system to a more parliamentary system. This transformation has caused dramatic changes in the intra-executive conflicts.

Background

Giorgi Margvelashvili joined the Georgian Dream government in 2012 when the coalition won the parliamentary elections. Before that, he was known as a philosopher, political commentator and an academician, who used to be the rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA). Mr. Margvelashvili graduated from Tbilisi State University in 1992 with a degree in Philosophy. Later he earned degrees from the Central European University in Prague, Czech Republic (1994) and the Institute of Philosophy of the Georgian Academy of Sciences (1996). Margvelashvili holds a PhD degree in Philosophy from Tbilisi State University.

However, 2012 was not his first attempt in Georgian politics. Margvelashvili was a member of the opposition party led by the Chairman of the Parliament, Zurab Zhvania, in 2003. Before joining the government, he advised Bidzina Ivanishvili during the 2012 parliamentary election campaign.

Constitutional Reform

The constitutional reform that was finalised in 2010 and enacted in 2013 changed the form of government in the country. Some politicians viewed the reform as shift from a presidential to a parliamentary model, while others claimed that Georgia was moving to semi-presidential system.

After the 2012 Parliamentary elections, for the first time in the history of independent Georgia, power was peacefully transferred from the ruling party to the opposition. However, this historic transition appeared to be painful for the political system. Cohabitation, or the change in the balance of power between the two branches of government, has led to confrontation between the executive government and the president.

Although cohabitation ended with Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013) stepping down from the office and Giorgi Margvelashvili commencing his term, intra-executive conflict has not ended.

Power of President

According to the constitution of Georgia and the amendments enacted in 2013, the President lost nearly all power over the executive government. At the same time, with the legacy set by the previous president, public perception of the institute of president was of a powerful leader and a head of the government.

Currently, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili is the head of state and guarantor of the country’s integrity and national independence; furthermore, he is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and represents Georgia in foreign relations; the President leads the National Security Council, decides the issues of granting citizenship, and has the power of pardon. The President also presents the candidate for a Chairman of the government of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara  and Abkhazia to the Supreme Council for approval;

Transformation into the non-partisan president

Margvelashvili expressed his disobedience to the master, Bidzina Ivanishvili, soon after his inauguration. First, he openly disagreed with the possible relocation of the Administration of the President from the Presidential Palace. The Presidential Palace, which was built during Saakashvili’s term, was strongly disliked by Ivanishvili as a symbol of UNM’s rule in the country. Instead, the PM commissioned the renovation of a new building for the President’s residence. Despite the fact that more than 10 million USD of public funds were spent on the refurbishment, Margvelashvili refused to relocate and continues to work in the Avlabari Presidential Palace to this day.

When Bidzina Ivanishvili stepped down as Prime Minister a major intra-executive conflict unfolded between the President and a new PM, Irakli Gharibashvili.

Constitutional ambiguity was demonstrated in several occasions:

In 2014, Georgia signed an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. The Agreement acknowledged Georgia’s progress on the path to European integration, promised a deep and comprehensive free trade with the EU, and visa-free travel.

As the highest representative in foreign relations, Margvelashvili’s administration considered that the President was the right person to sign the AA for Georgia. However, PM Gharibashvili viewed the head of the executive government as the right person to sign the document. Finally, PM Gharibashvili won the battle and on June 24, he 2014 signed the agreement on behalf of Georgia.

In 2014, participation in the UN General Assembly in New York caused another conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. As usual, Georgian delegations were headed by Presidents (Shevardnadze, Saakashvili), who also addressed the GA. However, the government decided that PM should head the delegation instead of Margvelashvili. Both offices began to plan the visit independently, without any coordination, until former PM, Bidzina Ivanishvili, accused the president of acting as a competitor to the prime minister. Soon, Margvelashvili cancelled the visit and accused the government of ignoring the constitution. (Tabula, 2014)

On Georgia’s Independence Day on May 26, President Margvelashvili sent out copies of the constitution to the prime minister, MPs, and the Supreme and Constitutional courts as a symbolic gesture calling the state institutions to respect the constitution. (A.Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili for Presidential Power. 2015)

The intra-executive conflict faded when Irakli Gharibashvili resigned without explanation and the new Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili took office.

Gharibashvili’s successor, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has gone out of his way to present a united front with Margvelashvili. He made a point of attending a session of the National Security Council that Margvelashvili convened in late January, whereas Gharibashvili had participated in only one of three such sessions under Margvelashvili’s chairmanship. (Radio Free Europe, Liz Fuller 2016)

New Constitutional Reform without the President

President Margvelashvili’s administration is widely engaged in the legislative process. The President has vetoed several bills. However, the ruling Georgian Dream, which enjoys supermajority in the Parliament, does not fear presidential vetoes.

Most recently, the Chairman of the Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, inaugurated a new constitutional commission consisting of 73 members, tasked with producing amendments to the Constitution.

As reported by Civil Georgia, the President refrained from participating in the work of the state constitutional commission because the format offered by the Parliament “obviously lacks political trust and political legitimization”.

The chief of president’s administration explained that the President wanted the commission to be co-chaired by him, Prime Minister and Parliamentary Chairman, but the ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia party rejected this proposal. (Civil.ge)

One of the issues that the constitutional commission will touch upon will be the indirect election of future presidents of Georgia.

The next Presidential elections in Georgia are due to take place in 2018. However, it is uncertain if Margvelashvili intends to participate in the race for the second term, or if he has any intention of remaining in politics.

www.president.gov.ge – official website of the Georgian President.

Official Facebook Page of Giorgi Margvelashvili

Georgia – Political Landscape After Parliamentary Elections

On November 16, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Georgia published its final summary protocol for October 2016 Parliamentary elections. The CEC confirmed that three electoral subjects: Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG), United National Movement (UNM) and the Alliance of Patriots would enter the Parliament of Georgia. Following the announcement of final election results, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, convened the inaugural session of the newly elected parliament on November 18.

The ruling GDDG received 115 seats in the parliament (both majoritarian and party list results), followed by its major opponent the United National Movement with 27 MPs and the Alliance of Patriots with six seats; additionally, one majoritarian MP from Industrialists and an independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili managed to enter the 150-seat-strong legislative assembly.

This parliamentary election was remarkable. Although, only one majoritarian candidate nominated by the Industry Will Save Georgia (Industrialists) party won the seat in Khashuri constituency of Eastern Georgia, the party itself did not clear the three percent threshold necessary for qualifying for public funding. However, the Central Election Commission made a judgement and took a decision to grant public funding to the Industrialists for being represented by one majoritarian MP in the parliament. The CEC judgement has received harsh criticism from major watchdog organisations (GYLA, ISFED, Transparency Georgia), who accused the CEC of putting one political party in a privileged position without it meeting the criteria for additional public funding. It is worth noting that the CEC decision will also affect the composition of the Central Election Commission, whereby the more GDDG-friendly Industrials will replace the Free Democrats, the more outspoken opponents to the ruling party.

Apart from that, the recent research findings published by Transparency International Georgia note that the use of administrative resources by the ruling party in some instances, notably public servants were mobilized for electoral events in many cases. However, Transparency Georgia does not view the observed cases as influential for the e-day outcome.

Confidence vote for Georgian Dream Government

Following the inaugural session, the Georgian parliament voted for a new cabinet of ministers headed by the same prime-minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Kvirikashvili himself led the Georgian Dream Democratic Georgia party list for parliamentary elections. The cabinet, where 18 ministers have remained after the portfolio of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues was subsumed by the Foreign Ministry, was reshuffled only slightly.

A four-year program of the government entitled “Freedom, Rapid Development, Welfare” was approved, as expected. Equipped with the supermajority in the parliament (115 seats), GDDG will be able to pass any initiative during the four-year term.

Elections over – political landscape still reshaping

The election had far-reaching for the rest of political spectrum. Before the run-offs, the leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, left politics and withdrew from the second round race in the Gori constituency. Apart from Alasania, several leaders and former Free Democrats MPs left the party and spoke of the possibility of cooperating with their former political opponent – GDDG. Just recently, one of the former leader’s of Alasania’s political party was appointed as a minister in the GDDG cabinet.

David Usupashvili, the Parliamentary Chairman (2012-2016) and the leader the Republican Party, has left the party as well. The Republican Party, the oldest political party in Georgia and prominent for its liberal values, was represented in the previous parliament (2012-2016) as part of the ruling coalition. Parting from the coalition just months before elections, the Republicans received less than two per cent of the vote in the elections and none of its majoritarian candidates succeeded. Several leaders and tens of party members followed Usupashvili’s decision. Although he made it clear he has no intention of leaving the political scene, Usupashvili’s political future is uncertain.

The post-electoral period has also revealed significant divisions in the United National Movement as well, where Mikheil Saakashvili, broadcasting live from Odessa inUkraine, called on the party not to recognise the election result, to reject any participation in the run-offs, and to refuse to take up any parliamentary seats. Part of the UNM leadership went against Saakashvili by accepting the parliamentary seats and running in the second round. Only Sandra Roelofs, who is Saakashvili’s wife and who was number two on the party list, withdrew from the runoff race and asked the Central Election Commission to annul her parliamentary mandate.

The internal feud in the United National Movement continued even after the decision to enter the Parliament. At this point, two major opposing groups have emerged. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of Georgian citizenship when he accepted a Ukrainian passport, automatically lost his position as a party chairman and his seat remains vacant. Saakashvili’s opposition in the party – Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava (former Mayor of Tbilisi, currently in prison) and their supporters – are advocating for a renewal of the party, which among other things includes election of a new chair.

Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst, views the internal conflict in United National Movement as deep and multidimensional. According to Nodia, by becoming a Ukrainian politician and being away from Georgia, Saakashvili lost his leadership and influence in the party. It is obvious for Ghia Nodia that fractioning will weaken the UNM more.

Internal developments in the UNM have attracted public attention for several reasons: firstly, it is the only former ruling party in Georgia which managed to avoid dissolution after the defeat in  the election; secondly, it continued functioning while its leader had to flee Georgia and while a number of other leaders are in prison (Former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia); thirdly, the UNM has remained a vocal parliamentary opposition against the government.

On November 30, Civil.ge reported that the UNM leadership held a meeting of its political council, the highest governing body of the party. The council decided in favor of the decision to hold a congress with the participation of 7,000 delegates, as ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili wanted. Twenty-four members voted against and two members abstained.

Saakashvili’s wing in the party has called for the election of a new chairperson as deciding otherwise would mean that the party distances itself from Mikheil Saakashvili, hence what they consider a “political suicide”.

Mikheil Saakashvili has just recently resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region and has become a leader of the opposition movement in Ukraine. He welcomed “the correct decision” taken by his party in favor of holding a large-scale congress.

For the UNM, unity is of critical importance at the moment. However, the depth of the conflict demonstrates the lack of resources in the party. At the same time, the need for renewal and change, or the confirmation of the fact that there is life after Saakashvili is absolutely obvious.

Georgia – Ruling Party Wins A Big Majority In Parliamentary Elections

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On October 8, 2016 Georgia held a parliamentary elections to elect 150 MPs using a mixed electoral system. According to this system voters elected 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats were distributed proportionally in a closed party-list contest, whereby the party must clear a 5% threshold to win representation. In total, 25 parties and 816 majoritarian candidates contested the election.

Pre-election atmosphere

Despite the high number of parties, the United National Movement (which was the ruling party from 2004-2012) and the Georgian Dream (the ruling party since 2012) remained the front-runners according to all pre-election opinion polls (NDI & IRI polls).

The UNM emphasized renewal and attempted to come out of the shadow of Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who is currently serving as governor of Odessa in Ukraine, was the founder of the party and president from 2004-2012.

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The founder of the Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now self-described as ‘just a citizen’ , but who for many remains the leader behind the scenes, was closely involved in campaigning through lengthy media appearances.

Until very recently, the electoral campaign was mostly peaceful, save for a few isolated incidents. But as the elections approached, the violence spiked, including the shootout at a campaign event in Gori and the explosion of a UNM MP’s car in the center of Tbilisi.

The “State for the People” party, which was launched by the renowned Georgian opera singer, Paata Burchuladze, just a few months before the elections, was a surprise challenger to the UNM-GD duo. Burchuladze united with several parties in an electoral bloc, including Girchi-New Political Center and Giorgi Vashadze (both of whom had recently split from the UNM). However, the unity vanished just weeks before the election day, leaving many of State for the People candidates out of the elections.

The Free Democrats and The Republicans, so called pro-western and anti-Russian factions of former Georgian Dream coalition decided to run independently.

Lastly, the pro-Russian Democratic Movement led by Nino Burjanadze and the Alliance of Patriots also actively campaigned in the pre-electoral period.

E-day

All 3,702 precincts opened at 8am on polling day, including the polling stations abroad. Georgians residing abroad could cast a ballot only if they were registered at a consulate before September 17, 2016 and attending to vote in person on October 8.

Early exit poll results commissioned jointly by public broadcaster, Imedi TV, Maestro TV, and GDS TV showed that the ruling party had won 53.8%, followed by the UNM with 19.5%, with the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots winning just over the 5% necessary to clear the threshold. The same exit polls showed Free Democrats at 4%; Labor Party at 3.1%; Paata Burchuladze’s State for People at 2.7%; and Republican Party at only 2.7%.

An alternative exit poll was commissioned by the major opposition channel Rustavi 2 TV.  Conducted by GfK and fielded by Tbilisi-based pollster BCG Research, this poll returned a better results for the UNM at 32.74%, less for GD at 39.9%, and the Alliance of Patriots at 5.76%. According to Rustavi 2 exit polls, the Labor Party won 4.21%, Paata Burchuladze’s State for People won 3.25%, the Free Democrats won 3.21%, and Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement won 2.81%.

With the exit polls proving controversial, on October 9 the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgia’s largest election monitoring non-governmental organization, released the results of its parallel vote tabulation (PVT) of proportional, party-list vote. This poll largely coincided with the early official results.

According to its PVT results, the ruling Georgian Dream party won 49.1% of the vote and UNM 26.8%. PVT’s margin of error was calculated at +/- 0.9%. ISFED was not able to determine conclusively whether or not the Alliance of Patriots had cleared the 5% threshold.  They returned the party at 4.9% of the vote, but the margin of error was +/- 0.3%.

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Several irregularities and violations were reported and complaints were filed by local and international observer organizations. In a number of precincts the electoral process and counting were interrupted due to the mob raids. Due to these incidents, several district-level results may be annulled.

Official Results

By October 10, Central Election Commission of Georgia has published the following results from all 3,702 precincts for the party-list vote:

Turnout: 51 %

Georgian Dream – 48.65%
UNM – 27.12%
Alliance of Patriots – 5%
Free Democrats – 4.62%

The process was particularly tense for Alliance of Patriots, as the CEC changed the result from 4.99% to 5% several times.

Of the 73 majoritarian constituencies only 22 candidates cleared the 50% threshold necessary for election at the first round, all of them from Georgian Dream. A second round will therefore be held in 51 constituencies, where in most cases Georgian Dream and United National Movement candidates will compete against each other. One of the exceptions is the Gori seat, where the GD and Free Democrats leader, Irakli Alasania, were to be the two main candidates. However, the leader of the Free Democrats has withdrawn from the race and announced that he is leaving politics.

These results will leave most parties outside parliament. The leader of the Democratic Movement, Nino Burjanadze, has said that he does not recognise the results of elections, while the leader of Republicans, David Usupashvili, accepted defeat.

Assesment of the International Observation Missions

The statement released by EU High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn assessed the elections as “competitive, well-administered” and said that fundamental freedoms were “generally respected”.

According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, “the calm and open campaign atmosphere was, however, impacted by allegations of unlawful campaigning and some incidents of violence. Election Day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but tensions increased during the day and several violent altercations took place near and in polling stations. However, voting was assessed positively in almost all polling stations”.

Fear of Constitutional Majority

Georgian Dream is eyeing a constitutional majority in the new parliament if it can win most of the run-off elections. It could win 113 seats in the parliament. A constitutional majority requires the support of three-quarters of the total number of MPs.

Georgian Dream has said that it wishes to initiate several constitutional amendments. Firstly, it wishes to define marriage as the union of a man and woman. Secondly, it has openly declared that the President should be elected by parliament instead of by a popular vote. They also wish to change the procedures for impeaching the president, as well as power to change the electoral system.

With only three parties likely to be represented in parliament, Georgia’s young democracy is about to enter a new cycle that will test its political and democratic stability.

Georgia ahead of Parliamentary Elections

Election date misunderstanding

Under the constitution, the Georgian Parliament’s 150 members serve four-year terms, with 77 seats set by proportional representation and 73 in single-seat constituencies. Georgia’s constitution calls for the next parliamentary elections to be held in October, with the country’s president setting the exact date no later than two months before voters go to the polls.

In April, six months ahead of elections, in a televised briefing President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili set the upcoming parliamentary election date for October 8. The timing of the announcement has caused another misunderstanding between the president and the major political parties, which received such an early announcement with little enthusiasm. Some political parties noted that such a long pre-electoral campaign favors the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is in control of administrative resources.

President Margvelashvili, however, defended his decision, saying that a lengthy campaigning season will benefit all of the parties who plan to take part. Later, PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili confirmed the date of parliamentary elections as October 8, however he did not confirm the official launch of the election campaign. It appears that the pre-election campaign dates remain subject to further discussions with the Central Election Commission (CEC).

“We cannot afford to pay an extra 7 or 8 million GEL (approximate USD 3.5 million) for such a lengthy pre-election campaign. We are discussing all of the technical and financial issues with the CEC and we will make a decision on when to formally launch the campaign cycle,” noted Kvirikashvili.

The official pre-election campaign for the next parliamentary elections in Georgia was only launched on June 10, 2016, two months after the President’s initial decision, when Giorgi Margvelashvili issued another decree with regards to his constitutional duty.

Although the date was set finally, the electoral environment looks far from being ready for E-day: the ruling Coalition was dissolved and the component parties are expected to run for election independently. Moreover, a number of politicians from the Georgian Dream Party have founded new political organisations for the upcoming elections. In addition to these internal struggles, issues relating to media freedom, a fair electoral environment, and inability to reach the achievement on the new electoral system are the major challenges facing the ruling Georgian Dream group.

Disagreement over the electoral reform

An interparty group was unable to reach a favorable outcome on the major electoral reform with the Georgian government, parliament and the ruling Georgian Dream party. Negotiations lasting for months encompassed changes in the electoral system, the composition of the Central Election Commission, TV advertising during pre-election campaign period, and the ratio of political party representatives in the Central Election Commission. In addition, political parties discussed the possibility of lowering the threshold for representation from 5 to 2 %.

The opposition parties claimed that the ruling coalition (at that time) and the executive government did not demonstrate the political will necessary for implementing major election related changes prior to the next Parliamentary elections.

For its part, Georgian Dream refused to dismiss the majoritarian system for the upcoming elections and expressed its readiness to enact such changes for the parliamentary elections of 2020, but not earlier.

However, it was still able to propose a change in the Electoral Code, according to which 11 electoral subjects will be able to use TV advertising time free of charge. Private TV broadcasters expressed their dissatisfaction towards the amendments that will be financially damaging for the companies.

The dissolved Georgian Dream and the renewed United National Movement

Just before starting the pre-election campaigning the ruling Coalition Georgian Dream was dissolved with its 6 political parties getting ready to participate in the elections independently. The newest of the former coalition member parties, the Georgian Dream Party itself, was founded by the former PM of Georgia, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili resigned as PM in 2014 but remains as the party leader behind the scenes. The 2016 parliamentary elections will be the first time that Georgian Dream will participate as an independent electoral party. Its former partners (Republicans, Conservatives, National Forum, Industrialists, Free Democrats) have more electoral experience but have little hope of clearing the threshold on their own.

On the other hand, the major opposition and the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), has announced the policy of so-called renewal, or new-blood candidates. The UNM has already announced its top 10 candidates, consisting of former high officials and civil servants in charge of foreign policy, Euroatlantic integration and diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the law enforcement agencies are investigating the events of 22nd May, 2016, when the UNM leaders were attacked in the village of Kortskheli during the by-elections. Six men have been charged, without being arrested, in connection to the Kortskheli violence. Lawmakers from UNM party, who are currently boycotting the Parliament over the Kortskheli incident, accuse the energy minister and general secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Kakha Kaladze, of being behind the group.

The incident was highlighted in a statement issued by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its pre-election assessment mission. The report, issued on June 17, called the event “a particularly alarming incident, ” adding that civil society and opposition as well as governing political parties lack confidence that the police, prosecutors, or courts can be relied upon to respond – whether to electoral disputes or physical confrontations – in a timely, impartial, and effective manner.

Visa Liberalisation with Europe

Meantime, citizens of Georgia are expecting the lifting visa requirements with the European Union. Although Brussels positively assessed Georgia’s progress in implementing a Visa Liberalisation Action Plan in December 2015, the EU remains hesitant to take the final decision. The EPP party group president, Joseph Daul, was first to link the outcome of parliamentary elections to the visa liberalization. Civil society organizations in Georgia feared that the topic of visa free movement with Europe would be used for political gain by different political groups and asked Daul to support the European aspiration of Georgian citizens.

Later, Mr. Daul, who is closely linked to United National Movement, had to deny any such relation between the elections and the lifting of visa requirements. During his visit to Gorgia in March 2016, he clarified that current challenges of the EU might be the major reasons behind the delaying of the decision on a visa-free regime.

Merabishvili Case

After the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the UNM lost its majority to the Georgian Dream, several leaders of the UNM were arrested and later sentenced. They included the former elected Mayor of Tbilisi, Giorgi Ugulava, as well as secretary general of the UNM and former PM, Ivane Merabishvili, and former Defense Minister Bachana Akhalaia. The UNM has accused Georgian Dream of trying to defeat former ruling party with the arrests.

Recently, in June the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the detention of Georgia’s ex-interior minister Vano Merabishvili was “used not only for the purpose of bringing” him before the relevant legal authorities on “reasonable suspicion” of various offenses with which he had been charged, “but was also treated by the prosecuting authorities as an additional opportunity to obtain leverage” over investigations into unrelated cases, including the one against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.

As a result, the Strasbourg-based court found that there has been a violation of Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights taken in conjunction with Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security).

The UNM views the decision as a conformation that its leaders are being held as political prisoners in the country and repeatedly accuses Georgian Dream of using undemocratic tactics when dealing with political opposition

Rustavi 2 and press freedom case

One of the major guarantees of free and fair pre-electoral campaigning is the existence of a free media. For almost a year, the major opposition TV channel in Georgia, Rustavi 2 case, has been involved in a court case as the former owner who sold his shares back in 2006 appealed to the court to demand annulation of the sales contracts and over 18 million GEL ($7.5 million) from Rustavi 2’s current owners. As reported by Eurasianet, Khalvashi (the former owner) claimed that he was forced by President Saakashvili to give up the company in 2006 and transfer it to the owners who were chosen by the ex-president.

Rustavi 2 considered the event to be an attempted attack on the free media. Rustavi 2’s current Director, Nika Gvaramia, said he suspected that the judges are under the influence of the government. On the TV Show, “Archevani” Gvaramia stated the government, in his opinion, is interested in the disappearance of a critical media before the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Apart from the Rustavi 2 case, anumber of popular political talk shows have recently been closed down and popular journalists have been dismissed from the Public Broadcast, Imedi TV and Maestro TV.

Three months ahead of parliamentary elections – a major test for Georgia’s democracy – the electoral environment remains fragile due to the suspicions about the existence of political prisoners, attacks on media, and ambiguity about the electoral system.

Georgia – Ruling Coalition Dissolved

The Georgian Dream Coalition, which has ruled the country and held a majority in parliament since the elections of 2012, has dissolved just months before the next parliamentary elections.

Although the major opposition and the former ruling party, the United National Movement, began to speculate about the possible break-up of the ruling coalition much earlier, the dissolution has occurred in the run up to the next elections.

The Georgian Dream – Democratic Party emerged only in 2012 when its billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, stepped onto the Georgian political stage. At that time, Ivanishvili established a coalition for the parliamentary elections, uniting the Republicans, Free Democrats, Conservatives, Industrialists, the National Forum, and a few independent politicians under the umbrella of the Georgian Dream.

The Georgian Dream party (GD) itself has always held a leading role in the coalition and, accordingly, GD party candidates dominated the electoral list and, later, cabinet of ministers in the government.

The first signs of discord in the coalition came in November 2014, when the Free Democrats, led by the former Defense minister, Irakli Albania, split from the coalition. With this move, the Free Democrats (FD) also lost all their leading positions in Parliament and government. FD still has a group (10 lawmakers) in the current parliament, but is in opposition to the current government.

The Republican Party, which was founded in 1978 and is based on liberal values, has always been viewed as the number two of the coalition. The Republicans strengthened their position inside the coalition, especially after the Free Democrats left: they have the chairman of the parliament, a parliamentary group, and three ministers in the cabinet (one of them being the Defense ministry).

Former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded GD party and the coalition, spoke about the need for a reshuffle in October 2015, when he noted that at least half of the current lawmakers from the ruling coalition may not appear on the party list of candidates for 2016 parliamentary elections.

Ivanishvili, although he holds no official position, is regarded as the informal ruler of the coalition and the government. Thus, his statement carried a clear message that the future of the parties inside the coalition was uncertain.

Beginning in March 2016, the Republicans announced about the “strategic partnership” deal with the Georgian Dream party. However, the essence of the particular partnership was never explained to the public as it became apparent that the Republicans were simply fighting for extra places on the electoral list.

The possible bilateral deal with the Republicans was confirmed by the Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who stated that the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG), was considering a partnership agreement with the Republican Party and that others within the coalition would have to join if GD was to remain a multi-party entity for the October 2016 parliamentary elections.

However, PM Kvirikashvili also added: “GD Party will of course be renewed to a significant extent and there will be a consolidation over joint goals. Overall, if we run in the elections as a coalition, the team will unite over very clear goals, which are based on our best values and traditions and of course on a consensus over Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic future.”

Interestingly, the Georgian Dream coalition has united parties of different values and visions and for that reason was often referred as an eclectic creation, bringing together left, right, socialists and conservatives.

By mid-March, divisions between the ruling majority parties became evident. In particular, two of them – the Industrialists and Republicans – were engaged in a public confrontation for weeks. Furthermore, one of the leaders of the Industrialist Party, MP Gogi Topadze, accused Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party of manipulating Sagarejo MP by-election results in October 2015.

Conscious uncoupling

By the end of March 2016, the Republicans announced that they had decided what they were going to do at the upcoming elections. However, the public waited for the statement for three days, suspecting that the Republicans were taking final attempts to agree on their terms for the elections.

On March 31, the Chairperson of the Republican Party, Khatuna Samnidze, stated that, the party had taken its decision to run independently at a meeting on March 27 but had delayed the announcement due to the PM Kvirikashvili’s request.

Later, the Chair of the Parliament and the Republican, David Usupashvili, clarified the party’s decision. “It was clear for us that the priority of the Georgian Dream party is to run separately in the upcoming elections. We accept this reality and challenge, which is normal for a multi-party political system … To some extent, this is also a novelty in Georgian political life. Many ask how we can manage to be partners and competitors at the same time – that’s how it works; European democracy is unimaginable otherwise,” stated Usupashvili.

It is worth nothing that the break up of the Republicans from the coalition did not result in resignation of party ministers from the ruling cabinet. Furthermore, Republicans confirmed that they would continue working as a team in the government, until the PM decides to dismiss them.

Even after the Republicans left, the Georgian Dream did not confirm the dissolution of the coalition. Only later did formal statements come from the Conservatives and the National Forum confirming their decision to run independently in the elections. Only the Industrialists abstained from a formal divorce.

The Georgian Dream party is expected to hold its party convention next month and promises to present its electoral list for the next elections.

Opinion Polls

NDI Opinion Poll Results, April 2016

NDI Opinion Poll Results, April 2016

On April 13, 2016 the National Democratic Institute (NDI) published the recent nationwide opinion polls. According to the survey, 61% of Georgians are undecided about their vote in the parliamentary elections. The polls demonstrated 16% support for Georgian Dream and 15% for the major opposition party, the United National Movement.

In October 2016, Georgia’s political parties need to overcome a 5% threshold in order to qualify for parliament. With the current political setting, it will be necessary to create coalitions within the parliament only after the election, something which will itself be unprecedented in the history of independent Georgia.

Georgia – Highlights of the 2016 Presidential Address

remieri-da-prezidenti

Since 1997, the constitution of Georgia has obliged the President to address an annual report to parliament. Oddly, this aspect of the constitution has remained unrevised, even though all of the president’s other powers and competencies have been amended. The current President,  Giorgi Margvelashvili, can be considered as the first non-partisan president of Georgia, but is opposed to most of the government policies. Georgia’s current semi-presidential constitutional  model is premier-presidential, in which president holds little power over the rest of the executive branch.

For the third year in a row President Margvelashvili’s annual address to the parliament was preceded by political speculations, uncertainties and expectations.

The Constitution does not clearly define format or a length of the president’s address. Article 73 of the Constitution of Georgia states: “4. The President of Georgia shall have the right to address the people and Parliament. The President shall annually submit a report of crucial state-related issues to Parliament.”

This time, the format of the event became a source of disagreement between the political groups in Parliament. The major opposition party, the United National Movement, demanded an open political debate with the President after the speech. The Chair of the Parliament did not allow the debate, but the parliamentary factions were given the opportunity to make statements after the Presidential address.

In addition, in previous years the government, including the Prime Minister, refused to attend the presidential address, emphasising the political divisions between the president and the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

On February 3, 2016 President Margvelashvili arrived in Kutaisi to give a speech to parliament. The newly appointed PM, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, and members of the Cabinet were present in the chamber along with chairperson of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, the central bank chief, and foreign diplomats. The Prime Minister’s presence marked the end of the boycott of the presidency by the executive branch. President Margvelashvili hinted at this issue in his speech: “Political or personal confrontation should not translate into infringement of fundamental, constitutional institutions,” he said.

The 55-minute long speech carried important messages and highlighted a number of issues related to the political and economic future of the country.

The president considered the economic situation in the country to be “difficult”. Further, he stressed the importance of using all the opportunities to strengthen the economy despite external shocks.

President Margvelashvili has declared 2016 as “a year of the European state”, highlighting his vision for the European future of Georgia “not as a guest in the family of the European states, but as a fully-fledged member of this union.” Furthermore, he noted that the “clear goal” should be turning from a “pro-Western state into Western State.” The President expects the European Commission to give the go-ahead to lifting visa requirements for Georgian citizens in the Schengen area this year meaning that “the European doors will open for the Georgian citizens for free movement.”

The President also raised the issue of electoral system reform: like many of the opposition parties, he has been advocating the scrapping of the majoritarian component of the electoral system at the 2016 parliamentary elections. The Georgian Dream ruling coalition, however, wants to do it after the 2016 elections.

The President noted that despite the general consensus about the future of the system, divisions remain on the timing:  “I call on the political forces to carry out these changes in 2016,” he said.

The President also touched upon the issue of media freedom, emphasising the importance of having divergent and independent media sources in the election year. The President has called on the politicians to impose a “self-limitation” on themselves and to refrain from “assessing” media sources’ editorial policies.

“In an efficient democratic system strong political forces make key players,” Margvelashvili said, adding that strong political parties would add to diversity of Georgia’s political landscape, meaning  voters will no longer face “the choice between bad and worse.”

President Margvelashvili also voiced his opinion on the issue of re-establishing good relations with Russia: “Relations [with the Russian Federation] should be based on the following points: like with any other country, Georgia aspires to relations based on equality; a united, strong, democratic and developed Georgia is a guarantee of security … in the Caucasus. Not a single country, including Russia, can achieve its own wellbeing at the expense of occupation of territories of neighbouring countries.”

At the same time, he said, Georgia should continue its policy of promoting non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the international stage. “We should not rest even for a second in this regard,” the President said. President has expressed his fears that Russia is “actively using soft power” in order to “neutralize” Georgia’s effort to secure territorial integrity and this is something that requires “close coordination with our western partners.”

The President said that economic relations with Russia should be welcomed, but warned that “soft power” can also be applied in this regard. “I have to reiterate that it concerns especially Gazprom,” stated Margvelashvili, and added that the Georgian government’s ongoing negotiations with Russian gas supplier Gazprom should be carried out “transparently.”

“The Euro-Atlantic integration remains Georgia’s priority. We will use all the instruments that NATO makes available for strengthening our defence capabilities. We will continue efforts for joining NATO,” said the president, and acknowledged the Georgian army forces for their contribution to operations.

President’s annual address was met with criticism from the opposition political groups (UNM, NPC, FD) in the parliament as expected, but representatives of the ruling coalition Georgian Dream did not hide their disagreement with his statements either.

However, the tone of the presidential address and the priorities of the government presented by the PM Kvirikashvili to the parliament of Georgia a couple of months ago showed more unity than division.

For the full text of the address, please visit www.president.gov.ge

Georgia – Resignation of Prime Minister

On December 23, 2015 Georgian Prime Minister’s administration made an announcement about Mr. Gharibashvili’s forthcoming press statement but without the presence of journalists. The press conference was delayed several times during the day and rumors about PMs resignation were confirmed by the evening. In his 5 minute long resignation address, Irakli Gharibashvili did not clarify the reasons that led him to such an unexpected decision.

“Holding an office – be it of interior minister or prime minister, and being in government in general has never been a goal in itself for me,” noted Gharibashvili. “For me this is a mean to serve my country!”- said the former PM.

Irakli Garibashvili, 33, who first became a Ministry of Interior (2011) thanks to the working experience with Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s (Georgia’s former PM) private business, was nominated as PM by Ivanishvili, after his resignation from the office (2013).

Although, Georgia’s Minister of Defense Titantin Khidasheli stated that the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was not completely unexpected, as he had achieved all his goals he set and had “paved the way for a new leader, for new blood” to lead the country, the event has raised questions in the society.

Firstly, just few days earlier, on December 18, Georgian government received a green light on visa liberalization process with the EU, meaning that the European Commission positively assessed the policies and actions of the government to fulfill the visa liberalization action plan. Visa free movement in Schengen area was one of the top electoral promises of Georgian Dream and the positive assessment of the EU was considered as a victory of the current government.

Secondly, Georgia is due to conduct its parliamentary elections in fall 2016 and the resignation of the government just 9 months before the elections did not look like right time for a “new blood” as the government would soon move on to “electoral mode”.

PM's Seasons Greetings

PM’s Seasons Greetings

Surprisingly so, Christmas cards featuring the PM with his family were distributed to stakeholders as scheduled, even after his resignation (or they were sent out before the unplanned resignation). This became one of the suspicious signs that the former PM did not plan a resignation well in advance.

Signs of informal governance

The major opposition party United National Movement claims that former PM, Bidzina Ivanishvili remains as an informal decision maker to the government and that Gharibashvili’s unexpected resignation was decided on his behalf.

Opposition MP Zurab Abashidze, Free Democrats noted that the event left him with the impression that “no one, but few people within the ruling coalition, knew about Gharibashvili’s intention to resign.” Abashidze added that keeping the ruling majority members unaware of such an important decision was yet another indication of Ivanishvili’s “informal rule.”

Giorgi Gabashvili, MP, United National Movement suspected that “nothing is changing in principle” with the resignation of Gharibashvili.

“I would call it reshuffle of puppets; Gharibashvili has never been an independent figure and leader. He has always been a very energetic executor of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s orders… and other government members are Ivanishvili’s clerks,” Gabashvili told Imedi TV.

Other opposition leaders and some political experts suggested that the cabinet reshuffle about ten months before the parliamentary elections was possibly made in response to declined public support for the Georgian Dream ruling coalition.

November poll, commissioned by NDI, showed most of the voters undecided; GD’s support among likely voters stood at 18%, which is up by 4 percentage points since August, but 6 percentage points lower than in April, 2015. UNM opposition party had 12% support among likely voters, compared to 15% and 16% in August and April, respectively; Free Democrats – had 7% support, compared to 5% in August and April. (see www.civil.ge)

New Government – No changes in the Cabinet of Ministers

Garibashvili’s abrupt resignation created a need for nomination of the new PM and the approval of the new cabinet, as the existing one could only act as an interim government.

The candidacy of a new PM came from Ivanishvili’s most trusted circle: Giorgi Kvirikashvili, 48 who also joined Georgian Dream after working for Ivanishvili’s private company and earning his trust, was first given the position of the ministry for Economic Development, later shuffled to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kvirikashvili led the MFA under Gharibashvili’s government and acted as a deputy Prime Minister.

Despite his opposition with the Georgian Dream, the President confirmed the nomination of Kvirikashvili in a timely manner and presented it to the parliament for approval.

Just as short as in one week after PM’s resignation, on December 30, 2015 Parliament of Georgia approved the new government. However, Kvirikashvili did not change a single minister in his cabinet (except for MFA, as he held the position himself). The proposed cabinet of ministers did not get a vote of confidence from the opposition parties in the parliament (UNM and Free Democrats).

Amid the increased discontent with the economic situation in the country, the major expectations of the population concerned the change of the Minister of Finance, as well as the Minister for Education. However, the anticipated reshuffle did not happen.

Unlike Gharibashvili, the new PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili is known for his ability to communicate with the opposition and relatively moderate stand on political rivals. Moreover, Kvirikashvili still remains the most trusted person before Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Apart from his PM office, Irakli Gharibashvili has also resigned from the position of a chairman of Georgian Dream party and with that, prospects of his political future within the ruling coalition have vanished.

Both, the political future of former PM Irakli Gharibashvili and the composition of the ruling coalition Georgian Dream for the upcoming elections remain uncertain.

Georgia – New Old Debate on the Federal Model of Governance

According to the constitution, Georgia is a unitary state. Due to the current territorial-administrative arrangements and political situation, the final state-territorial model is supposed to be rearranged after the restoration of effective control on the entire territory of the country (within internationally recognized borders of Georgia).

In the early 1990s the re-establishment of Georgia’s independence was accompanied by internal political turbulence and two secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, former Soviet Autonomous Republics/Oblasts. Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue de facto statehood for more than two decades now and strengthen economic-military ties with Russia, demonstrating no intention to reintegrate with Georgia.

Since the mid 90ies, with Eduard Shevardnadze (1997-2003) in power, there have been several attempts to offer Abkhazia federal model of governance and wide autonomy, that later transformed into a proposal on asymmetric federalism; and finally, in 2007, President Saakashvili’s (2004-2013) the New Peace Initiative, among others included the post of vice-president and the veto power on the issues concerning Abkhazia.

Surprisingly so, the current government of Georgia, Coalition Georgian Dream (in power since October, 2012 – holding majority in the parliament) has not presented its vision on the restoration of the territorial integrity and moreover, renamed the former Ministry of Reintegration into a Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality. The new ministry has followed the old strategy of the former Government – Engagement through Cooperation approved in 2010.

In this light, the statement of Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Paata Zakareishvili that Georgia is ready to discuss the model of federal governance where Abkhazia will be granted special status was understood as a demonstration of the new vision of Georgian Dream government towards the breakaway regions.

“Under the Constitution of Georgia, we would like to offer our people on the occupied territories protected political and civil rights. Georgia is ready to discuss federal arrangement of the country. We have certain ideas on granting Abkhazia a special status. This issue has been discussed with our political opponents too. We are certainly ready to demonstrate more openness in this regards”, – said Mr. Zakareishvili on November 4, 2015 and stressed on the importance of taking European standards and approaches with regards to the issue.

Minister received harsh criticism from the both political spectrum and the society and was forced to  make clarifications on his previous statement by calling it a personal opinion and nothing related to the stance of the Coalition Georgian Dream with regards to the settlement of the conflict in Abkhazia. Furthermore, he added that currently federal model of governance is not discussed inside the government and more notably, the issue is not on the political agenda at all.

In his attempt to clarify on the previous statement, minister said that, unfortunately, Georgian society is not ready for such discussions and even the PM’s prominent statement on the self-determination of Abkhaz was ignored by the society.

“In 2004, as a result of the initiative of me and my friends an interesting document on the federalisation of Georgia was published. It is my personal opinion as a conflicts specialist, that the most effective way of conflicts settlement in Georgia is a federative model of governance – based on asymmetric regionalism, where the status of different regions will vary – Abkhaz must possess a special status. If anyone has a better idea, I would only welcome to see that proposal, since we have not seen any progress on this issue even after 10 years.

During the latest interview, Paata Zakareishvili confirmed his scepticism on the future of conflict settlement. “It [federal model of governance] will not be introduced during my ministry term. Our current objective is human rights in conflict zone and relations with Russia. Nowadays, the government’s task is not to define the status of Abkhazia but its primary objective is not to make mistakes that will lead to new provocations from Russia. However, this will not last forever, Georgia will develop peacefully, will become a European state and then, it will face the objective of defining status of Abkhazia. The society must be ready and determined about the territorial arrangements of the country. The only experience of common statehood that we share with Abkhazia is the Soviet Union. I don’t know about the times of David the Builder (king of Georgia) but we have no other experience of common statehood. Abkhazia was never the part of independent Georgia. Our generation has no memory of this, thus it did not happen in current European reality. That’s why the society must discuss how we are going to reintegrate Abkhazia into the Georgian state.” – Minister’s controversial opinion was condemned by all the wings of the political spectrum.

As in many other instances, the statement on the federal model of governance and the special status of Abkhazia has not geared wide public discussions but yet another internal feud in Georgia. Likewise, proposals on the federal model have been repeatedly rejected by the other side.  Unlike the Minister Zakareishvili, the government has not revealed its vision on the future of the conflict settlement yet and the intention of Georgian Dream on the restoration of territorial integrity of the country remains uncertain.

Georgia – Prospects for a Mandatory Gender Quota

More than 100 countries around the world have adopted different types of gender quotas to address the issue of women’s underrepresentation in legislative bodies.

On September 24 in Tbilisi, the parliamentary committee on Human Rights and Civic Integration supported the legislative initiative of local NGOs to introduce a mandatory gender quota for the Georgian parliamentary elections of 2016.

The legislative draft, submitted to the parliament in June 2015, was prepared to introduce changes to the electoral code of the country. According to the authors of the initiative, the bill aims at increasing the share of female legislators in the next parliament to at least 25 per cent. In the current parliament there are 17 women deputies, accounting for 11.3% of the 150-seat Parliament. This will help women in the parliament to reach a so-called “critical minority” (30 or 40%).

Notably, the proposal is designed only for the party lists and, if passed, it will not oblige parties to apply the rule to the majoritarian candidates. Advocates of the gender quota hoped that the electoral system for the next elections would exclude the majoritarian system. However, the current ruling coalition Georgian Dream decided to postpone this reform until 2020.

The proposal offers the introduction of the so-called “zipper” system, where male and female candidates appear alternately on party lists. The president of Georgia has openly backed mandatory gender quotas. He reiterated his support in his annual address to the parliament in March 2015.

Furthermore, speaking at a conference in Tbilisi on women’s political participation in March, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili said that although in general he is against any kind of mandatory quotas, he is “a supporter of equality and if I see that it is impossible to achieve equality without setting quotas, then I become a supporter of quotas.”

The existing legislation offers financial incentives for political parties in the event that their electoral lists comprise at least 30% of different sex. Despite the measures, the financial incentives have proven an ineffective mechanism to increase women’s representation in elected bodies.

Opponents of the mandatory gender quotas fear that, as a form of positive discrimination, it is not the right approach for achieving gender balance in the parliament. Moreover, they think that the “quality” of women candidates will decrease significantly as the political parties will be obliged to comply with the electoral code.

Initiators of the legislation claim that an increase in the number of women in the legislative body will be a step to achieving equality since more than half of Georgia’s population deserve to be represented equally to men. Furthermore, advocates for gender quotas are convinced that more women in politics will have positive impact on the socio-economic situation in the country.

In fact, only in 2014, 19 women were killed as a result of domestic violence and according to the recent research women hold only 35% of leadership positions in the public sector of Georgia.[1]

According to NDI commissioned polls, in Spring 2015, 68 % of population supported mandatory gender quotas and only 16 % countrywide opposed the idea.[2]

Political rivals, Coalition Georgian Dream and the opposition United National Movement as the only electoral subjects in the parliament are to decide the fate of mandatory gender quotas in Georgia. If finally passed by the Parliament of Georgia, political parties will be required to compose gender balanced electoral lists in less than a year, for the parliamentary elections of 2016.

[1] https://idfi.ge/public/upload/IDFI/opendata/gender2015.pdf

[2]https://www.ndi.org/files/NDI%20Georgia_April%202015%20Poll_Public%20Issues_ENG_VF_0.pdf

Georgia – A year ahead of parliamentary elections, the electoral system is still uncertain

Georgia will hold its next parliamentary elections in fall 2016. A year ahead of the polling day the electoral system is still unclear.

Currently, Georgia has a mixed electoral system: 73 MPs in 150-seat Parliament are elected in single-mandate constituencies, and the remaining 77 seats are allocated proportionally under the party-list contest among political parties that surpass the 5% threshold. In the single-member, majoritarian constituencies the number of voters ranges from over 150,000 voters in the largest one to less than 6,000 voters in the smallest one.

In early 2015, in his annual report to the parliament, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called for a reform of the electoral system and in particular emphasized that amendments to the existing majoritarian component of electoral system were fundamentally important.

Before the President spoke about it, several non-parliamentary opposition parties had already been campaigning jointly for several months, demanding a reform of the majoritarian component of the election system. The joint memorandum by the political parties stressed that the reform was necessary before the 2016 parliamentary elections, since the existing system violates the principle of equality of suffrage and fails to proportionally allocate seats in the legislative body.

Opponents of the existing system argue that it has the potential to produce a distribution of seats in Parliament that is different from those reflected in proportional, party-list election results. The difference between distribution of seats and votes garnered in party-list contest was obvious in the previous Parliament, when the then ruling UNM party held over 79% of seats in parliament although it received only slightly over 59% of votes in 2008 parliamentary elections. The explanation lies with the electoral system; UNM won all but four majoritarian constituencies across the country.

This was not the case in the 2012 elections, when the seats won by Georgian Dream coalition and UNM, both in majoritarian and proportional contests, mainly matched the share of votes they won in the party-list contest.

The mismatch, however, was evident in the 2014 local elections for Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo), when although it received 46% of votes in the party-list contest, GD gained 74% of seats in Tbilisi Sakrebulo because it won all but one of the majoritarian constituencies in the capital city.

The Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs, the Venice Commission, has long been recommending to Georgia that it needs to address the existing disparity, claiming that it undermines the principle of equality of suffrage. Georgian election observer groups have also been calling for the replacement of the current system with a “regional-proportional system”, based on open lists, wherein multi-member constituencies would be introduced instead of existing single-member ones.

Ruling of the Constitutional Court

In 2012, two citizens of Georgia (one of them the current public defender of Georgia) filed a case to the Constitutional Court arguing that discrepancies in the sizes of the single-member majoritarian constituencies violated the principle of equality of suffrage.

On May 28, 2015 the Georgian Constitutional Court announced its decision and ruled that the present electoral system and specifically its majoritarian section, did indeed violate the equality of vote and should be changed. “It is the discretion of the Georgian Parliament to decide on the proportional and majoritarian models of the electoral system provided that constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens will be protected in this process,” the Court stated.

Notably, the Constitutional Court did not rule out the majoritarian component of the electoral system or suggest that it should necessarily be scrapped.

Just a couple of days later, on May 30, 2015 at the conference hosted by the President Giorgi Margvelashvili, 14 opposition parties, including non-parliamentary and parliamentary ones, as well as 8 civil society organizations made a joint appeal to the Parliament to carry out this reform. They argued that the existing majoritarian system, where MPs are elected through plurality vote, results in a large amount of wasted votes and can potentially produce a distribution of seats in the parliament that is different from the distribution reflected in proportional, party-list election results.

Constitutional Amendments

Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition initiated constitutional changes to scrap the majoritarian component but only after 2016. The GD coalition revealed the full reform proposal recently: it envisages maintaining the mixed electoral model for the 2016 parliamentary elections, wherein 73 lawmakers are elected in 73 majoritarian, single-member constituencies and the remaining 77 seats are allocated by a party-list, proportional vote. The proposal offers to replace plurality vote to elect majoritarian MPs with a majority vote, which entails increasing the vote threshold required for an outright victory in the first round from the current 30% to 50%.

The plan also foresees redrawing the single-member districts to ensure equality of suffrage and the introduction of a constitutional amendment to scrap the majoritarian component of the system by 2020, in the event that there are no early elections.

At the same time, parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties continue to demand a cancelation of the majoritarian system for the upcoming 2016 elections. They have launched a campaign to collect 200,000 signatures to initiate a legislative draft to challenge the proposal of Georgian Dream.

But none of the two initiatives is likely to be passed as constitutional amendments require the support of both parliamentary majority and minority groups. Currently, the GD ruling coalition has 86 seats in 150-member parliament, which is not enough for the super-majority required to pass a constitutional amendment.

A year ahead of the polling day the fate of the electoral reform is still undecided. One thing is clear, however, the closer the country gets to parliamentary elections with uncertain electoral rules of the game, the more difficult it will be for political parties to mobilise and for voters to make informed electoral choices.