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.
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.