Georgia’s proposed election code changes, the result of a deal between the governing United National Movement and opposition parties, seem to dim the hopes for genuinely competitive parliamentary and presidential votes in 2012 and 2013 respectively, some Georgian civil society activists fear.
Ten months of negotiations to reach a broad consensus, involving the United National Movement (UNM) and eight opposition groups, came to a halt in June when two opposition parties with parliamentary representation (the Christian-Democratic Movement, New Rights Party) broke ranks and signed a political agreement with the governing party. The changes should come up for a legislative vote this fall.
Under the proposed reform, parliament would expand from 150 to 190 seats; most of the seats (107) would be apportioned according to the share of the vote that a political party received in an election. The remaining seats would go to the winners of first-past-the-post contests, or so-called “single-mandate” constituencies.
The proposed changes come on the heels of an earlier reform that grants the post of prime minister to the head of whichever party holds a majority in parliament. Currently, the United National Movement holds that majority, with 119 of parliament’s current 150 seats.
The latest initiative also would attempt to address a lingering source of contention – the composition of voter lists. A commission headed by an opposition party member and made up equally of UNM, opposition and non-governmental organization representatives would be formed to oversee the compilation of voter lists.
Parties that win at least 5 percent of the vote would receive a 1 million-lari (about $595,000) stipend for campaign expenses; 300,000 lari (about $179, 437) of that sum would go for TV advertising, an outlet dominated in the past by the UNM. After a public outcry, the UNM removed a clause that initially stipulated that only parties that agreed to the code revisions would be eligible for funding. Other pending changes include plans for the establishment of commissions to monitor media election coverage and the use of administrative resources.
The Tbilisi office of the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International says that the proposed changes fall short of substantive election reform. Program director Nina Khatiskatsi, who monitored the negotiations between the UNM and opposition, asserted that the UNM essentially told the opposition to take it or leave it. “The proposed changes to the election code by the ruling party were not really reflecting [the] reality [the opposition] was talking about… [the] new proposal does not really reflect the main concerns,” Khatiskatsi said.
Parties had also expressed concern about the compilation of voter lists, the selection of election officials and ways to monitor the use of administrative resources. Other observers, including Open Society Georgia (OSGF) Executive Director Keti Khutsishvili, complained that the deal was “a disappointment” in terms of both content and the procedure used to reach an agreement. “While eight parties had developed a comprehensive package for improvement of [the] election environment, the deal was cut only with a few parties only on a small number of legislative amendments,” said Khutsishvili. [Editor’s Note: OSGF is part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a separate part of that network.]
UNM parliamentarians stress that time was running out for an agreement. “What should negotiations continue about? We said that there is no time to lose,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Mikheil Machavariani, citing the party’s desire to make the changes at least one year before the 2012 parliamentary elections.
On July 8, the Conservative Party, Georgia’s Way, the National Forum, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, Party of the Future, and the Republican Party announced plans to work together to press the governing party for additional changes. None of the parties in the alliance hold seats in parliament.
One of the coalition’s biggest complaints is that a party can hold a constitutional majority in parliament with just 35 percent of the popular vote; a shortcoming they attribute to the “winner-takes-all” principle for single-mandate seats. Equally troubling for them is a discrepancy in the distribution of votes: some constituencies with small populations have just as many single- mandate seats as larger constituencies.
Transparency International’s Khatiskatsi said that neither issue was effectively addressed in the proposed election code changes, which focused more on campaign financing than voting procedures.
Aside from the 1 million-lari provision, the cap for financial contributions was doubled to 60,000 lari ($35,928) for an individual, and 200,000 lari ($119,760) for an organization – a move that went directly against recommendations from TI, OSGF and other civil society organizations.
The emphasis on financing, Khatiskatsi noted, adds to the perception that the opposition groups who agreed to the changes look at the election code reform process as “a business” proposition.
But opposition parliamentarian Levan Vepkhadze, one of the leaders of the Christian-Democratic Movement, said the agreement was simply a “compromise” in which no single party was the sole winner.
Additional funds for campaign expenses will help opposition parties close the gap between the ruling party’s deep pockets and their own meager resources, he stressed. A June report on campaign financing released by OSGF and TI stated that the UNM spent up to 26 times more (23 million lari or about $13.8 million) than all opposition parties combined during Georgia’s 2008 presidential election.
Nino Dolidze, spokesperson for the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, noted that while some of the proposed changes could prove beneficial, they do not go far enough. She cited oversight of campaign financing and voter list compilation and the selection of election officials as outstanding problem areas. The problems should be addressed with a “whole package” for effective reform, Dolidze said. “[W]hat is said in the proposal cannot ensure free or fair elections really,” she argued.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.