With less than a year until the Fall 2016 parliamentary elections, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition submitted to parliament two amendments to the Electoral Code of Georgia, effectively ending a year-long political squabble over the country’s electoral system. The first of the amendments entailed redistricting the 73 single-seat majoritarian constituencies, and was passed by the Parliament of Georgia with its second reading on December 18, 2015. The second amendment was initiated on December 21 and involves increasing the threshold for winning the single-seat constituencies, from the current 30% to 50%.
Since the early 1990s, Georgia has had eight parliamentary elections using the mixed electoral system. Its first ever multi-party poll in 1990 elected a 250-member Supreme Council with equal representation of majoritarian and party-list deputies. Since then, the ratio between the majoritarian and party-list parliamentarians has fluctuated, but the principle remained intact. The last major change to the system was in 2003m when the number of parliamentarians was reduced from 235 to 150, and the proportion of majoritarian and proportional deputies returned to its original ratio. Following the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, the two vacant seats representing the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia were transferred to the party-list contest. Currently, Georgian voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats are distributed proportionally under the closed party-list contest among political parties which clear a 5% threshold.
The political demand to change the majoritarian component of the electoral system is almost as old as the history of multi-party elections in Georgia. Parties in the opposition have vehemently opposed the mixed electoral system, arguing that it represents a tool in the hands of successive governments to consolidate their parliamentary power regardless of overall popular confidence. Opponents of the mixed electoral system have frequently recalled the 2008 Parliamentary Elections, where the final distribution of ruling party seats in the Parliament (80%) significantly exceeded the country-wide distribution of their votes in the party-list contest (59%). International observers as well as local non-governmental organizations and political parties have on numerous occasions raised the issue of the disparity between the sizes of electorates in single-seat constituencies (between 6,000 voters in the smallest and 162,000 in the largest), and have called for reforming the electoral system.
"The permissible departure from the norm should not exceed 10%, except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity), where the permissible departure should not exceed 15%."
In a similar line, exactly a year ago, a number of non-parliamentary political parties teamed up to campaign for scrapping the majoritarian component of the electoral system and replacing it entirely with a proportional, party-list contest. In the following months, the campaign shifted its demands to a more consensual proposal, according to which half of the MPs would be elected by party-list contest nationwide and the rest of the members from regional proportional, multi-mandate constituencies. The new proposal garnered the support of the President of Georgia, the two parliamentary oppositional parties - the United National Movement and the Free Democrats - and several influential non-governmental organizations.
However, it was not until there was a ruling from the Constitutional Court of Georgia that the electoral reform gathered momentum and pushed the Georgian Dream coalition to table its reform proposals. On May 28, 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the large disparity in the sizes of single-seat constituencies was unconstitutional, on the grounds that it violated the principle of equality of suffrage, effectively annulling the current rule of election district formation.
In response to the Constitutional Court’s decision, the Georgian Dream coalition announced that it will keep the majoritarian component of the election system with the current ratio (77/73), but that it will re-draw the constituency borders in order to narrow the discrepancy between the number of voters in each constituency. Despite numerous calls from the opposition and civil society groups to transition to a proportional system, the Georgian Dream pledged that the country would adopt the proportional model only for the next parliamentary elections, in 2020, and not for the 2016 elections. There is a separate process of constitutional amendments already launched for this purpose.
The initial proposal for electoral redistricting was submitted to the Parliament on November 26, but was significantly revised in the following three weeks to bring it in line with the Constitutional Court’s decision, which referred to the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters. The guideline in terms of the number of voters in a constituency is that “the permissible departure from the norm should not exceed 10%, except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity), where the permissible departure should not exceed 15%.”
As a result of the changes, 22 seats have been allocated to Tbilisi (which currently has 10), three to Batumi, three to Kutaisi and two to Rustavi (the exact boundaries are yet to be defined); seven constituencies remain unchanged (Sagarejo, Gurjaani, Khashuri, Sachkhere, Chiatura, Tskaltubo, and Samtredia), while the remaining districts are either merged or divided.
The lawmakers from the ruling coalition have praised the electoral reform, saying that the transfer of seats from sparsely populated to more heavily populated areas will benefit the opposition and the country as a whole. Their argument can be given the benefit of the doubt, as there is much to see what will be in the future; however a close examination of the redistricting plans leaves room for skepticism.
First and foremost, the fact that the boundaries of 30 constituencies are yet to be defined bears the risk for potential gerrymandering.
The proposed bill entitles the Central Election Commission to define the boundaries of election districts in Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, and Rustavi, but does not specify the exact rule of district formation. The problem might prove particularly problematic in Tbilisi, where the relatively high number of mandates might allow the political cartographers to more flexibly manipulate the district boundaries.
No less important is the issue of ethnic representation in Parliament. Georgia has two regions with a high concentration of ethnic minority populations – Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Azeris in Kvemo Kartli – yet very they have low representation in terms of majoritarian MPs ( two Armenians and one Azeri). The proposed bill will further decrease the number of ethnic minority MPs; a single constituency will be formed by merging the Armenian-populated constituencies of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki (both in Samtskhe-Javakheti), reducing the number of seats unofficially allocated to ethnic Armenians from two down to one.
It is also probable that the new district boundaries will lead to lower voter turnout in several newly merged constituencies. Just like in many other countries, majoritarian voting in Georgia is very personal; voters tend to cast their ballots in favor of their friends, relatives, classmates, neighbors, acquaintances, ethnic kin, etc., and in the absence of these factors, people will be less motivated to participate in elections. The problem might be especially salient in cases where a smaller constituency is merged with a relatively larger one, Aspindza and Borjomi for instance. Here, candidates from Borjomi will almost inevitably outnumber the ones from Aspindza, leaving the electorate from Aspindza with fewer reasons to show up at polling stations. Candidates might even neglect to actively campaign in Aspindza, for example, knowing that they are able to secure a victory with the Borjomi votes only.