Proposals for Georgian electoral reform, explained

01 June, 2011

Numerous proposals to reform the electoral system in Georgia are circulating. The final structure of that reform will be a key part of this emerging Democracy's future success. We firmly believe that citizens should understand the details of this debate, and with that aim in mind have summarized the proposals that are now on the table of the Election Code Working Group (ECWG).

The current rules for parliamentary election have significant shortfalls (before reading further, you may want to check out our earlier blog post and video for a brief explanation of Georgia’s current Parliamentary election system.)

First, the existing majoritarian system over-represents voters from small election districts by giving districts with greatly differing populations one MP each. As a result, the number of voters in a district may vary from a few thousand to over 100,000. For example, the district of Kutaisi has around 163,000 eligible voters while Lentekhi has 6,000 – yet they both get to elect one majoritarian MP. That means the strength of one vote in Lentekhi is 27 times stronger than one citizen’s vote in Kutaisi.

Second, the existing system does not guarantee proportionality between the votes a party receives and the seats awarded in Parliament. In some situations, a party with overall support of only 30-35 percent could gain a constitutional majority in Parliament (i.e. enough seats to pass all laws without the aid of opposition MPs). Whatever reforms are ultimately made to the electoral system will need to address both of these issues.

According to the Venice Commision, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, the difference between the number of voters in various territorial units should not differ from the average (“the norm”) by more than 15 to 20 percent.

Proposal #1: Regional-Proportional System, proposed by the “Group of Eight”

This proposal, written by the group of eight opposition parties engaging in the reform talks, would make no change in the proportional system (75 out of 150 MPs are elected through the party list proportional system). However, the election of the 75 majoritarian MPs would be reformed.

Under this proposal, more heavily populated districts would elect multiple MPs, while the total number of election districts would be reduced by merging some that have smaller numbers of voters and are historically/geographically related. The number of seats available in each district would depend on the number of voters in that region. Each district would be assigned two, three or four seats, and the number of seats a party would win in a given region would be proportionate to the percentage of votes it received there.

This proposal has drawn a barrage of criticism and disapproval from the UNM, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakshvili, who accused the opposition of wanting to deprive small districts of Parliamentary representation. The ruling party argued that under the regional-proportional system, parties would lack the incentive to nominate candidates from smaller voter districts. For example, Dusheti, Kazbegi and Tianeti — all of which have a single majoritarian seat under the current system — would be unified into a single district that would elect two representatives. Since the district would vote as a whole, there would be little incentive to nominate candidates living in Kazbegi or Tianeti, which have only around 6,000 and 11,000 voters respectively, when candidates from Dusheti, which has 25,000 voters, would arguably have the greatest electability within the combined district. Take a look at this list to see the electoral districts and allocation of seats according to the first proposal.

Proposal #2: Increasing MPs in larger districts, proposed by the ruling UNM party

In March 2011, the UNM put forth an alternativeto the opposition’s “regional-proportional system.” The ruling party’s proposal would increase the number of majoritarian MPs from one to two in those districts where the number of registered voters exceeds 100,000. The number of voters exceeds 100,000 in eight out of the 75 electoral districts in Georgia. The affected districts would be:

District Eligible Voters
Kutaisi 157,886
Gldani 148,114
Samgori 145,223
Nadzaladevi 129,864
Zugdidi 127,790
Saburtalo 116,949
Isani 109,652
Rustavi 103,241

The proposal does not specify how districts with two MPs would select their representatives, although under existing election rules, it is likely that the initiative would result in splitting such districts into two separate electoral units, thus creating eight new electoral districts. The ruling party suggests three possible options if this proposal is implemented:

  1. Maintaining 150 seats in the Parliament, of which 83 (8 additional districts will be added to the current 75) will be filled by majoritarian MPs while 67 seats, instead of 75, will be allocated through the proportional party list system.
  2. Increasing the total number of parliamentary seats to 158, of which 83 will be filled by majoritarians and 75 through the proportional party list system.
  3. Adding eight seats to both the proportional party list and the majoritarian sides of Parliament, for a total of 166 seats split evenly (83 for party list MPs, 83 for majoritarian MPs). Increasing the total number of parliamentary seats to 166 and equally splitting the seats between 83 majoritarians and 83 MPs elected through proportional party list system.

Proposal #3: The so-called “German model”, Group of Eight alternative #2

The eight opposition parties proposed two other possible models on April 5, 2011. Sometimes referred to as the “German model”, the proposal would keep the current system of electing 75 MPs from party lists and 75 majoritarian MPs in single-seat districts. However, this proposal essentially prevents a party from winning a larger share of seats than it has won votes in the general election for party list candidates. All winning majoritarian candidates would get seats in Parliament, but parties might be deprived of extra seats gained through the party list contest.

To illustrate, in the last election, the UNM secured 59 precent of the party list vote. Under the “German model”, the UNM would have won 89 seats instead of current 119, because 59 percent of 150 is about 89. The ruling party would have taken up its 71 majoritarian seats, plus 18 seats under the party list contest (instead of 48 seats). Had the UNM won fewer majoritarian seats, they would have been awarded additional party list seats to ensure that their overall representation in Parliament was 59 percent. Any ‘lost’ seats (in this case, 30) would be allocated proportionally according to other parties’ results in the party list vote. This would bring the parties’ representation in Parliament closer to the proportion of the vote they received in the party list vote.

If a party won more majoritarian MP seats than its share of the party list vote, it would be allocated no party list seats at all, but would retain its majoritarian seats.

Proposal #4: Decreasing number of majoritarian MPs, Group of Eight alternative #3

This proposal is actually the same system adopted by the government in 2005 (in 2008, the current system was adopted and no elections were ever held under the 2005 system). Also proposed by the eight opposition parties, the number of majoritarians would be decreased from the current 75 to 50. At the same time, the number of MPs elected through party lists would be increased to 100.

Increasing the Election Threshold, proposed by Group of Eight

In all their proposals, the eight opposition parties suggest that in order for a majoritarian MP candidate to be declared an outright winner in the first round of voting, the candidate must clear a 50 percent threshold, instead of 30 percent as under the present system. If no candidate passes the 50 percent threshold in the first round of voting, subsequent rounds are held.

The 50 percent threshold has drawn criticism from ruling party members, who argue that it could confuse voters by encouraging parties to form coalitions during the second round of voting that would not necessarily be based on their political views, while during the first round, candidates with diverse political views would be running.

A note on the ECWG:

The ECWG was initiated in November 2010 by representatives of the ruling UNM party and those opposition parties holding seats in Parliament or in local self-governments, to create a platform for proposals on drafting a new electoral code. The eight oppositional parties taking part in the ECWG talks are the National Forum, Conservative Party, Republican Party, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, Georgia’s Way, New Rights, Christian-Democratic Movement and Party of People. These eight parties do not form any formal coalition and their positions vary on various issues, but they have agreed to speak in one voice within the inter-party working group on electoral reform issues.

Talks between parties within the ECWG have stalled several times in recent months, mostly due to a failure to reach agreement on the (very costly and logistically challenging) introduction of biometric identity documents to prevent multiple voting and on other fundamental questions. The divergence over proposed amendments to the current system for electing MPs is a second major point of disagreement. The United National Movement (UNM) and the group of eight opposition parties in the ECWG have repeatedly blamed each other for deliberately thwarting the talks. The latest breakdown occurred on May 12 when the ruling party refused an ultimatum to give a clear ‘yes or no’ to opposition proposals before the end of May.

As mentioned in a joint NGO statement, TI Georgia has been observing the negotiation process undertaken by the multi-party group.

Author: George Topouria