Op-Ed: “Democratic backsliding in Georgia?”

Levan Kakhishvili, Policy Analyst (Georgian Institute of Politics)

There is a long tradition in Georgia of reforming the electoral system. Each government has tried to adjust the system in a way that would help to guarantee the preser­vation of its own power. In June 2019, against the background of public protests, the current ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), promised that it would amend the consti­tution in order to hold the 2020 parlia­mentary elections with a fully propor­tional voting system, including a natural barrier.

With that announcement, it seemed that the Georgian political class had finally moved to ensure the advancement of proce­dural democracy in the country. However, the tables were turned on 14 November 2019, when the bill on consti­tu­tional amend­ments failed to pass at the first hearing. Feeling deceived, citizens hit the streets and started protesting against this unexpected turn of events. Never­theless, despite the public anger, the ruling party is not currently ready to make any conces­sions. On the contrary, there might be a risk of further democ­ratic backsliding in Georgia.

Why are electoral proce­dures important in the Georgian context?

Most people would agree that the electoral system is of vital impor­tance to a well-functioning democracy. While there is no consensus that any one voting procedure is superior, in the Georgian case there are convincing arguments for why the country should move to propor­tional elections and abolish the majori­tarian system, which is essen­tially “first-past-the-post” with a 50% threshold.

Currently, Georgia has a mixed voting system: 77 members of parliament (MP) are elected through propor­tional party lists, whereas 73 MPs come from single-mandate majori­tarian districts. This system can lead to a situation where a party that does not have the support of the majority of voters (in the propor­tional voting segment) may nonetheless win a majority in the parliament. In fact, this happened in the 2016 parlia­mentary elections: the GD received 48.7% of the popular vote, but because their candi­dates won in 71 out of 73 majori­tarian districts, the GD gained 115 parlia­mentary mandates out of 150 total seats.

Why does the mixed electoral system not work in Georgia?

The imbal­anced result of the 2016 election alone is suffi­cient evidence that the Georgian electoral system is flawed. Yet there is another, arguably more important problem with the majori­tarian system: those MPs who gain their mandate through such a vote tend to be less active than those who reach parliament via party lists. All too often, directly elected MPs seek a parlia­mentary mandate in order to ensure that their business interests are protected. It appears that they are repeatedly successful not because of their personal popularity and integrity but because of their ability to control power networks in their districts. Indeed, they often switch parties depending on who is in the government to ensure that their influence is maintained. Thus, the majori­tarian vote seems to favour the incumbent party and its preser­vation of power.

Is there a risk of further democ­ratic backsliding?

As if the failure to amend the electoral code was not enough of a setback, majori­tarian MPs from the GD have decided to seek reform in the other direction. They are working on a bill to transform the mixed electoral system to a fully majori­tarian voting system. This may sound like a lost cause from the very beginning, given that the consti­tution guarantees a move to a fully propor­tional vote from 2024, yet it could also turn out as a smart plan.

On 25 November, Kakha Kaladze, the secretary general of the GD, stated that the ruling party is unwilling to consider any new initia­tives to amend the consti­tution, and that the parlia­mentary elections in 2020 will be held in accor­dance with the current mixed system. The best-case scenario for the GD would be to switch to the winner-takes-all majori­tarian system. However, having threatened that some of its MPs are demanding a fully majori­tarian system after 2020, the GD might try to “achieve a consensus”, amend the consti­tution again, and return to a mixed vote in 2024.

This second-best outcome would give them a chance to stay in power until 2028. Conse­quently, a deteri­o­ration of Georgia’s democracy in terms of concen­tration of power is a very likely scenario. That is why it is important that the country’s partners, such as Germany and the European Union, do not ignore these devel­op­ments, but rather ensure that the GD agrees to a reform of the electoral system based on popular consensus.

The opinions expressed in this publi­cation are those of the author(s) and do not neces­sarily reflect the opinions or views of IEP.