Resume: As stated by the Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia, the resource for changing the election system by the next Parliamentary election has been exhausted. Irakli Kobakhidze claims that the opposition had the chance in the past to support the initial version of the constitutional amendments which stipulated the abolition of the so-called majoritarian system and the introduction of a fully proportional system by 2020. However, the Speaker asserts that the opposition failed to do so owing to its lack of support which rendered it impossible to adopt the constitutional amendments.
The opposition did not lend its support to the initial version of the constitutional amendments which stipulated the introduction of a fully proportional election system by 2020 because this model envisioned a principally unacceptable rule for the allocation of mandates. Of note is that the mandate allocation rule has been subjected to fierce criticism from the civil sector and the Venice Commission which eventually forced the Government of Georgia to replace it with a more acceptable rule. However, together with the improvements to the mandate allocation rule, the date for the introduction of the proportional system was also changed and it was postponed until 2024. Therefore, it is wrong when Mr Kobakhidze presents this issue in such way as if the opposition rejected this very system in the past but now demands it today.
Of note is that MPs from the ruling party (including Majoritarian MPs) were those actually opposing the introduction of a fully proportional system by 2020 (at least, this was the argument voiced publicly by the leaders of the Georgian Dream).
In addition, the Speaker of the Parliament’s statement about the exhaustion of the resource for the change is wrong. In the case of the support of 113 MPs, there is indeed a chance to alter the election system before 2020.
Almost the entire opposition spectrum now agrees on the necessity to introduce a proportional election system by 2020. The opposition has already started collecting signatures to initiate constitutional amendments. The ruling party plans to keep the existing model until 2024 and blames the parliamentary opposition for the “impossibility” to do so earlier than 2024. The Speaker of the Parliament is of the same opinion.
Irakli Kobakhidze stated (from 4:50): “A proportional election system was envisioned in the initial draft of the Constitution of Georgia. However, they (the opposition) stated that notwithstanding this fact, they would not support the constitutional amendments and this rendered it impossible to adopt the Constitution in the initial form and, eventually, we in the Parliamentary Majority agreed to carry out a two-step reform. The mixed election system will be kept in 2020 and a proportional one will be introduced afterwards. All of the resources in regard to the changes to the election system have now been exhausted and it was the opposition which exhausted these resources.”
As early as in 2012, the abolition of the “unjust” election system and the introduction of a fully proportional system was one of the most important campaign promises of the Georgian Dream (see FactCheck’s article). Prior to the 2016 Parliamentary elections, there was a broad consensus between NGOs and political parties in regard to changes to the election system. However, in June 2015 the ruling party referred to the short amount of time before the elections and postponed the enactment of the changes for the 2020 Parliamentary elections.
The Parliament of Georgia of the Ninth Convocation actively started work on the constitutional changes. On 22 April 2017, a constitution revision draft was already finalised as a result of four months of work on the part of the Constitutional Commission. In accordance with the draft, one of the fundamental changes would be the introduction of a proportional election system by 2020. In addition, the draft suggested a new rule for mandate allocation (the so-called Winner Takes it All) which envisioned granting unallocated mandates as a bonus to the party with the strongest performance in the elections.
Many in civil society as well as the opposition parties positively assessed the introduction of a fully proportional election system. However, they were dissatisfied by the new rule for the redistribution of the unallocated mandates which contradicted the fair redistribution rule because of the high disproportion between the votes garnered by a party and the obtained mandates (see FactCheck’s article 1, article 2). The Venice Commission also concluded (in its initial opinion) that the aforementioned rule for mandate allocation contradicted the equality principle and issued a strict recommendation to change this rule.
Of note is that multiple substantial changes were enacted after submitting the draft constitutional amendments to the Venice Commission. For instance, the mandate allocation rule was changed (Article 37) in the first hearing of the draft amendments and the Venice Commission (in its final opinion) concluded that this was as an improved version of the initial model although it deemed keeping the bonus system as controversial and inappropriate for Georgia. Of further note is that in the second hearing of the draft amendments, the Parliament of Georgia decided to keep the existing election system for the 2020 Parliamentary elections and postpone the introduction of the proportional system until the next elections (Point 9 of Article 2 of the Transitional Provisions).
Finally, other constitutional amendments were needed to abolish the bonus system. In accordance with the amendments adopted at the third hearing on 23 March 2018, the unallocated mandates would be redistributed to those political parties showing a better performance. The fact that the proportional system will only be introduced in 2024 still reaps criticism.
What stipulated the postponement of the changes in regard to the election system and for how long has this topic been so pressing? To answer these questions, we will remind our readers of the chronology of the events.
As previously mentioned, the draft prepared by the Constitutional Commission envisioned the introduction of a fully proportional system from 2020. However, it also included the mandate allocation rule which was principally unacceptable for the political opposition, the civil sector and the Venice Commission. Therefore, the opposition voiced dissatisfaction in regard to the mandate allocation rule and not the year 2020 as the introduction of the proportional system and did not support the initiated draft constitutional amendments.
In addition, it became clear at the beginning of June 2017 that the proposed election system had its opponents among the opposition and within the Parliamentary Majority as well. However, in contrast to the opposition, MPs from the Parliamentary Majority (as the public is aware, this was mostly Majoritarian MPs) protested the introduction of a proportional system and not the mandate allocation rule.
On 22 June 2017 and quite unexpectedly for the opposition, a completely different mandate allocation rule (still bonus-based, albeit much fairer as compared to the initial version) appeared in the document disseminated among the MPs at the first hearing of the draft constitutional amendment. In addition, whilst there was nothing said about the dates for the introduction of the proportional system in the aforementioned document, the Speaker of the Parliament stated during a verbal discussion that the Parliamentary Majority had agreed on keeping the mixed election system for the 2020 Parliamentary elections and postponing the introduction of the proportional system until the 2024 Parliamentary elections which would be reflected in the text of the Constitution. It is true that the draft amendments adopted at the first hearing (without the opposition’s support) envisioned a comparably fairer rule for mandate allocation and at the same time there was no deadline for the introduction of this rule (which possibly implied that it could have been introduced by 2020). However, the MPs were well aware during voting that the passage on postponing the proportional election system would inevitably be added to the text of the Constitution.
Consequently, in one day (on 23 June 2017) during the second hearing of the draft amendments, a passage appeared in the Transitional Provisions of the Constitution which envisioned holding the 2020 Parliamentary elections under the mixed election system. The draft amendments were again supported by only the Parliamentary Majority.
The President of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, was left disappointed after the draft law was adopted in two hearings and in a hasty manner. Whilst visiting Georgia, Mr Buquicchio emphasised the necessity for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition in order to ensure the legitimacy of the Constitution.
On 19 July 2017, after adopting the draft amendments in two hearing, the Parliamentary Majority announced upcoming talks with the opposition although it did not disclose the exact date or the topics on the agenda. On 15 August 2017, one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream, Archil Talakvadze, held a briefing and called upon the opposition parties to have a dialogue. Of note is that in his offer, Mr Talakvadze implicitly aimed to show the international actors the consensus achieved regarding the constitutional reform. Mr Talakvadze stated: “As we all represent our own political parties but abroad we all represent Georgia, it is necessary to discuss all of the important issues of the constitutional reform before the meeting in Strasbourg.”
The leader of the Parliamentary Majority again did not provide any details about the meeting’s agenda. However, on the next day on 16 August, the opposition parties issued an address with a clearly outlined set of demands which was a precondition for having a constructive dialogue with the ruling party and achieving a consensus. The statement was signed by eight political parties and read: “To have a consensus before starting a dialogue, the Government of Georgia has to restore that very political essence and precondition of the constitutional reform which was proposed by them and which envisioned holding the 2020 Parliamentary elections under a fully proportional election system (including the fair-proportional allocation of mandates).”
Finally, a meeting was held between the Parliamentary Majority and the opposition on 18 August 2017. As stated by Archil Talakvadze after the end of the meeting, the ruling party was going to consider the discussed issues whilst the Georgian Dream asked the opposition to submit a written list of those demands which were crucial for their support of the constitutional amendments.
Although the opposition submitted its list of topics multiple times in both verbal and in written forms, the opposition once again presented its list of demands on 22 August 2017, asserting that it would be impossible to even speak about a dialogue with the ruling party if these topics were not taken into account. The statement of the opposition read: “Despite our aforementioned and completely logical and clear position, you try to avoid it and carry out communication with the opposition parties in a format which is desirable for you in order to either imitate having a consensus with the opposition or portray a false picture as if the opposition parties reject a dialogue to have a consensus in regard to the constitutional reform. And in this manner, you will try to justify the unilateral and arbitrary adoption of the Constitution by the Georgian Dream.”
In response, the Georgian Dream published an urgent statement and informed the public about the failure of the dialogue or, more precisely, about the impossibility to continue the dialogue. In addition, the ruling party blamed the opposition for the impasse because it presented an ultimatum instead of submitting a list of topics. In particular, the opposition stated that the parties would be ready for a dialogue with the ruling party on the constitutional reform if two important demands were met: holding the 2020 Parliamentary elections under the fully proportional election system with a fair mandate allocation rule and keeping the process of direct elections for the President of Georgia.
In accordance with the final opinion of the Venice Commission, Tamar Chugoshvili, one of the leaders of the Parliamentary Majority, sent a letter to the Venice Commission on 20 September 2017, prior to the adoption of the draft constitutional amendments at the third hearing, and expressed the readiness of the Parliamentary Majority to adopt the election model as demanded by the opposition. However, other constitutional amendments were planned to enact these changes. Furthermore, the amendments envisioned changes to the mandate allocation rule alone and not to the date of the introduction of the proportional election system.
Consequently, on 26 September 2017 the Parliament of Georgia adopted the draft constitutional amendments at the third hearing with the support of the ruling party alone. The European Georgia Movement for Freedom party left the session as a sign of protest. Before leaving the session, however, one of its leaders, Giga Bokeria, made an important statement in regard to the announced changes: “A few days ago, I heard a statement from the Speaker of the Parliament from Ivanishvili’s team that you plan to introduce a full-fledged and normal proportional system, without the ugly bonuses, where all of the parties will receive votes proportional to the number of people who voted for them. You really made this statement, did you not? I would like to emphasise that for me and my political team, this option is unacceptable because of so many detriments you have inflicted. First of all, this refers to your decision not to change the system until 2020 and deprive people of the right to directly elect their own president. However, if you are not going to once again deceive the Georgian public as well as your teammates and the Venice Commission, why do you finish now? Why do you not introduce this amendment? Where are you hurrying to? Bring it back to the second hearing. Who is preventing you from doing so? We will support this. If you have some unruly personalities and do not have enough votes, I can guarantee you 21 votes here. Bring it back.”
Therefore, based on the publicly available information, there was not a single case during any phase of the constitutional amendments when the opposition rejected a model which was acceptable or relatively acceptable for them and the civil sector. In particular, when there was a plan to introduce the proportional system by 2020, an unfair rule of mandate allocation was also proposed. This rule was later improved but the date for the introduction of the proportional system was changed and postponed until 2024.