Deal on Electoral Reforms: What Now?

By Levan Tsutskiridze, Executive Director of Eastern European Center for Multi-party Democracy (EECMD)

After direct mediation by senior U.S. and EU diplomats, sustained pressure from civil society and surprisingly long-lasting opposition unity, the Georgian political parties said they have reached the agreement on electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections.

The deal, reached last Sunday, unblocks the way out of the political stalemate. It also, hopefully, frees up the space for debate on policymaking and policy, which was held up due to confrontation concerning the electoral rules.

The deal re-shapes the proportions in the current mixed system: this fall, 120 MPs will be elected through the closed proportional party lists and only the remaining 30 MPs (instead of current 73) will be elected in majoritarian, single-mandate constituencies. The majoritarian constituencies will have to be redrawn in line with CoE Venice Commission’s recommendations. There will be 1% proportional electoral threshold.

The resulting system is much closer to the fully proportional model, which was initially promised by the ruling Georgian Dream party in the aftermath of June 2019 protests. The political crisis ensued after the ruling party reneged on its promise.

The opposition also claims that a deal was reached to release several politicians (whom they consider as “political” prisoners) from detention. The government denies any such agreement was reached on specific individuals.

So, what is to be expected in the short-term and for the fast-approaching Parliamentary elections?

After a political about-face by the GD on election model, many in Georgia understandably question their credibility and the validity of the promises their negotiators make. The remaining few weeks will thus be crucial to see if the agreements, expressed in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the parties and their Joint Statement are respected both in their letter and spirit.

Assuming all goes well, the new central question is about the outlook of Georgian politics in the run-up to the scheduled elections. There are several critical areas that requires attention and follow-through from democratic politicians, civil society actors and Georgia’s friends from the West, so that truly fair and genuinely representative elections take place.

The general atmosphere of the campaign period has been the usual concern. The past elections saw the escalation of physical violence, huge influx of money into the electoral process and a massive debt write-off to citizens – a financial feat that can also easily qualify as electoral bribery.

To what extent these kinds of excesses can be contained in 2020 is an open question. The deep pockets of GD’s patron allow the ruling party it to deploy almost unlimited amounts of funds during electoral campaigns. While money does not seem to be the most important factor in elections (it may be even less impactful in 2020), voter apathy and poverty do give those with financial superiority a competitive edge. This is especially true if the opposition donors are effectively kept in check by politicized law enforcement and courts.

The potential misuse of public resources for electoral aims is another area of concern. Mobilizing public employees to vote in favor of the ruling party, audit visits in public schools and other public institutions to sway their electoral behavior had marred Georgia’s electoral periods for years. Whether the efforts and approaches of CSOs will be enough and adequate to constrain the leveraging of these precious electoral resources is questionable at a time when the GD is facing its most existential electoral crisis ever. More innovative approaches are needed that go beyond naming and shaming tactics. These seem less effective when the ruling party does not expect deterring sanctions for its transgressions – since the opposition and CSOs feel they can’t count on courts to enforce compliance with the election code.

Cyber is another critical vulnerability. Troll farms, whether domestically operated or foreign manipulated can be expected to play a bigger role in a growing internet “netizenry” of Georgia. Low levels of digital literacy make Georgian electorate highly vulnerable to malign manipulation.

Policy debate has been the critical weakness of Georgia’s political class. While the electorate is naturally more concerned by issues related to jobs, healthcare, economy, poverty and the Russian occupation, there is very little meaningful debate on these matters. Political parties have consistently been failing to engage in policy discussion, preferring instead to base their campaigns on brinkmanship and personalizing politics. Re-setting Georgian politics into a more positive setting, requires persistent efforts both by politicians themselves but also by the general public, the media and international donor community.

Finally, there is always room for unpleasant surprises. The current polling suggests GD will be very hard-pressed to win the majority. Yet the opposition strategy to collaborate in running the majoritarian candidates is still uncertain. International election observation missions are not yet on the ground to check facts and report. A political crisis – real or artificially induced – could catch everyone off guard and disrupt the normalizing trend of the political life in the runup for elections in October. Ensuring it does not happen is the most important task which the Georgian civil society, democratic politicians in every political camp and Georgia’s international partners should work to jointly accomplish.

Democracy is learned by doing. Georgia is gaining valuable political experience from navigating a political crisis after a political crisis. It may be beginning to discern how to create general opportunity out of a political challenge. The deal reached last Sunday is a step forward towards internalizing the culture of compromise and accepting that the second-best solutions may eventually leave everyone better off.

Whether this will hold as an enduring feature of Georgian politics is still an open question. The generation of politicians that sat around the table these past months can, despite all its shortcomings, lead Georgia towards becoming a free country, thus easing the way for a new generation of emerging leaders to enter the field. Or it can be remembered as the one that utterly failed its dreams.

This is their historic opportunity, only if they can see it.