Georgia’s parliament chief: We urge the opposition to be constructive

Archil Talakvadze [Parliament of Georgia]

In an exclusive interview, the speaker of the Georgian parliament Archil Talakvadze explains the ideas to change the country’s electoral system, why the recent vote wasn’t successful, and the way forward, excluding early elections, as demanded by the opposition.

Archil Talakvadze is the Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia since June 2019. He was the leader of the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority from 2016 to 2019.

The Parliament of Georgia has 150 members, elected for a four-year term, 77 seats by proportional representation and 73 in single-seat constituencies.

In the summer of 2019, protests in Georgia demanded a change to a more proportional system (removing the single-seat constituencies) and secured a promise by Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling party Georgia Dream, to do so. In November 2019, however, individual members of parliament voted against a bill to change the electoral system, sparking protests.

I’m following from distance the developments in Georgia. I have been on your parliament’s website, I have seen your latest activities, your meetings with Western ambassadors. I would like to ask you to describe the reason of the protests, demanding early parliamentary elections after the government failed to pass the planned electoral reform. Can you describe what is happening?

Let me provide first of all the background information. Last week, the Parliament of Georgia voted for the change of date for proportional elections from 2024 to 2020. I am highlighting this. I mean: this was voting to change the date. The initiative could not pass, because three fourths of the votes were needed. The [ruling] Georgian Dream party is a firm believer in going to a proportional voting system in order to continue to allow for even more voices to be heard in our system of government. And that is why our political team took the initiative to move to a proportional electoral system. This was done within the framework of the constitutional reform one year ago, in 2018. And it was done against the backdrop of a very organized and aggressive boycott by the various entities operating in the opposition spectrum, including political players, political parties and party-affiliated media.

That happened one year ago. After the constitutional reform initiated and completed by the Georgian Dream majority, the current constitution, now, clearly reads that proportional elections will be held in 2024. So it is already in the acting text of the constitution.

The idea of switching to a proportional electoral system, on the other hand, never enjoyed particular popularity among majoritarian members of the Parliament. This was publicly known one year ago, and that’s publicly known now. And a number of them did not greet this platform with proper enthusiasm one year ago. But we mobilized and we managed to adopt these changes within the constitutional reform. So correspondingly, this compromise decision was made to transition to a proportional electoral system in 2024, which was our original target date. And this was done one year ago. Now we voted for the change of date. And as I said, unfortunately, Parliament could not gather the necessary majority.

But to address your question about what happened. Of course, we are disappointed that the bill to hold the 2020 parliamentary elections on a proportional basis failed to pass the parliament. This bill was initiated by Georgia Dream MPs over the summer. Unfortunately, the Parliament of Georgia failed to pass it. Despite the vote result, our party leadership is committed to ensuring free and fair elections in 2020, in whatever format is set forth by our parliamentary democracy. And even if the opposition does not like the way the parliament voted, and we did not either, to try to stop a democratically elected parliament from functioning and trying to block it is definitely unlawful, it subverts Georgian democracy and violates the law.

So that’s what actually the opposition was intending these days. And that was actually the reaction according to the law to bring the process back in the framework of peaceful assembly and manifestation and to bring the situation back to the normal political process. On my behalf, I have to tell you, that before this rally, I personally contacted the leaders of the parliamentary opposition and urged them to bring the political process back to the normal framework – to use all parliamentary platforms, plenary or committees, or inter-fraction, inter-party formats, to discuss any issue interesting to them, to put arguments forward and to use the remaining opportunities, which is the working group and the working process under the OSCE recommendations, which relates to the electoral legislation reform and which already is on, and which went quite successfully. And we’ve been around the table several times with the opposition and a number of issues are already agreed.

For our readers to understand better, the parliament has 150 seats. Is that correct?

Yes.

And as a result of the existing electoral system, the party that wins the elections receives a clear majority over the other parties. At present, the party Georgian Dream has 115 seats if I’m not mistaken.

No, Georgian Dream has 93 seats now. We had 115 in the very beginning of the Parliament, we had constitutional majority, you are right, and we used this. We used this to amend the constitution to conduct constitutional reform and to enshrine in the new constitution that proportional elections will be conducted in 2024. Afterwards, we lost constitutional majority. So before this voting, we did not have constitutional majority. And we needed the inclusion of opposition and the voting of the opposition together with the conditions that everyone from the parliamentary majority would vote for this shift of the date. As I said, unfortunately, majoritarian MPs, who had been against this initiative already one year ago, they did not vote. And because we don’t have a constitutional majority, this bill could not pass.

How many of the members of parliament from Georgia Dream did not vote?

The bill was voted for by 101 MPs, falling just short of the 113 votes needed for its passage. So the bigger part of the majority voted for it. And the rest of the MPs did not vote for it. About 39-40 MPs did not vote in favour. So that was the result.

Some of the members of parliament consider that this legislation is not in their favour…

Some of the members were against this reform already one year ago when we had constitutional majority, when we conducted constitutional reform. But at that time, we had a constitutional majority and we managed to pass a compromise version for 2024. Now, some of the same people did not vote for the shift of the date. But that was not a new story for Georgian parliamentary politics. These people were these months, they’ve been resisting, they’ve been making statements against the proportional system. We had public hearings countrywide, and the different positions, contradicting positions also have been sounded and discussed. And this is all documented. So as I said, the idea of switching to a proportional electoral system never enjoyed particular popularity among majoritarian MPs. Though, I can tell you that, personally, I am also elected through the majoritarian system and I voted for proportional system and I voted to shift the date from 2024 to 2020. I don’t accept the approach that if Parliament makes positive decisions on something this is legitimate and this is acceptable, and if Parliament did not make such decisions, the Parliament should be blocked. That is I think dual loyalty and dual standards.

I would like to ask you: the opposition party, UNM, they want the new system to be introduced in 2020. How do you comment on this?

Yes, they supported this decision. But there was a difference. The opposition was asking not the same we initiated, they’ve been asking to have a barrier, 3% threshold for blocks to be represented in parliament. The UNM, which is the former ruling party, have been in the governance for about 10 years. They had a large majority in two Parliaments, and they never ever initiated any bill for the proportional elections. So coming out now and selling to the public that this is something they really want and they really support as a value, this is seen as very cynical by some of the members in the parliament, members of the Georgian Dream. Because they know clearly that UNM never supported this and UNM never initiated any reform towards the proportional elections when they were for such a long time in the government.

To sum up, your position is that elections should be held normally next year, I think in October, is that correct?

It’s not my position, it is something which is clearly articulated in the legislation and the Constitution. So the next elections will take place the using the parallel voting system, which means that half of the parliament will be completed following exactly the same requirements as opposition had during this voting. They were asking proportional, they were asking 3% barrier and the blocks, so half of the parliament will be completed according exactly these requirements. So second half will be completed through the majoritarian rule. And even with this second half and even with the majoritarian elections, we have very comprehensive instruments and the changes prepared according to the OSCE recommendations, which make the majoritarian elections even more competitive. And I think this is also an opportunity for the opposition leaders to compete with the ruling party for the majoritarian seats as well, especially now, when different public opinion polls they refer to, speak that many leaders in opposition, as they argue, have enough backup and public support. So if they have one, logically it means that in the majoritarian elections they should be competitive. So, next elections, it’s October 2020.

And until then, are you planning to repeat the attempt to change the rules under which parliamentary elections are held?

It requires, a change of the model, requires a constitutional amendment, which first should be initiated with 200,000 signatures of the citizens or 76 MPs should initiate this at least, then a constitutional commission should be established, then public hearings should be conducted throughout the country, then committee hearings and then plenary, three votings and again three fourths of the votes is needed. So it’s a long procedure, and within the given time, especially before the elections, one year, according to the international standards no changes should be made to the election legislation. It looks now practically impossible.

I understand, but this gives ammunition to the opposition to have street protests, don’t you think?

Street protests, peaceful assembly and manifestation is guaranteed in any case, it’s a protected right. And of course, they can continue this, they can stop this, they can switch to other forms of peaceful assembly and manifestation. But again, blocking the institutions, blocking the parliament will not be tolerated of course. No democratic country will tolerate, that somebody is blocking state functions within the framework of the peaceful assembly and manifestation. It is forbidden by the law and when they tried this, two days ago, the government had reaction and the blockage and attempt to block the state institutions was prevented.

Even if the manifestations are peaceful, at a time when your country tries to be a champion in reform bringing in foreign investors, don’t you think that persistent protests will erode the image of the country and give an impression of political instability?

That’s why we urge the opposition parties to engage in a constructive political process in cooperation with opposition political parties and our partners, experts and civil society. The Georgian Dream has already drafted amendments to the election code in full accordance with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations intended to be adopted by the end of the year. So as I said, for the half of the Parliament, they have now the standard they’ve been requesting. And for the second half these legislative changes will give us much better and competitive standards to run the majoritarian districts election. I think that the opposition should use preferably this opportunity, fair competitive election is our paramount objective as we seek to advance Georgia’s democratic development. We will guarantee that in 2020 parliamentary elections will be conducted in a free, democratic and transparent manner.

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