Electoral reform – the good news we missed from Georgia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A man holds a Georgian national flag while marking the 102th anniversary of the Georgian Independence in Tbilisi, Georgia, 26 May 2020. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

Georgia is becoming, once again, a country to be watched by those who value liberty and the expansion of freedom and prosperity, writes Krassen Stanchev.

Krassen Stanchev is a Bulgarian economist. He contributed a slightly longer version of this comment to 4liberty.eu, a platform for experts and intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe.

Back in the fall and winter of 2019, there was little news about Georgia in the European and Central European media.

There were a few political and economic developments – such as the international indexes (on economic freedom, by the Fraser Institute, and on ease of doing business) and an interview of Mr Talakvadze, the Speaker of the Parliament in Tbilisi, with EURACTIV in November.

The former reconfirmed the country’s remarkable success in keeping up both freedom (7th rank globally) and favourable business environment (6th rank). The interview of the speaker focused on the political debate in Georgia over the electoral reform. And Mr Talakvadze blamed the opposition for the lack of cooperation and blocking the electoral reform.

Fast forward six months, Georgia is back in the spotlight. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been praised internationally, and parliament is set to debate and vote on a Constitutional Amendment to introduce an updated major electoral reform, ahead of the parliamentary elections in October 2020.

The Electoral Reform Agreement was introduced on 8 March. The agreement was proposed by the incumbent Georgian Dream government, and cross-party talks were facilitated by the United States and the European Union.

The final agreement had strong support from all major political parties in Georgia, and the country’s international partners.

Three years ago, the victorious Georgian Dream party promised a reload of the political system – from then based on parallel voting on nearly 50:50 system (77 by proportional party lists and 73 by single-member constituencies) to full proportional presentation with entry threshold as low as 1%.

Previously, between 1990 and 1999, it was raised from 4 to 7%, leaving a very high percentage of voters unrepresented; in 1995 – 61%, in 1996 – 26%, and in 2004 – 27% of those who cast their ballots.

The most recent elections were held at a 4% barrier, and the incumbent parliament with seven factions seems fairly representative (or, at least, there are no complaints on the matter).

However, in the summer of 2019, public demonstrations and protests led to a renewed urgency for moving ahead with electoral reform. The plan was openly and persistently supported by the EU, US foreign affairs representatives, OSCE, and by the Venice Commission.

The Georgian Dream majority promptly led a new push to find the desired political consensus, which was hammered out by October 2019. The electoral reform bill successfully passed the hearing in the legislative committees but, in November, unexpectedly to many, failed to become a law by a small number of votes.

On 17 November, the people rallied again on Rustaveli Boulevard to demand a change, and again were promised that it will be in place for the general elections this year.

On 8 March, with the support of the Ambassadors of the US and the EU in Tbilisi, again, the agreement was reached to adopt the mixed voting system before the October 2020 elections to 120:30 seats in favour of the elected MPs under party-lists votes.

In late March, President Salome Zurabishvili pardoned two United National Georgia Movement (UNM, Mikheil Saakashvili’s party) functionaries, in an attempt to further decrease polarization and encourage cross-party consensus. The move was welcomed by the US and the EU.

Simultaneously, the President expressed a hope that the pandemic will not postpone the electoral schedule.

COVID-19 has complicated the situation, as it has in many countries. By international comparisons, Georgia is performing very well in dealing with the COVID-19 threat, at par with the best in the EU – the Visegrad Four, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Slovenia.

In a situation of restricted public gatherings, there were public debates on the electoral reform led by political factions, with changing intensity but yet serious. The deadline for public discussion was 18 June, with Committee discussions set to begin on 19 June.

The parliamentary committee hearing shall be held in parallel with outside-parliament debates in the last three days before Sunday. Committees are scheduled to vote on the electoral reform on 24 June; the plenary of the legislature will follow up with its vote on 26 and 27 June.

Immediately after, if the vote passes, President Salome Zurabishvili is expected to sign the reform into law.

What outcome for Georgia

For many reasons, I am personally not a big fan of full proportional representation systems. I was elected member to the constitutional assembly of Bulgaria in 1990 under the one-man-one-vote system (the seats in the parliament were divided 50:50 between the two schemes), I enjoyed significant independence in pursuing my promises and legislative initiatives.

I now witness how the independence of individual MPs deteriorated when the system was moved into a full proportional presentation. In certain periods, the majority in the parliament was almost “manually” managed by the party leader in the executive, in other periods the ad hoc majorities contributed to chaotic and non-transparent public governance.

Having said that, it is clear that the proportional system has the support of the Georgian public, and it is considered valuable by the EU and the US. For that reason, I am confident that Georgia is moving in the right direction, politically. Here is what I think is at stake.

There are obvious common denominators between the visions of most political parties of Georgia. The points of unity are the Western orientation and negative sentiment towards the leadership and policies of the Russian Federation in the region, in Ukraine, and globally.

Moreover, there is a strong consensus in favour of the European path of the country’s long-term development goals. Such consensuses are a much less powerful political motivator in many EU member states. The other side of the coin is that this orientation is the prerequisite for Georgia’s sovereignty.

In line with this is the Georgian support for NATO and the fact that it is the country with the greatest proportional share in NATO initiatives.

On the political side, the electoral reforms enjoy a relatively wide popular support due to the above-mentioned experience with large segments of the voters’ constituencies remaining without representation in the past.

The EU, the US, OSCE, and the so-called international community regard the reform as a guarantee against authoritarian tendencies that were so common in Georgia’s own early transition years, and in many post-Soviet countries.

After UNM lost elections in 2012, some in the free-market community feared that Georgia would lose its way. Fortunately, this has not happened. As the World Bank indexes and the Heritage Freedom Index make clear, Georgia is performing impressively. Fortunately, the electorate embraced and supports the economic outcome of the reforms.

The Georgian Dream government has continued with the overall economic and political progress and advanced the pro-Western direction of Georgia (e.g. the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU; and the recent accession of Georgia to NATO’s cybersecurity platform MISP.

Georgia is now on a similar path as previously completed by the new EU member states like Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, etc. Besides the indexes of economic freedom and doing business, Georgia is performing at par or better than these EU countries in terms of rule of law, corruption perception, open budget and law enforcement indexes.

It seems that the electoral reform is now a pre-condition for preserving these remarkable accomplishments. With this in mind, the electoral reform should be supported.

The defenders of liberty have seen Georgia for many years as a natural ally for Western values.

As the country moves closer than ever to realizing its dreams of a European future (in contrast to mushrooming scepticism about the EU within the EU itself), it is reassuring that the pro-market, pro-democracy sentiments remain strong and that the future for Georgia now looks brighter than ever.

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