Fresh deal on the table in Georgian elections stand-off

It looks like a deal might have been done in Georgia where street protests have taken place to protest at the lack of promised electoral reform. Parliamentary elections are due to take place in the country at the end of the year.

At the end of last year, lawmakers failed to endorse a promised deal which would have moved the country to a purely list based election and ended the mixed member system where 73 of the 150 seats are elected from constituencies. 

Now there are reports that a new deal with a much reduced number of constituency seats – 30 – is set to be proposed to Parliament. And the threshold for parties to cross before gaining seats is set to be cut from 5% to 1%, leaving the way open for many more groups and factions to be represented.

Constituency seats traditionally favour larger parties and incumbents as they are able to build electoral machines in their neighbourhoods. And in more corrupt countries there is increased opportunity to buy votes. Each constituency will have around 66,000 voters under the proposed deal.

Although opening the way to many more groups and factions entering the parliament can be a very good thing, especially in the short term, it can also lead to a much weaker legislature. If it proves difficult to build a majority coalition then the executive is better able to govern without the risk of parliamentary defeat. With the new system, parties know that they only have to have the votes of about 12,000 people to get a seat via the list. That is good for helping minority communities to get a voice, but may encourage factions within the larger parties to break away and form their own parties.

Elections to watch – 2020

It’s no surprise that the USA will host the biggest, most expensive and most important elections of the year on November 3rd. Donald Trump’s efforts to gain a second term will be played out across news bulletins around the world, whilst his various Democratic opponents will aim to get airtime when faced with the most media-dominant President in history.

It is often said that a second term president becomes a lame duck almost immediately, but that won’t be the case for Trump who has shown that he is willing to make quick, and often un-signalled, decisions on major issues. Apart from tax reform, Trump has relied less on legislation than almost any President before him. But he has been willing to withdraw from international agreements and upset the established liberal world order like never before.

Down-ballot, the chances of radical shifts in the House or Senate are slim, but we will see how the impeachment efforts will play out on those races.

However the US elections are far from being the only pivotal polls in 2020. Two contests – in Georgia and Belarus – will help us to understand the limits of Russian influence in countries in their immediate orbit and a third – Serbia – is a traditional Russian ally.

There are also re-runs of elections held originally in 2019 which, for different reasons, failed to produce a result. Israel will hold its third election in a year whilst Bolivia will attempt a clean election following the departure of Evo Morales.

There are also key contests in Egypt and Myanmar – countries dominated by the military – and elections in South Korea, North Macedonia and Iran which will be closely watched by foreign governments as they could signal the impact of international decisions on domestic attitudes. 

Iran, Parliament (March)

Iran continues to play its role as the grit in the oyster of Middle East politics with a network of official and semi-official proxies around the region. The country has always had its reformers and its hardliners and the spring election will be another test of strength between those factions.

Elections in Iran are largely conducted on a professional and democratic basis but with all but 5% of candidates (who represent religious minorities) subject to approval by the Islamic authorities.

The last elections in 2016 saw reformists emerge as the largest faction but without an overall majority. Iran has a reputation for huge numbers of candidates as 6,200 candidates ran for the 290 seats in 2016.

As well as its funding for militant groups and factions, Iran has also built up significant cyber capabilities and has allegedly used them extensively to interfere with the functions of other states for the past two years. Its nuclear programme is of concern to the west and the USA has pulled out of the JCPOA leading some to wonder whether military strikes are imminent. Iran’s position on the Staits of Hormuz also gives it unique powers to affect the world’s oil supplies.

Every country will be watching these elections with interest to see if the results may affect any of these interests. But it seems safe to predict that there will be no outcome that would comprehensively reverse any aspect of Iran’s current course.

Israel, Parliament (March)

The third election in Israel in a year will again be between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz with the former having won his Likud leadership primary at the end of 2019. This poll comes after a second indecisive election and the failure to form a government under Israel’s list election system which splits Parliamentary representation between ten different parties. 

It is impossible to foresee a majority party emerging and this contest will see voters tasked with giving either Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White the upper hand. But there is no provision for what might happen if the parties are again evenly split. Netanyahu has refused to give up the post of Prime Minister in any coalition in which his party features and Gantz refuses to serve under the longest serving Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Bolivia, President, Chamber of Deputies and Senate (March or April)

President Evo Morales stepped aside at the end of 2019 after his election win was found to be corruptly obtained. He won’t be a candidate in the re-run, but that won’t prevent the poll being highly controversial and tightly fought. In the aftermath of the failed poll, Morales sought asylum in Mexico as the army took a grip on the country and many of his former supporters were arrested. Since then there has been a general de-escalation in tensions and detainees have been released. Interim president Jeanine Añez will remain in charge until the vote in March or April.

North Macedonia, Parliament (April)

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called these early elections after the failure of EU members (largely at France’s behest) to agree the start of accession talks for his country and Albania. The country is also due to become a full member of NATO in the spring. In the last couple of years North Macedonia has formally changed its name to satisfy a long-standing complaint from Greece as well as undertaken large-scale structural reforms to bring it more into line with EU norms. The reward for these unpopular measures was to be the start of the long journey towards EU accession.

The election will pit Zaev’s SDSM against the anti-agreement VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski. The SDSM candidate won the presidential election in May 2019 but the parliamentary poll will be closely fought.

A win for Zaev’s party might give him and his supporters among existing members of the EU a boost before the next summit in June where France may be persuaded to change her stance. New EU President Croatia hs promised to keep the issue high up the institution’s agenda. A win for the opposition would surely end any prospect of further integration measures for the foreseeable period.

South Korea, Parliament (April)

There are significant domestic issues at play in this year’s legislative elections but these will play second fiddle in the minds of other countries to relations between South Korea and its neighbour to the north. At times President Moon Jae-In has been central to peace talks but has recently been sidelined by both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And whilst left-wing and pro North Korean parties are banned in the South, there are significant differences between the parties which will be a major factor in voters’ minds.

Proposed changes to the voting system would mean the small PR element changing from a parallel to a compensatory system, favouring smaller parties.

Polls suggest that the Democratic Party is well ahead of its main conservative opponents the Liberty Korea Party but effort to game the new voting system could leave the outcome in the balance.

Serbia, Parliament (April)

North Macedonia and Albania may have been seen as being at the front of the queue for EU accession, but Serbia has also been in the frame for membership for a number of years. And for the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, this would represent a significant departure from historic ties to Russia which seeks to maintain at least one friendly presence in the Balkans.

The major hindrance to western integration is the continued failure to establish common ground with Kosovo. Talks of a land-swap to settle a border dispute between the two were effectively quashed by Angela Merkel who saw this as a dangerous precedent for other countries. 

The current government is led by the pro-Western Ana Brnabić but previous elections have been criticised for the misuse of state resources and the lack of media independence and there is a proposed boycott by a number of opposition parties and groups. With decisions on Kosovo and western-oriented reforms likely to hit the popularity of the SNS government, it is possible that the coming election might be more competitive than assumed.

Belarus, President (August)

Few people will predict anything other than comfortable re-election for President Lukashanka but this election will be more notable for the tone than the outcome. Belarus has sought to maintain a balance between historic and economic ties to Russia whilst trying to avoid being perceived as a puppet of the Kremlin.

One of the potential routes for Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his second (and officially final) term in office comes to an end in 2024 is said to be a formal union with Belarus. This seems unlikely, but tax, currency and other financial ties remain under discussion. At the same time, the West, while being careful not to undermine Lukashenka by getting too close, will keep pressing for reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the removal of the only two opposition law-makers from Parliament in what was seen as a retrograde step. Will this contest shed any light on likely succession-planning?

Georgia, Parliament (October)

Electoral reform is not the usual issue to cause mass protests but such is the case in Georgia where a pledge to implement a more proportional system appears to have been abandoned. The state remains heavily dependent on Russia despite the continuing ‘frozen’ conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin recognises as breakaway states but Georgia (and most of the world) does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has seen almost half of its support drain away according to the most recent opinion polls, but the main opposition groups have also lost ground. Such fragmentation, as well as possible boycotts, make the elections unpredictable.

Egypt, Parliament and Senate (November)

Egypt’s flirtation with more genuine democracy resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, President el-Sisi has received significant support from the rest of the world as a bastion against terrorism and he has been able to limit popular expression in the country and put state organs in charge of much of the poll. The removal of the powers of the General Intelligence Directorate to create and approve candidate lists might have been seen as a progressive step, but their role has been taken by the National Security Agency instead. Prominent opposition figures have been arrested but there are reports that the Coalition of Hope, a moderate opposition group, may be about to contest the elections.

Myanmar, Parliament (November)

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for many years the symbol of opposition to military rule in Myanmar, has lost much of her lustre around the world as she has sought to defend what is seen as possible genocide against the Rohinga people in the west of the country and failed to overturn military dominance – the armed forces still has reserved seats in the parliament which makes fundamental change unlikely. 

How the people will react when given the chance to vote – and how free the military allows the elections to be – will be at issue in this contest. 

Venezuela, National Assembly (December)

The constitutional crisis in Venezuela – with two presidents claiming legitimacy and being backed by different countries – continues. The parliament remians the main opposition to President Nicolas Maduro whilst the Constituent Assembly, extablished to write a new constitution, are his main backers. Officially the constituent assembly will lose its mandate shortly after the parliamentary elections. However the outcome of the vote is unlikely to satisfy both sides and the battle for legitimacy will almost certainly continue.

Moldova, President (date unknown)

Moldova faces a Presidential election less than a year after the unlikely coalition government of pro-Western technocrats and pro-Russian socialists fell apart. That deal was done in order to oust the the Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc which was widely perceived to be corrupt. However there has been little time to complete reforms and the coming presidential poll will probably see a contest between incumbent Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Pavel Filip who seems likely to receive the Democratic Party nomination.

Georgian Parliament fails to pass promised electoral reform as almost half of government MPs oppose their own bill

A measure to implement a promised change to Georgia’s electoral system has failed to get the necessary 75% majority in Parliament as a significant number of governing party Georgian Dream MPs failed to back the move. Opposition and civil society activists are up in arms and more protests may be on the way.

It’s rare that people take to the streets to protest in favour of electoral reform and rarer still that a government actually feels threatened by such protests. But that’s what happened in Georgia over the summer and it resulted in a promise by Georgian Dream to change to a fully proportional voting system from the current mixed system.

The proposal was to do away with the majoritarian (First-Past-the-Post) element and have all 150 MPs elected from a party list system with coalitions banned and no threshold. To pass, the measure needed the support of at least 113 of the 150 MPs.

When it came to voting, just 57 of the 106 Georgian Dream MPs backed the move with many of the 93 who had proposed it voting against. The opposition has suggested this was a stitch up. In total, there were 101 votes in favour and 3 opposed – all Georgian Dream MPs. All opposition and independent MPs backed the change.

Minutes after the vote, seven Georgian Dream MPs who voted for the bill announced they had left the parliamentary majority in protest, including Vice-Speaker and member of Georgian Dream’s political council Tamar Chugoshvili.

As soon as the decision was announced, protesters began gathering outside parliament, with a larger demonstration planned for the evening. There was a minor confrontation with police after protesters attempted to block the road outside parliament as MPs were departing.

According to OC Media:

“Transitioning to a fully-proportional electoral system was a key concession made by the government in the wake of mass protests in the capital in June.

Thousands took to the streets on 20 June, after Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov was invited to address parliament from the speaker’s tribune. A violent dispersal of a demonstration outside parliament the following day led to further protests.

Thousands continued to protest outside parliament for weeks after, forcing the resignation of Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze.

Reacting to the vote, Shota Dighmelashvili, one of the leaders of the youth-led For Freedom group, which spearheaded protests following 20 June, wrote on Facebook urging people to again take to the streets.”

The next Parliamentary elections in Georgia are due to take place in 2020. As things stand, it appears the system used will not be changing. At the last elections in 2016, Georgian Dream won 71 of the 73 constituency seats and 44 from the list element on 48% of the overall vote. Two opposition parties secured the remainder of the list seats whilst one minor party and one independent candidate won the remaining constituencies.

Georgia proposes move to list based elections with no threshold in bid to end protests

Georgia’s ruling party has said that it will move to change national elections to a purely list based system in a bid to stop protests which have gripped the country.

The current system is a mixed one with 73 MPs elected from single member constituencies in a two round system where the winner needs more than 50% support. In addition, 77 MPs are elected through a national list with a 5% threshold. The lists seats are allocated purely on the basis of the proportional vote and do not take account of constituency seats won. This system was only put in place before the elections in 2012 and opponents believe it gives a disproportionate advantage to the ruling party which holds 115 of the 150 seats on 48% of the vote.

The next elections in Georgia are due in 2020 and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has said that that no threshold should be applied to the list system. Abolishing a threshold would encourage small parties and create a fractured parliament with many different factions. It is a move likely to favour strong coherent government parties and enable them to keep control even if they see a drop in overall support. Had the 2016 election been held on a pure list vote with no threshold then there would likely have been ten factions elected to Parliament rather than the current four (and just two factions gained representation in the 2012 elections).

However protesters have said that this concession is not enough for them to end their action. They are calling for the interior minister to step down as well as the release of those arrested on June 20th – the first night of protests. 

There is also anger directed against Russia after a visit by Russian politicians during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. Russia continues to have troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two areas recognised by the majority of the international community as Georgian territory.

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.

Voters in Georgia’s presidential election had a genuine choice and candidates campaigned freely, but on an unlevel playing field, international observers say

OSCE/ODIHR have released their preliminary statement on the Georgian Presidential Election. I have copied the summary below and you can find the full report here.

The election was competitive and professionally administered. Candidates were able to campaign freely and voters had a genuine choice, although there were instances of misuse of administrative resources, and senior state officials from the ruling party were involved in the campaign. Substantial imbalance in donations and excessively high spending limits further contributed to an unlevel playing field. While public broadcasters provided all candidates a platform to present their views, the sharp polarization of the private media, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric, and lack of analytical reporting limited voters’ ability to make a fully informed choice. Legal changes that increased the representation of the ruling party at all election administration levels and the insufficient transparency in the selection of non-partisan members undermined the perception of impartiality. Nevertheless, election day generally proceeded in a professional, orderly and transparent manner, despite some procedural issues during counting, as well as many citizen observers and media acting on behalf of political parties and party supporters potentially influencing voters outside polling stations.

The legal framework provides an adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections. The 2017 and 2018 amendments to the election code introduced a number of technical improvements. However, certain shortcomings remain and recent amendments were a missed opportunity to engage broadly and address a number of other prior ODIHR and Council of Europe recommendations or eliminate gaps and inconsistencies.

Elections were managed professionally by three levels of administration, led by the Central Election Commission (CEC) who enjoyed the confidence of most electoral stakeholders and made concerted efforts to increase the competence of lower-level commissions. In the absence of adequate regulation by the CEC, the selection of non-partisan lower-level commission members lacked consistency and transparency.

Over 3.5 million citizens were registered to vote. Authorities made commendable efforts to improve the accuracy of the voter list and election commissions gave voters ample opportunity to verify their information. Most stakeholders expressed confidence in the accuracy of the voter lists.

The candidate registration process was transparent and inclusive. In total, 25 candidates were registered, 16 from political parties and 9 independent. However, credible indications that databases of voter data were available for purchase and the absence of an effective mechanism for checking the authenticity of support signatures diminished the genuineness of the nomination process. The campaign showed that a significant number of candidates registered for the purpose of using their public funding and free airtime to support other contestants giving them an unfair advantage.

While fundamental freedoms were generally respected and contestants were able to campaign freely, ODIHR EOM observed several disruptions of campaign events and multiple instances of vandalised party offices or campaign materials. The campaign was dominated by controversial topics polarizing public opinion, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric between the ruling and one of the opposition parties. Concerns were raised about the collection of personal data of voters and the pressure this practice imposes. Instances of the misuse of administrative resources were observed. Further the

involvement of senior state officials from the ruling party in the campaign was not always in line with the law and blurred the line between the state and the party.

Party and campaign finance legislation lacks uniformity, and recent legislative amendments did not address longstanding ODIHR and Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) recommendations. The law provides for private funding for all candidates and public funding for those nominated by parties. The lack of regulation for obtaining loans for campaign expenses and reporting on the use of these funds potentially contributes to the imbalance of the playing field. The State Audit Office verified and promptly published reports before the election. However, despite increased efforts, the lack of clear deadlines for addressing violations and the institution’s insufficient resources raised concerns about the effectiveness of campaign finance oversight. Substantial imbalance in donations and excessively high spending limits did not contribute to a level playing field.

Insufficient issue-oriented debate, shallow coverage of the campaign and the lack of analytical reporting by sharply polarized media limited the possibility for voters to make a fully informed choice. While the law provides free airtime only for certain party-nominated candidates, both public national broadcasters decided to provide all candidates the same amount of free airtime and hosted numerous debates that gave them a platform to present their views. The media regulator did not always display a transparent and impartial approach when intervening in the campaign. Media monitoring results showed clear bias in the coverage by many private media.

Overall, complaints and appeals were handled by election administration and courts in an open and transparent manner within legal deadlines. The complexity of the electoral dispute resolution system, the limited right to file complaints and appeal certain decisions, as well as the lack of sufficient legal reasoning in decisions, limited the effective resolution of disputes, at odds with international commitments and standards. Various ODIHR EOM interlocutors expressed a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the complaint adjudication system.

The Election Code provides for observation of the entire election process by citizen and international organizations, as well as representatives of election contestants, and the accreditation process was inclusive and professionally managed. During the pre-election period citizen observer groups faced intense verbal attacks on their work and representatives by high ranking members of the ruling party and senior public officials. Still, the observation efforts of established citizen observer organizations contributed to the transparency of the process.

Election day generally proceeded in a professional, orderly and transparent manner. However, the frequent presence of a large number of party supporters, often with lists of voters, noting who was coming to vote raised concerns about the ability of voters to vote free from pressure and fear of retribution. Voting was assessed positively, although those citizen observers and media who acted on behalf of political parties negatively impacted the process. The assessment of counting was less positive due to procedural problems, some cases of interference and an increase in tensions.