ZOiS Spotlight 39/2020 by Diana Bogishvili (28 October 2020)
Thirty years ago, on 28 October 1990 – 14 months before the disintegration of the Soviet Union – Georgia held its first free multi-party election. It took place after opposition parties staged mass protests demanding independence for the country and was the crucial step in Georgia’s breakaway from the Soviet Union. A mixed voting system comprising elements of first-past-the-post and proportional representation was used to determine the allocation of seats in Parliament on a more or less equal basis.
This mixed voting system remained in place for three decades. However, this year’s parliamentary elections on 31 October will be conducted in a predominantly proportional system for the first time. Of the 150 seats in Parliament, 120 will be elected by the proportional system and the remaining 30 by first-past-the-post.
The opposition in Georgia has been calling for a switch to a fully proportional system for some time. Their criticism is that the government has used the majoritarian system to its advantage. For example, some business figures with close links to the government have repeatedly invested large sums of money in gaining easy victories over much less well-resourced opposition candidates, winning seats that have often helped to secure a constitutional majority for the government in Parliament. At the last parliamentary elections in 2016, when fewer than half the votes counted under the proportional system, the governing party, Georgian Dream, won 122 seats.
The government therefore had no intention of abolishing the mixed electoral system. It was not until mass protests engulfed the country in June 2019 and continued for several weeks that the leader of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, was forced to make concessions to the protesters and pledged to introduce proportional representation. Three months later, President Salome Zourabichvili made a similar commitment to the international community during her speech to the United Nations. However, it soon became clear that the government intended to drop the relevant legislation when it failed to secure the required majority in Parliament. On 25 November 2019, the General Secretary of Georgian Dream and Mayor of Tbilisi, Kakhaber "Kakha" Kaladze, declared the matter officially “closed”. The government’s approach united the opposition parties as never before around the introduction of a proportional electoral system and sparked protests by thousands of people in front of the Georgian Parliament, with numerous arrests of opposition members. As tensions mounted, the European Union and the United States made intensive efforts to find a solution to the electoral law dispute that would maintain stability in the country. The lengthy negotiations, which directly involved EU and US diplomats, finally produced a compromise. Under the agreement reached on 8 March 2020 between Georgian Dream and the opposition, the number of seats elected under the proportional system increases from 77 to 120. The proportion of the popular vote that parties must obtain to be represented in Parliament has been lowered from 5 per cent to 1 per cent.
Expectations of a coalition government
The 2016 elections in Georgia epitomised the clash between two political forces. On one side, there was the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, and its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili; on the other, there was the former governing party, the United National Movement, and its chairman and third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. Today, the other political parties hope that the new voting system will end the seemingly unbreakable dominance of these two political forces. The new system is expected to enable relatively weak political movements to engage more actively and play a more substantive role in Parliament when it comes to the formation of a new government. The opposition hopes that by strengthening the proportional system, de facto one-party rule in Georgia will come to an end, Georgian Dream will no longer secure a parliamentary majority and a coalition government will be formed with the involvement of the opposition parties.
How realistic are these expectations? On the one hand, Georgian Dream does appear to be weakened, as it is going into the upcoming elections without a coalition partner. Many former allies are standing for election either independently or have joined forces to create a united opposition under the “Strength is in Unity” banner. On the other hand, it is unclear at present just how much of a loss Georgian Dream will in fact sustain and whether it will lead to gains for the opposition. That is for the voters to decide.
The power of the undecided voter
According to the latest opinion polls, the majority of Georgians intend to vote in the parliamentary elections in October (88 per cent), but many are undecided (59 per cent). When choosing their preferred party, economic policy (36 per cent), followed at some distance by healthcare policy (12 per cent) and stance on rule of law (12 per cent) are among the most important factors for Georgian voters. Their top national concerns are jobs (49 per cent), poverty (39 per cent) and rising prices/inflation (20 per cent).
Such a high number of undecided voters presents both a challenge and an opportunity for parties, says Alan Gillam, Georgia Country Director of the National Democratic Institute. He believes that candidates have plenty of work to do to find solutions to the issues prioritised by citizens. Ultimately, the polls tell us little about the likely outcome of the election: much will depend on the behaviour of these undecided voters.
Diana Bogishvili is a sociologist and a researcher at ZOiS.