25 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (III)

So the UNM is sticking to its position that the mayor of Tbilisi should be elected with a 30% threshold, with party leaders intent on moving discussion away from the interparty working group to parliament.

First, let's tackle the question of compromise, which I still believe is the critical aspect to electoral code reform, moreso than the substance of the compromise itself. Defending the UNM's decision to cut short the working group discussions, MP Akaki Minashvili (ex-director of the Liberty Institute NGO and a former Kmara youth movement leader) argued that the threshold dispute should not be taken in isolation. The ruling party has already compromised by agreeing to an expansion of the Tbilisi city council with new election rules (25 party-list, 25 single mandate), something which increases the likelihood that more parties will be represented in the city council, and selection of the CEC chairperson by opposition CEC members (out of a list of 3 nominated by the president). Given such concessions, Minashvili says, the Alliance should reciprocate by accepting the proposed 30% threshold.

To this point, I could add that a 30% threshold is more consistent with the compromise rule parties have provisionally agreed upon for the election of city council deputies, who are to be elected by a simple plurality. If city deputies are to have limited political (as opposed to administrative/legal) legitimacy by virtue of this low bar, why should the mayor have so much more?

On the other hand, this is why a 40% threshold still seems to me a reasonable compromise between two politically-motivated positions. The other compromises are theoretically neutral (the first, definitely; the second, presumably, but what if the president proposes 3 obviously unacceptable candidates?). On the threshold, however, the UNM presumably supports 30% because it believes its candidate has a good chance to win outright with 30% of the vote, especially in a multi-candidate contest. (Any new public opinion polls on this?)

It appears, however, that another UNM objection to a high threshold is along the lines of the point I made earlier -- that a 50% threshold will become a political tool in the hands of a victorious opposition. The UNM does not to want to risk a scenario by which an opposition candidate wins the mayoral election with a majority vote and proceeds to use his/her popular mandate as a vehicle to try and unseat the ruling party in contentious ways rather than focusing on properly governing Tbilisi.

How exactly this might happen is worth speculating upon. In the runup to national elections, would an opposition-run City Hall condone or facilitate the kind of mass protests that are now illegal (more on that timely issue in a future post), or at least refuse to implement the recently-amended law on assembly, potentially creating a "revolutionary" situation of dual power between city and national governments? Will it foster and use its own administrative resources to help steer the vote in national elections? Will it seek to create an atmosphere of crisis in an effort to demonstrate that the ruling party has lost its ability to govern?

Theoretically, all these outcomes are possible, especially considering the opposition's efforts to foster a revolutionary environment on the streets of Tbilisi last summer. However, its not clear, first of all, that a 30% threshold would somehow dampen the efforts of a victorious Tbilisi mayor who was already inclined toward radicalizing the post. Second, likely opposition mayoral candidates are hardly all in the "radical" camp; it is hard to imagine someone like Irakly Alasania, the most viable nonparliamentary opposition candidate participating in the working group, using his post to destabilize the situation "from within."
In the end, perhaps there would be a risk of confrontation between the Tbilisi and national authorities -- even one that in the context of future mass protests dangerously raises the question of who has the right to control the streets. However, that's a challenge democratic state-building ought to willingly grapple with, isn't it? Not one it should seek to avoid.

I'm still not convinced that the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor is necessary or desirable -- the current system, introduced in 2006, provides for mayors that are indirectly elected by city councils. This was undeniably a democratic advance from the old system of appointed mayors, and there's a lot going for this system in the evolving Georgian context. Moreover, if this rule is going to stay in place for the rest of Georgia's city elections, its not at all clear why the Tbilisi election rules should diverge.

Perhaps more on that in another post, as well as some thoughts on the amended law on protests and its recent utilization (or mis-utilization?) in the case of the three demonstrators in front of parliament.

P.S. As I've mentioned before, I invite comments -- not only publicly but by email at democraticgeorgia@gmail.com. If you email me, please specify whether you want me to directly post your comments (attributing you or, by my judgment, anonymously) or whether you just want to offer corrections/clarifications/thoughts to incorporate as I see fit (without attribution). Either form is perfectly welcome. I recognize that many informed readers may not want or be able to post public comments.

19 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (II)

The news that the multiparty working group on the election code has failed to reach an agreement on new local election rules is discouraging. Not because participants could not reach a consensus, but because of the suggestion by MP Pavle Kublashvili (UNM) that the working group format has exhausted itself.

The point of the working group is to enable a compromise to be reached, not simply engage in the process of dialogue just to toss the format aside at the first suggestion that participants cannot agree. The working group should not be set aside, even if the consequence is to push back the election date to give participants time to reach an agreement (which, actually, I don't believe is that negative a consequence).

The good news is that participants appear to have (largely) agreed on 2 of the 3 main elements of a revised code: a 50-seat party list/majoritarian system for the Tbilisi city council and a major role for opposition parties in selecting the CEC chairman. This consensus is welcome and impressive. [NOTE: Details are in this statement by the Alliance for Georgia.]

The sticking point is the percentage needed for a first-round victory in the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor (which I'll have more to say about in my next post). The government and the main parliamentary opposition (Christian Democrats) support a 30% threshold while the main nonparliamentary opposition in the working group (Alliance for Georgia) seeks 50% , but expresses a willingness to go lower.

First of all, let's take the question of compromise -- the reason for the working group in the first place (and something that should be a major objective of any democracy promotion policy in Georgia). The ruling party says that 30% is their compromise figure, since they originally wanted no threshold at all.

This is not really so convincing. The government's starting point for negotiation should be the existing institutional framework that they have perpetuated and developed. The relevant existing rules are: a) majoritarian "block" deputies of the city council are elected with 30% of the vote; b) the mayor is elected by the city council with a simple majority; and c) majoritarian deputies in the national parliament are elected with 30% of the vote (see the election code and the law on the capital city -- here are the relevant draft amendments).

All together, this strongly suggests that at least 30% should be considered the government's starting point for negotiation. A simple plurality has never been (to my knowledge) an element of the electoral rules at either national or local government levels. Moreover, given the importance of a directly elected mayor, it would seem that the baseline should be at least as high as that for city council members and parliamentarians.

So the government (and CDM, for reasons that remain opaque) support 30%. Alliance for Georgia supports 50%. One can only deduce that a reasonable compromise is 40%.

In support of such a compromise, a quick canvas through democratic Eastern Europe suggests that only Albania and Ukraine have lower thresholds for mayoral elections (they both have simple plurality rules). The rest require a 50% victory or indirectly elect their mayors through city councils. [CORRECTION: As MP David Darchiashvili points out in a comment below, systems are more diverse than I thought. Hungary, Slovakia, and Bosnia also have plurality-based mayoral elections, so institutionally a 30% threshold is not so out of line.] And 40%, while unconventionalon the low end, is not unprecedented: at least two U.S. cities, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Berkeley, California, have 40% thresholds for victory in direct mayoral elections (as does New York City's mayoral election primaries) [Thanks to Georgetown grad student Dave Lonardo for that].

Finally, aside from its virtue as a compromise, in the Georgian context, a threshold that is lower than 50% makes some sense. Whether the victor is from the opposition or the ruling party, he or she will become a serious contender for the presidency. A 50% victory would grant the new mayor enormous popular legitimacy. Obviously the ruling party doesn't want an opposition mayor to have such a mandate in the leadup to presidential elections -- better they win in Tbilisi with 31% of the vote than with 51% -- but it also may not want their own candidate to have such legitimacy either! The jockeying for position to be the UNM's presidential candidate has barely begun; a majority-elected UNM mayor would virtually preempt that contest. And in general, its not clear that what Georgian democracy needs is a more individual-based political system regardless of who wins the mayoral election.

Even so, 30% is too low to build confidence. Besides the fact that the nonparliamentary opposition thinks it too low, there are too many concerns about the "imbalance" of (administrative) resources and their potential misuse giving an unfair structural advantage to the ruling party's candidate. Michael Posner, US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, suggested in Tbilisi the other day that it was important that a "level playing field" be established for the local elections. Its not clear that a 30% threshold does that.

The electoral working group should not be thrown away. A compromise consensus on the threshold should be established.

17 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (I)

Local elections are to be held next year, tentatively on 30 May, and negotiations regarding new electoral rules are underway. Local elections are not only important for their contribution (at least in principle) to local government, they are also a dress rehearsal for the 2012 and 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. The electoral campaign, election day, and the postelectoral count and handling of appeals will all be indications of government and political party commitment to democratic practices. No less significantly, local elections -- particularly for the Tbilisi city council and mayoral races -- will define many of the leading actors in the next national elections.

There are a few pressing issues. The first -- which I'm surprised has received so little attention -- is the matter of officially setting an election date. Local elections were supposed to be held in the fall, but as a concession to opposition parties, the government offered to hold early elections in the spring (30 May, just over six months from now). However, no date has been officially fixed. According to the electoral code,  the date of an early local government election is tied to the date that local government bodies will be dissolved. In principle, this means that the president can keep opposition parties guessing as to the official date of elections by announcing a snap dissolution and -- as mandated by law -- schedule new elections within 45 days, leaving parties (and election administrations and monitors) little time to prepare. There is a precedent for this kind of politics -- in the 2006 elections, the government took full advantage of its right to set the date of local elections just 40 days in advance. If the government is committed to holding local elections on 30 May, a more formal declaration is in order.

Personally, I'm not convinced that moving the schedule up for local elections is really that useful an idea (and at the time it wasn't really taken to be much of a compromise). The "Code of Good Practice" of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission suggests that no amendments to electoral laws should be introduced within one year of an election. Given the extensive reworking of local election rules that is underway, a 12-month period is probably appropriate. Still, none of the parties that plan to participate in local elections appear to object so far to the early date.

13 November 2009

Getting Started

What needs to be done to improve Georgian democracy? An array of institutions require continuing attention. Main areas of focus include the constitution and electoral legislation; the judiciary and interior ministry; and media. All these areas have been subjects of discussion since the first days after the Rose Revolution, six years ago.

The government's forcible dispersal of protestors in November 2007 led to heightened attention to the shortcomings of Georgia's democratic system. Since then, and especially after the August 2008 war, the government of Georgia began acknowledging the need to implement a "new wave" of democratic reforms. While reforms have been implemented or initiated in a number of spheres, and promises for further reforms have been made, much more work remains.

For a recent survey of the "second wave" of democratic reform, see Transparency International Georgia's September 2009 report, "Reform or Retouch? Georgia's 'New Wave' of Democracy". Also see the collection of articles in Spotlight on Georgia (ed. Adam Hug of the UK's Foreign Policy Centre).

A detailed analysis of Georgian politics and institutional reform since the November 2007 crisis can be found in my article, "Still Staging Democracy: Contestation and Conciliation in Postwar Georgia" (Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2009). Svante Cornell and Niklas Nillson provide a more concise treatment of the subject in the same journal. Other valuable recent articles include "Georgia's Year of Turmoil" by Miriam Lanskoy (National Endowment for Democracy) and Giorgi Areshidze (Journal of Democracy, October 2008), and "Compromising Democracy: State Building in Saakashvili's Georgia" (Central Asian Survey, June 2009) by Lincoln Mitchell. An early critique of the post-Rose Revolutionary constitutional reforms by Irakly Areshidze is here. Areshidze and Mitchell also have book-length treatments of Georgian politics that are indispensable reads.