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 unconventional
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.