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.


  1. Cory, I'm really glad you're doing this. And starting with the most important issue. A most auspicious beginning!

    If you're doing a second post on this topic, can you take up the question of what 30% and 50% mean within the context of Georgian politics? Which is more conducive to the development of stable and responsible political parties?

    Miriam Lanskoy

  2. Cory,
    I join Miriam in thanking you for putting up this blog.... although the title "democratic Georgia" might be a tad ambitious.....

    To take a stab at Miriam's question, and I too am curious what you think, I think a PR system in the legislature should bring a number of political parties. Yet the Georgian context seems to want overwhelming mandates for their leaders. Mayoral elections, SMD as they must be, should limit the parties that are competitive for that spot, but I wonder if that won't lead to more personalized party platforms rather than fewer.

    Julie George

  3. This is a very useful exercise, and the sample post is a thoughtful and balanced one. The suggestion that the both too hard and too easy an UNM victories for mayor pose risks to the existing distribution of power is intelligent.
    I only want to comment on the "opaque" reasons why the Christian Democratic Movement is supporting the UNM position on the mayoral election threshold. There is a very widespread view in Georgia that the CDM is not completely independent of the government, a view that you hear not only from oppositionists but even from its own activists. There was recently a split in the CDM over the desire of some members to campaign against some companies close to the government who were allegedly damaging the health of citizens in their regions, a campaign cancelled, according to its advocates, by the central leadership of the CDM lest it offend these companies or the government. While published allegations about the government-organized funding of the CDM or its UNM help for it in the regions might be based on rumors, there is a pattern of trading favors on current public issues.

  4. [I'm posting this on behalf of MP David Darchiashvili, Chairman, Committee on European Integration, who emailed me the below:]

    First of all, there are some other places in former communist countries to my knowledge, where mayors are elected directly but without thresholds (Bosnia, Slovakia, Hungary). The practice of well established democracies also shows that there is no direct link between thresholds and democracy in this particular case.

    And there is another reason for not having a 50% threshold: We have it for nationwide presidential elections. At the same time, some people from the opposition side perceive city elections not as a fight for municipal policies, power, responsibilities and rights, but as a "liberation" of the city from the central government. With such a background, whoever wins with the "presidential" threshold in Tbilisi, which is inhabited by about 1/3 of the total population and where the lion's share of national resources are concentrated, might have the temptation to perceive him/herself as an alternative nationwide power-center, notwithstanding what is written in the constitution or in relevant laws and the city charter. Georgia is a rather young transitional country to count on a political culture which would not allow such perceptions to be spread and converted into non-constitutional behavior. It might translate into a kind of confusion on a mass scale in the public services, which are also rather young institutionally and professionally. That is the reality aspect; if overlooked, we will risk paving the road to hell with whatever good intentions. If you agree to this argument, would a 40% threshold definitely save us from such a scenario?

    On the working group: It had worked for months and UNM representatives were showing "strategic patience", a lot was agreed upon, and on rather important issues, as you say. Now, when one actor talks in the style of an ultimatum, forgetting everything that has been agreed, and it frustrates the representative of the UNM, its more explainable than not. I do believe that emotions will still give way to a rational process, but if not, everything will be pleasant for Mr. Alasania and his colleagues, who were insisting on a 50% threshold until now; the process can really not be continued indefinitely, especially if other actors show greater inclination to start election preparations on jointly accepted grounds.

    With best regards,

    David Darchiashvili
    Committee on European Integration
    Parliament of Georgia

  5. 10 American Presidents Who Won with Less Than 50% of the Vote
    John Quincy Adams – 30.5% of the popular vote in 1824
    Zachary Taylor – 47.4% of the popular vote in 1848
    James Buchanan – 45.3% of the popular vote in 1856
    Abraham Lincoln – 39.8% of the popular vote in 1860
    Benjamin Harrison – 47.9% of the popular vote in 1888
    Grover Cleveland – 46.1% of the popular vote in 1892
    Woodrow Wilson – 41.9% of the popular vote in 1912
    Richard Nixon – 43.4% of the popular vote in 1968
    William Clinton – 42.9% of the popular vote in 1992
    George W. Bush – 47.8% of the popular vote in 2000

  6. Arend Lijphart in Democracies, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998) provides interesting data - among free countries, as classified by FH in 1997, 35 use simple plurality voting system, 39 - party list proportional representation, and only 7 - 2 round majoritarian system. As about established democracies - countries, with uninterrupted democratic tradition for last 20 years, 11 use simple plurality voting system, 15 - party list proportional representation, and only 1 - 2 round majoritarian system.
    Plurality voting tends to promote two-party systems, voters are encouraged to vote tactically by voting for only one of the two leading candidates, because a vote for any other candidate will not affect the result. It provides a clear-cut choice for voters between two main parties.
    Plurality system gives rise to a coherent opposition in the legislature. It advantages broadly-based political parties. In severely ethnically or regionally divided societies, plurality voting system is commended for encouraging political parties to be ‘broad churches’, encompassing many elements of society, particularly when there are only two major parties and many different societal groups.
    Plurality system excludes extremist parties from representation in the legislature. Unless an extremist minority party’s electoral support is geographically concentrated, it is unlikely to win any seats.
    2 round majoritarian system shares many of the disadvantages of simple plurality voting system, but lacks it's main advantages.
    2 round majoritarian system tends to fragment party system. In 2002 French Presidential elections leftist vote was split among 8 candidates, as a result fascist Le Pen ended up in 2nd round. In France 2 round majoritarian system produces the most disproportional results of any Western democracy.
    One of the most serious problems with 2 round majoritarian is its implications for deeply divided societies. In Angola in 1992, in what was supposed to be a peacemaking election, rebel leader Jonas Savimbi came second in the first round of a 2 round majoritarian presidential election to Jose dos Santos with 40 per cent of the vote as opposed to dos Santos’ 49 per cent. As it was clear that he would lose the run-off phase, he had little incentive to play the democratic opposition game and immediately restarted the civil war in Angola, which went on for another decade. In Congo in 1993, prospects of a government landslide in the second round of a 2 round majoritarian election prompted the opposition to boycott the second round and take up arms. In both cases, the clear signal that one side would probably lose the election was the trigger for violence. In Algeria in 1992, the candidate of the Islamic Salvation Front led in the first round, and the military intervened to cancel the second round.
    2 round majoritarian system places considerable pressure on the electoral administration by requiring it to run a second election a short time after the first, thus significantly increasing both the cost of the overall election process and the time that elapses between the holding of an election and the declaration of a result. This can lead to instability and uncertainty. 2 round majoritarian system also places an additional burden on the voter in terms of time and effort required to cast the vote as the voter has to make it to the polling station twice, and usually there is a sharp decline in turnout between the first round and the second.

  7. As about Georgian context. The only political force pushing for 2 round majoritarian system is Alasiania's coalition. He badly managed negotiations with other opposition parties, probably was not really interested in these negotiations - after few days of starting talks with rest of opposition, he declared himself as The Candidate of opposition, as well as Subari as candidate for Chair of Tbilisi Council. He was not interested in any power-sharing with other opposition parties, whom he, and not only he, considers as fringe groups. But these fringe groups will not go away. So Alasania needs 2 round, in order to get through electoral system, what he was not able to get through negotiations. Because of his arrogance and unwillingness to make concessions for other opposition groups, Alasania alienated himself.
    Rest of opposition has no chance of winning mayoral election, and they are more interested in electoral system of council. If there were no list proportional representation for council, based on results of recent parliamentary elections, when UNM won 8 of 10 districts, it's reasonable to assume, that on next years local elections, UNM would take 20 of 25 seats. Remaining 5 would go to second strongest party, so rest of opposition would end up with nothing. That's why these parties had vital interest in list proportional representation for council election. These parties were rejected by Alasania, so UNM utilised this opportunity, gave to these parties what they were asking for and got their support for it's preferred system of electing mayor.
    Internal rivalry within opposition is additional contributing factor in this outcome. Success of one of oppositional forces is lose not for ruling UNM, but for rest of opposition - all of them are playing on same ground, competing for support of same constituency and same donors. If 2009 produces clear leader among diverse oppositional groups, then in 2012 and 2013 it would be much difficult for rest of opposition to attract support of prospective donors or ordinary voters, or media.

  8. Let's imagine a situation you have 100 000 turnout in the first round., one candidate get's 40% , second 25%, third 20% and the rest 15%. In the second rounf you have 10 000 turnaut and 1 candidate gets 4000 of votes while the other 6000 votes and wins. Would that make 6000 vote candidate more legitimate then the one who got 25000 votes and could not get to the second round? Since when abstract mathematical formula is more important then real human beings?
    I don't support existing electoral system, but don't think that hysteric vilification of simple plurality system advances cause of meaningful electoral reform. As about my personal preferences, those who are interested can find them on my blog - konstitucia.wordpress.com (unfortunately, it's only in Georgian). I support double simultaneous vote, based on free list proportional representation and preferential voting. This system would incorporate all advantages of both single mandate constituency based simple plurality system (accountability towards concrete constituency) as well as of proportional representation (no votes are lost, all voices are heard), plus it combines primary and general elections, thus tends to consolidate fragmented party system