04 December 2009

Local Elections 2010: Is 6 Months Enough Time?

This week, parliament began procedures to amend the constitution to allow for early local elections. Less than six months before the elections are to be held, neither the mechanism for setting the date nor the electoral code itself are in place. And the constitution is unfortunately being used again as a completely malleable political instrument -- such frequent changes to the constitution undermine the notion that law should prevail above short-term political interest, whether intentions are good or bad. The only thing that might change my mind in this particular case is if the amendment actually provides long-term institutional flexibility, rather than simply enables elections to be held early this year. I haven't seen the text, so I don't know.

I still think it would be best to hold local elections at their scheduled time. There is no sound reason for early elections, other than inertia (the ruling party proposed the early date as a compromise to the opposition days before rallies began in April, even though such a proposal was not on the agenda). Among parties planning to participate, there seems to be no dissent against early elections, but I think its still worth proposing to hold them at their scheduled time.

If spring elections are inevitable, efforts have to be focused on making them as healthy as possible. The first issue is a cautionary one I've mentioned before -- the law as the draft stands will allow the president to announce the date of the election 45 days in advance but no later than June 1, 2010. This flexibility should not be used to the UNM's political advantage (as it was in 2006 local elections). The president should publicly commit as soon as possible, even if it is not yet possible to do so in law, to the May 30 date everyone assumes will be the date the election is to be held.

The second issue concerns, again, the threshold. I still firmly believe a threshold higher than 30% will grant far greater confidence about the outcome of the mayoral election. Whatever the decision, however, the electoral code must also clearly proscribe the extralegal use of administrative resources and provide for an acceptable appeals process -- in ways that have the confidence of a wide spectrum of parties, NGOs, and international organizations. There are multiple points of view regarding the threshold: my main concern is whether the ruling party has the ability -- legally or otherwise -- to manipulate the outcome, in advance using the powers and resources of the incumbency in ways considered illegitimate in healthy democracies or on election day itself. It is one thing if the UNM's candidate (reportedly acknowledged to be incumbent Gigi Ugulava) could genuinely obtain a 30% victory in a free and fair election (not ideal from the point of view of legitimacy, but still democratic). It is another thing if the UNM's candidate could only really obtain 29% of the vote but through various illicit means proclaims victory.

Finally, though at this point the matter seems moot, I still think the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor was not only unnecessary (and possibly counterproductive) for advancing Georgian democracy, it was something that, strategically, opposition parties should not have accepted. Given the fractured nature of the opposition, they would probably have a better shot at securing control of the mayor's office if they had focused their attention on getting a majority of seats in a directly-elected city council that would itself select a mayor (this was an important democratic change to the law already in advance of the 2006 local elections, one now fated to have been relevant for a single election). Now, the race for the Tbilisi city council has become relatively less important, when this is a body that provides an excellent opportunity to seed both a multiparty democratic system and the deepening of legislative power, both features that could usefully be extended to the national parliament in anticipation of 2012 elections.

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