When is a compromise not a compromise? After parliament passed the first reading of the legislation to change the electoral code last Friday, government leaders sought to explain the rationale behind not only the 30% threshold for electing the mayor but their offer to have the Tbilisi mayor directly elected in the first place.
On the threshold, there's not a whole lot to add to this analysis of President Saakashvili's comments that a 50% threshold would cause a candidate to be elected by "hate votes." I'd only add that in one democratic system the UNM has seemed to admire -- Japanese democracy, where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party governed for nearly 55 years straight, with a 11-month break in the early 1990s -- the opposition Democratic Party of Japan swept to power earlier this year on the basis of what observers called "an act of political protest" ("It was as though an anti-LDP fever gripped the nation"). "Hate voting" happens.
More interesting have been the ruling party’s comments about the direct election of the mayor. Saakashvili says he had "lots of doubts" about a direct election. On Friday, parliamentary vice-speaker Mikheil Machavariani (UNM) said that "we have chosen the wrong way" in Tbilisi.
So why did they do it? Saakashvili says it was to reach "maximum consensus" with the opposition – in other words, that it was a compromise. Indeed, the opposition had sought direct elections of mayors back in 2005, in advance of 2006 local elections.
However, this was in the context of a new and unusual "winner-take-all" electoral code that was widely deemed as granting the ruling party an unfair advantage. It was in this context that the opposition did not support a new rule for the indirect election of mayors by the city councils – in and of itself, a democratic advance from appointed mayors.
The opposition also wasn't calling for the direct election of mayors earlier this year when the government made this "compromise" (though they didn't reject the idea too loudly either).
Now, with a 30% threshold looming, opposition leaders (at least those outside of parliament) aren't too happy about taking part in such a competition: the low bar coupled with the fact that so many opposition figures are planning to run for mayor appears to tilt the competition in favor of the incumbent. Moreover, mayoral candidates who lose may very well be institutionally shut out of politics in the short-term -- not as mayor and with no seat for themselves in the city council. Frankly, the opposition may be better off focusing their energies on securing their (probably large percentage of) seats in the city council.
Which brings me to my "politically incorrect" proposal: if the UNM agrees that the direct election of the mayor is not a good idea, and the pluralist nature of the opposition suggests they have better prospects in the city council race than in the mayoral race, why not scrap this so-called “compromise” of direct elections and allow the city council to elect the mayor?
In this case, the electoral code still needs to be modified along the lines that all parties have (more or less) agreed upon: a mixed single mandate/party list legislature of 50 seats and opposition roles in selecting the CEC chairperson and as commission secretaries. As well, legislation endorsed by the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association on limiting the use of administrative resources in the campaign appears to be getting discussed in parliament -- a desirable objective no matter what rules are finally established.
Most importantly, with such a system in place, the outcome will not be predictable. The UNM will receive a certain percentage of seats, the nonparliamentary opposition will receive their percentage, and the parliamentary opposition will receive theirs. None of these actors are likely to receive 50% of the vote on their own – the politics and coalition-building needed to elect a mayor would happen after the election.
Retreating from direct elections will be a significant reversal on the part of all parties, UNM and opposition alike. But if everyone agrees that it is in their interests, it will be an easy decision to make. Constituents are not going to care all that much. And a "grand compromise" like this would doubtlessly meet with a high level of approval among European and American democracy watchers.
It may seem obvious, but perhaps it is important to restate: Georgia's international friends place a tremendously high value on a democratic process in Georgia, but they really do not care who wins local elections. Supporting the establishment of electoral institutions that provide a "level playing field" for all actors is not some kind of code for supporting the opposition. A democratic election that returns the incumbents to power in Tbilisi and other municipalities will be welcomed and deemed just as legitimate as a democratic election that brings the opposition to power. The goal is to support an electoral system that makes it maximally uncertain who will win.