11 December 2009

Local Elections 2010: Why Scrapping the Direct Election of the Tbilisi Mayor Would Be a Good Idea

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.


  1. Are you sure it would meet with that much international approval? I think the elections are fairly geared up now. More generally, I think everyone agrees that Georgian politics would benefit from more strategy and less tactics.

  2. My thought is that the institution of mayor of Tbilisi is sufficiently important that it should be accountable to the population. As a rule, direct elections (if fair, free, and competitive) are the most straightforward way to do this.

    It seems short-sighted to determine institutions based on short-term issues (who will win the next cycle or two) without weighing these against the long-term effects or consequences.

    So if problem is that UNM has an unbreakable hold over Tbilisi politics, one way to address this "problem" is to create institutions that would dilute this influence. If the hold is unbreakable because of election malfeasance, though, the better answer though is to put pressure on cleaning up the elections, not adjusting institutions.

  3. This is certainly an interesting idea, although Hans' point is a good one. It's also worth considering is that there is little prevent the UNM from rearranging Tbilisi's electoral mechanisms for City Council to tilt further in their favor. At some point, a line must be drawn.

    Great blog!

  4. Hans, on international approval, I agree that the US and Europeans are generally oriented toward May elections, so a change of plans would clearly raise eyebrows. But if it was in the context of an agreement between parties that all sides agreed was an improvement, then I'm sure they would support. Not to mention -- how much international activity has really begun in preparation for these elections?

    On direct vs. indirect elections, Julie, I agree with your point about manipulating institutions but not about the direct election for two reasons: 1) the institutions are *right now* being adjusted (for better or worse)in the way you are saying to allow for the direct election of mayor -- I'm advocating the conservative position of sticking at least in part with the institutions that are already in place; 2) I don't see how a directly elected mayor is more democratic or beneficial than a mayor that is elected by a democratically-elected city council (but I'm open to being persuaded otherwise).

    And I completely agree with Michael's point about the UNM's ability to change the rules for City Council elections to tilt the playing field in their favor -- that's how I see the 2006 elections. Which is why I'm saying that the other rules that the parties have more or less agreed upon for City Council elections should stay. There's no point to having a rerun of 2006.

    Finally, Hans' comment on strategy vs. tactics that Julie also developed (about short vs. long term) raises an interesting point. If I were to think that increasing the percentage of seats in parliament held by opposition parties was necessary for building democracy in Georgia, for example, and I sought to promote rules that would help increase that percentage, is that tactics or strategy? Is that short-term or long-term? Seems to be both. At the same time, it's hard to expect political parties and actors themselves to prioritize "strategic thinking" about the health of Georgian democracy over their own short-term, tactical gain.

  5. Interesting, if somewhat defeatist, piece. What I'd like, whether or not the elections come to pass, is to see the Obama administration taking more note of how screwed up Georgian democracy is.

    A great blog (though I wouldn't have expected anything less)!

  6. Well, Saakashvili's behaviour over the CEC shows the guy just isn't serious. He's yanking the west's chain over this with one hand while poking the Russian bear with a stick using the other. It would be pathetic if it were not so serious.


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