By Eka Janashia (03/19/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 7, the Georgian parliament adopted amendments to the election code defining the rules for local elections, scheduled for June 15. Mayors of twelve cities, heads (gamgebeli) of all municipalities and members of municipal councils (sakrebulos) will be elected. The package of bills aims to harmonize the electoral system with a new local self-governance law foreseeing direct election of mayors and gamgebelis across the country.
Innovatively, it introduces a minimal threshold for electing mayors and gamgebelis at 50 percent. Only Tbilisi’s mayor has previously been directly elected and the threshold in the capital was set at 30 percent, implying that a candidate gathering a plurality of votes, but not less than 30 percent, would have been declared an outright winner. The minimal threshold for electing mayors and gamgebelis was the most contested issue ahead of the bill’s approval.
Initially, the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition advocated a threshold at 40 and 33 percent for Tbilisi's and the other eleven cities’ mayoral candidates respectively, and 33 percent for gamgebelis. Although the non-parliamentary opposition parties and most non-governmental organizations resisted the proposal demanding to set a higher threshold, the GD claimed that this would increase the likelihood of a second round, causing additional costs for taxpayers. The GD proposal had already been included in the draft amendments, when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced the coalition’s consent to a 50 percent threshold for electing both mayors and gamgebelis on February 17.
In parallel with increasing the threshold for the heads of cities and municipalities, the amendment has lowered the threshold for the city/municipal council’s party list candidates, meaning that the party garnering at least 4 percent (instead of 5 percent) will be able to secure council (sakrebulo) mandates.
Additionally, sakrebulo seats allocated for the party list contest have been raised from 10 to 15 while the number of majoritarian seats vary according to the amount of constituencies in municipalities. It is believed that the shift will ease the penetration of small parties into sakrebulos, which should ideally strengthen democratic processes at local level.
Despite the fact that after the 2010 local elections, the OSCE/ODIHR international election observation mission recommended Georgia to permit independent candidates to compete in local elections, the new amendments do not allow them to run for the mayor or gamgebeli posts. Only candidates nominated by either political parties or election blocs will be able to compete for these positions. Independent candidates nominated by so called "community initiative groups" could run only for majoritarian seats in sakrebulos. In addition, according to the amendments, a person contesting for mayor or gamgebeli posts cannot simultaneously compete for a sakrebulo mandate.
The parliamentary as well as non-parliamentary opposition parties lamented that given the scarcity of cadres locally, the rules will prevent them from nominating candidates in many constituencies.
Another set of changes refers to increased funding for parties. Election blocs or parties garnering at least 3 percent of the votes in local elections will get GEL 500,000 (US$ 289,000) from the state budget to cover campaign expenses. The bill also envisages higher funding for party representatives in election administrations.
To avoid duplications, the newly adopted amendments involves digitalization of voters’ photos, meaning that the election commission officials at each precinct will be able to verify the identity of a voter through digital photos attached to the voter list in their data base. In case of mismatch, various procedures including the submission of information to the police will be enforced.
The United National Movement (UNM) prepared an alternative draft intended to oppose the regulations set by the new amendments, enabling independent candidates to run for mayor as well as gamgebeli posts. According to the bill, a person running for mayor could concurrently compete for a sakrebulo seat as well. Nevertheless, the UNM initiative was watered down by the GD parliamentary majority on March 7.
So far, only two major political forces, the ruling GD coalition and UNM, have nominated their mayoral candidates.
Before the presidential election in October, then Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said that he already had “in mind” who might run for Tbilisi mayor. At the coalition leaders’ meeting in November, GD nominated the minister for infrastructure and regional development, Davit Narmania for the post. Narmania, 34, insisted that he will be a technocrat rather than a political figure. He acknowledged that the 50 percent threshold is a serious challenge for the coalition but hoped to achieve outright victory in the first round.
Initially, UNM planned to appoint its mayoral candidate through primaries and named the former deputy Justice Minister, MP Giorgi Vashadze, and Tbilisi municipal official Nikoloz Melia as primary contenders. However, Vashadze shortly thereafter withdrew from the race. The move may suggest that UNM preferred to nominate a person who is less associated with the party but has a good reputation among Tbilisi citizens. Further, Melia is originally from Tbilisi, which increases his chances against Narmania who is not from the capital city and whose rating much depends on that of GD.