Why the proportional electoral system is so important for Georgia
On November 14, the Georgian parliament rejected a constitutional amendment which would have ensured a transition to a fully proportional system of parliamentary elections.
This bill was important for two reasons. A proportional electoral system would have given the opposition a chance to give the authorities a run for their money in the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections.
The second reason it was important is that it was backed by the promise of Bidzina Ivanishvili himself – the chairman of the ruling party and former prime minister.
When large protests broke out in Tbilisi in the summer of 2019 in front of the parliament, the main demand was for the 2020 elections to be held on a proportional electoral system.
Ivanishvili personally promised this would be done.
However, some members of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party have ‘broken’ this promise, and at the last moment they refused to support the changes.
None of the political parties, nor a single expert in Georgia, believes that these MPs, most of whom have never even spoken in parliament, would dare to go against the alleged will of Ivanishvili
Since the recent scrapping of the bill, several thousands have taken to the streets. Protesters have set up tents are say they will not disperse until they receive a guarantee that early parliamentary elections will be held on a proportional system. Almost all opposition parties have united in the fight against the government.
What is the difference between the proportional and majoritarian systems?
What are the failures and drawbacks of the majoritarian system and why doesn’t the government want to let go of it?
What is the current electoral system like in Georgia?
Parliamentary elections in Georgia are currently held per a mixed electoral system.
Of the 150 seats in parliament, 77 are elected by party lists, and 73 MPs are elected by the majoritarian system (i.e. from 73 majoritarian constituencies in Georgia).
On election day, voters are given two ballots – one for voting for party lists (according to the proportional system); the second ballot contains the names of the candidates (one from each party) from that particular constituency. These are candidates running for a seat in parliament via the majoritarian system.
As a result, the mandates received by parties in proportional and majoritarian systems are combined.
For example, if a party wins according to the proportional system with 40 percent of the vote (which is about 30 seats in parliament) and in 50 out of 73 majoritarian districts, the party in the end gets 80 seats.
Why does the majoritarian system need to be changed?
The first reason: the majoritarian system is unfair and does not reflect reality. This system allows the party to receive many more seats than it received votes.
A simple example: in the parliamentary elections on October 8, 2016, 48.6 percent of voters voted for the ruling party Georgian Dream.
This means that at that time, Georgian Dream candidates were supported by less than half of the voters. That is, according to the logic of things, the party should have received just 73 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
However, in reality, things turned out differently. The Georgian Dream received a constitutional majoritarian – 115 seats, which it was able to achieve thanks to the majoritarian voting system.
The same thing happened in 2008 – after the 2008 parliamentary elections, the ruling United National Movement had 119 MPs in parliament. This is 79 percent of the total number of seats in parliament.
In fact, only 59 percent of voters gave their vote for the party, the rest of the seats it received thanks to the majoritarian districts.
The second reason: this system increases the chance of getting a one-party or two-party parliament.
Let’s imagine that one of the few political parties operating in the country is the most popular, and its voters are evenly distributed across all majoritarian districts. That is, this party has a real chance to win all the majoritarian places and not give a chance to other parties.
The third reason: the majoritarian system always works for the benefit of the ruling party.
In Georgia, where democratic institutions are poorly developed and the authorities use administrative resources during elections, a mixed electoral system always works in favor of the current government.
The fourth reason: since a particular person is participating in the majoritarian elections, and not the party, majoritarian candidates are usually selected from well-known figures (for example, businessmen, actors, athletes, etc.). So, in order to win in a certain district, parties are prone to putting forward candidates that are simply well-known, and know nothing about lawmaking – famous singers, for example.
The fifth reason: often candidates are also businessmen, who in most cases finance their own election campaigns and donate money to the party in exchange for a seat in parliament. For example, in May-September 2016, the majoritarian candidates of the Georgian Dream donated over one million lari to the party.
Reason six: the majoritarian system is a huge additional cost on the budget. This system is expensive, both before and after the election.
According to the current system, a majoritarian candidate must receive 50 percent + one vote to win the first round. Otherwise, a second round will be held between the two candidates with the best results. Second rounds are held in many constituencies, which is an additional expense for the budget.
After the election, all 73 majoritarian deputies open offices that are funded by the budget. It costs more than four million lari [about $1.35 million] per year. The main function of these bureaus is to provide the majoritarian MPs with a connection with voters.
One might ask: maybe it is worth it if majoritarian MPs are engaged in productive lawmaking and represent their constituents in parliament?
In theory, a majoritarian system provides a direct link between voters and the MP.
In addition, this system in some way weakens the party’s vertical power – that is, if a party can provide candidates with [proportional] seats in proportional elections, in the majoritarian system it should think more about the electorate and choose a candidate who will be supported by voters in this region. Consequently, majoritarian MPs may be occasionally described as more independent from the party.
The majoritarian system also implies the provision of geographical representation in parliament. Majoritarian MPs have the opportunity to convey to the parliament the problems of their constituency and lobby for its interests.
However, many years of experience have shown that in a country where democratic institutions are very weak, the advantages of a majoritarian system practically do not work at all.
Here are some specific facts that show that the cost of majoritarian voting often does not justify itself, and that this system is simply a political lever of the government:
•Regional residents do not know who their MPs are
According to a survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) published on January 30, 2019, only 28 per cent of respondents knew who the majoritarian member of their constituency was. That is, 71 percent of the Georgian population does not know who their majoritarian MP is.
•Majoritarian MPs are less active in parliament
A report on the work of parliament last year showed that 30 MPs did not speak in parliament even once during the year, did not make use of their right to make political statements, nor the time allotted to the factions – that is, their microphones were not turned on even once.
More than half of these 30 MPs (19) are majoritarians from the ruling party. Thirteen of these silent lawmakers voted against switching to the proportional system on November 14.
The same thing happened with the eighth parliament – when summing up the results of the four-year work of the 2012 parliament, it turned out that 16 MPs had not used their right to speak at all (they did not say a word for four years). In this ranking of passive MPs, 10 were majoritarian MPs.
•Majoritarian MPs often use parliamentary mandates to lobby their family’s business interests
For example, one NGO report shows that the companies of the brother and wife of the silent majoritarian MP Ioseb Makrakhidze received from the budget 3.5 million lari [about $1.8 million] over the course of three years. And the MP himself, despite his complete silence, received from the budget more than 55 thousand lari [about $18.5 thousand].
The NGO also found that silent MPs, in addition to their salaries, also paid for their travel expenses with the help of the state budget. For example, the majoritarian MP Levan Bezhanidze, who did not utter a single word in parliament throughout 2018, traveled on business trips three times during the year (Tashkent, New York and Warsaw) and spent 15,558 lari on his trips.
•Majoritarian MP bureaus closed to the public
It is very difficult to get information about the work of majoritarian MP bureaus not only for ordinary citizens, but even for well-trained NGOs.
For example, in 2016 Transparency International – Georgia’s report for 2016, the organization says that 23 of these bureaus did not respond to a request for questioning at all. Other bureaus could not be found at all.