Friday, October 07, 2016

Georgia is voting this Saturday. Here are 7 things you should know

[Note: This post was originally published on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage on Thursday, October 6, 2016. The original post is available here. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia, Transparify, University of Colorado, Boulder, or any donor.]

By David Sichinava and Dustin Gilbreath

Voters are heading to the polls on October 8th in Georgia, the ex-Soviet republic, to elect its 150-seat parliament. For a country that has experienced near-continual political instability for the last 25 years, things have been calmer than usual this election season. Here’s what’s happening:

1. Things were relatively calm, and then a car bomb went off

Georgia has a history of colorful leaders and raucous elections. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, a prison torture scandal rocked the political landscape. In a not-so-democratic maneuver in 2014, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced his Georgian Dream (GD) party “will not allow victory of any other political force in any town or district.”

In comparison, these elections had appeared quite calm. Current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has emphasized that while he expects GD to win, the most important thing is that the elections are free and fair. His tweets emphasize progress on governance and electoral reforms, and he invited numerous poll monitors to the October 8 elections.

There have been unruly moments. Rival politicians doused each other with water during a talk show - and on September 27, a recording surfaced  on YouTube suggesting the current opposition United National Movement (UNM) party might support a coup.

Then, on October 4th a bomb went off in a UNM politician’s car. While it is unclear who was responsible, the Prime Minister warned on Wednesday that the blast could be an attempt to destabilize the country just days before the October election.

2. The two main parties are likely to win seats

There are 25 parties running in the current elections. Polls to date suggest both GD and UNM will obtain seats in parliament. This may signal an important step - Georgia’s party system may be stabilizing. In the past, each government turnover saw the previous ruling party disappear altogether. The polling suggests the UNM appears to have developed a strong party base.

3. Georgian Dream may have a slight edge 

In Georgia’s mixed electoral system, there are 73 single-member constituency seats up for election, but candidates must have over 50 percent of the vote to win a seat outright. The remaining 77 seats go to parties by proportional representation - parties maintain a list of their candidates, but must win at least 5 percent of the national vote to claim their share of these seats.

The party list system may give GD a slight edge as they are leading in the polls. GD is also likely to win more seats in the individual races, because first-past-the-post elections favor the larger parties. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili predicts his GD party will get 100 seats in parliament. In 2008, the UNM pulled off a similar feat to what Georgian Dream is planning: with 59 percent of the party list vote, they took 79 percent of the overall seats in parliament.

4. A new electoral law protects the equality of the vote, but the redistricting is perhaps less than equal 

Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled the country’s electoral boundaries were unconstitutional. The issue was the one-person, one-vote principle. In Kutaisi, 162,732 voters elected one representative in the first-past-the-post races. So did 5,810 voters in mountainous Kazbegi, meaning their vote had 28 times as much influence as a Kutaisian voter.

In response, the government redistricted – but there’s some evidence of gerrymandering. Our research shows that Georgian Dream would have won nine extra seats in 2012 if the new electoral system had been in place. And there are a few funny-looking electoral districts that have non-contiguous territory, which likely will give GD an electoral advantage.

A 2016 map showing some of Georgia’s new single-member constituency districts electoral districts. Areas from different administrative regions combined to form the 13th district, while districts 31 and 32 have non-contiguous sections.

Data: Central Elections Commission of Georgia and Caucasus Research Resource Centers-Georgia

Figure: David Sichinava

5. What’s likely to happen to pro-Russian parties? 

The coming parliament is likely to represent the political center, rather than parties at the pro-Russian or pro-Western extremes. The (quasi) pro-Russian party most likely to gain seats is the Patriot’s Alliance. While survey data suggest Patriot’s Alliance supporters are likely to support a Russia-oriented foreign policy, the party’s platform is largely pro-Western, and their website is only in English.

One pro-Russian party was booted off the ballot following public outrage from their first campaign ad. In the ad, the Centrist party had offered to “legalize” Russian military bases, pass legislation allowing dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, and raise pensions to Russian-levels.

6. What about pro-Western parties? 

The GD leadership has sought to assure the West that the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic organizations is a top priority. The country remains heavily involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan, and still hopes to join NATO. In July, Georgia’s Association Agreement with the E.U. came into force. The E.U. indicated it wants to see clean elections if Georgia hopes to see implementation of a program granting visa-free access to E.U. countries.

But the new parliament may have few if any members of the Republican Party or the Free Democrats, two parties that hold staunch pro-Western views. In recent polling the Free Democrats almost hit the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the party list elections. The Republicans didn’t. It’s not clear how either party’s heavyweights like current Republican Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili or the Free Democrats’ Irakli Alasania will fare in their single-constituency votes.

7. Many voters have yet to decide

A CRRC-Georgia and National Democratic Institute pre-election poll showed that only 49 percent of likely voters were decided. Although subsequent polling has shown lower levels of uncertainty, many voters may not decide until they get to the voting booth.

The fact that they will be able to decide at the voting booth, however, is an important point. The problems Georgia seems to be facing in its party politics are looking more like the ones facing a democracy.

David Sichinava is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and formerly a senior researcher at CRRC-Georgia.

Dustin Gilbreath is a policy analyst at CRRC-Georgia, and the communications manager at Transparify, an organization that promotes think tank financial transparency. He co-edits CRRC’s blog Social Science in the Caucasus.

The views expressed in this article represent the views of the authors alone, and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia, Transparify, University of Colorado, Boulder, or any donor.

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