Opposition Goes to Court over CEC Referendum Rejection

Following a refusal by the Central Election Commission (CEC), the opposition parties will now try to push forth their demand to hold referendum on direct elections of city Mayors and heads of regional districts through a long and burdensome court process.

On July 15, the seven-member CEC rejected, with a six to one vote, an appeal by representatives from the opposition Republican and Conservative parties, as well as from the public movement ‘Forum for Welfare and Democracy’, requesting permission to launch the collection of signatures of Georgian voters to appoint a referendum, in an attempt to find out whether the voters are in favor of direct elections for city Mayors.

This refusal by the CEC became a reason for the opposition parties to accuse the newly formed commission of “implementing the government’s orders.” The Parliament passed on July 1 a new rule which envisages the election of the Tbilisi Mayor through a vote cast by an elected City Council (Sakrebulo). The opposition parties demand the direct elections of Mayor replace this system. On July 17 President Saakashvili said that the regional governors will also be elected by local City Councils. Currently, the Mayors of Tbilisi and Poti, as well as the head of regional districts, are appointed by the President of Georgia. Local elections are planed for autumn, 2006.
In its official decree the CEC explained that the question which the opposition parties wanted to put forward at the referendum, was not formulated “clearly and concretely” and therefore did not correspond to the law. Another reason behind this rejection cited by the CEC was that some of the members from the opposition parties who appealed the CEC failed to indicate their addresses in the official letter of request. 
The potential referendum question was formulated as follows: “Do you agree or not that Mayors/Heads of Districts of all settlements of Georgia should be elected through direct elections by the residents of these settlements?”
Vakhtang Khmaladze, a former parliamentarian and an expert in election legislature, was among those individuals who appealed the CEC. He said that the election commission’s explanations “are absolutely groundless.”
“According to the law, the referendum question should not contradict the Constitution. That provision was fully observed. On the other hand, despite the CEC’s claims, the question was absolutely clearly and concretely formulated, which ruled out any possibility of double interpretation,” Vakhtang Khmaladze told Civil Georgia.
He admits that there were some irregularities in the addresses indicated in an official letter of request, but these mistakes were corrected before the CEC’s final decision was announced.
The group of opposition parties even changed the formulation of their question one day before the CEC’s final ruling. On July 14 the initiators of the referendum met with the CEC members to discuss this issue. After consultations, the representatives of the opposition accepted the CEC’s proposal and changed one phrase of the question – “Direct Voting” into “Direct Election.”
“Actually, there simply was no reason for this refusal. The CEC accepted a political, rather than a legal, decision,” Khmaladze said.
The opposition now has two ways to continue to push this referendum issue: one of them envisages a court appeal of the CEC’s decision; and the other involves the group appealing again the CEC with the new formulation of question.

MP Zviad Dzidziguri of the opposition Conservative Party told Civil Georgia on July 18 that the opposition plans to appeal the court with the request to annul the CEC’s decision.
But the court hearings might take several months, as a result of legislative amendments which the Parliament passed in June. Starting from July 15, according to this amendment, a group of applicants which receives a refusal by the CEC over the holding of a referendum will no longer be able to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, but will instead appeal to a lower court, whose decision might then be appealed in the District Court. This decision by the District Court, in turn, can then go in the Supreme Court.
“We can even go to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary,” Irakli Melashvili of the opposition public movement ‘Forum for Welfare and Democracy’ said.
But first, the opposition parties will have to deal with the local court system.
“I am almost sure that the judicial road will be dragged out for a long time, since the court makes quick decisions only when the authorities need them,” Vakhtang Khmaladze said.


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