The ongoing post-election crisis, which had overshadowed many of Georgia’s more pressing problems, is awaiting a solution during the second cycle of EU-led mediation. The deal, if achieved, will likely encompass some short-term fixes and agreements on a range of issues. Hopefully, we can also see a long-term vision for reforms where getting the electoral administration right is and should be, high on the agenda.
The history of the past election reforms shows that political parties usually tailor the electoral administration to their immediate needs at the expense of common sense and strategic wisdom. This is the danger that must be avoided when negotiations officially resume. The immediate solution of the crisis, threatening to accelerate the decay of political institutions, already running on high gears, is a necessity: tradeoffs must be made and deals struck – this is the art and craft of the politics of the day.
But it is imperative not to lose sight of more fundamental issues, those that led to this crisis in the first place. We must try to see today’s challenge as being tomorrow’s opportunity. We need to reform the electoral administration, restore trust and improve its effectiveness if we are to avoid similar deadlocks in the future.
The reform must start from abolishing the electoral administration’s dependence on the ruling parties by removing all political parties from decision-making.
The fundamental premise behind the design of the CEC in Georgia has been that checks and balances of political parties, complemented by the presence of non-partisan professionals would create impartial and effective electoral administration. This never materialized for several reasons: under the existing system as well as proposed draft amendments, the ruling party will retain the effective majority in the commission, rendering the opposition representatives effectively powerless to affect the decision-making. Over the years, the opposition accumulated significant distrust of the one-party dominance in the Commission, which heavily contributes to the current crisis.
These problems can be addressed by several complementary means: changing the way the CEC and its Chairperson are elected is a fundamental step of any serious reform. The CEC Chairperson as well as its members must be elected by the “double majority” principle, where the majority votes of both, the parliamentary majority, and the minority are required for election. This will help, or rather force, the Georgian political actors to move towards more consensual politics and will also constrain radicalism in different political camps by giving more leverage to consensus-oriented politicians and creating incentives for cooperation. It will also encourage joint responsibility and shared ownership of the success of electoral administration.
The Georgian political parties must realize that their participation in managing the elections had not benefitted democracy, quite the opposite: it had contributed to the worsening of electoral institutions and undermined political stability. They shall relinquish their power to participate in the decision-making of the Commission and assume a monitoring function in the election administration.
Georgia shall also think out of the box and explore models that are altogether different from the current one. It is better sometimes to get a new bicycle than to try fixing the irreparably damaged one, which is seemingly what is currently being tried – once again.
Relinquishing the commission-type management and re-organizing the electoral administration around the system of the Chief Electoral Commissioner, whereas a single person is directly and fully accountable for the management is one option.
There are many benefits of such a system: an election administrator, bearing a clear point of political responsibility, will be also responsible for fully managing the system, which is not the case today. If Canada or India, some of the world’s largest democracies, can have one person in charge of elections, so could do Georgia without its largely dysfunctional 12-member Commission.
Irrespective of the chosen model, it is crucial that the highest level of electoral administration (either a Chief Commissioner or the Commission as a body) shall have full and functional power to effectively implement its mandate. The current system, ostensibly based on the premise of multiparty control, does not produce good elections. Rather, it repetitively demands significant overhauling after every electoral cycle – a clear signal of the need to not try and fix the parts of it, but rather to reform the administration altogether.
Political party appointees at any level of the electoral administration answer to no one, neither to the Commission Chairperson nor, in principle, to their nominating parties. The Commission can not enforce any decision on them and they cannot be removed (barring a court decision) for the duration of their appointment. While the rationale behind such set-up is clear (to allow for sufficient freedom and independence to the commission members) this model has undermined the decision-making in the Commission as partisan considerations often trump those of the good elections. The independence of the district commissioners is often very illusory too. The Central Electoral Commission is generally powerless to interfere and correct problems on district or precinct levels, while these serve as the places where the fate of the elections are decided.
No reform can succeed without proper qualification requirements, financial incentives and genuine independence of election administrators.
The existing professional requirements for becoming an election administrator are dismally low, as are the remuneration standards. Considerably higher barriers must be instituted for certifying someone as an electoral administrator. The new standards shall be developed, and an independent examination center set-up (or outsourced to an already existing body) to do the job. Only those clearing the higher standards shall be appointed to the commissions on district levels.
The existing, salary levels (around 250 GEL for the precinct commission member and roughly 1000 GEL for district-level commissioners) do not provide adequate remuneration for any purpose, let alone for meeting the pressures of the E-day in Georgia. The five-year appointments of the District level commissioners shall also be revised as they do not provide sufficient independence and assurances to local level workers who may be facing powerful political and business interests during the elections. There must be lifetime terms of appointment for electoral administrators both on central and district levels to better ensure that they are safe from outside influences and no longer have an eye on potential benefits that local elites can dole out (or withhold) to them once the elections are over.
On the precinct levels of electoral administration, more innovative approaches shall be used to ensure a neutral electoral administration and to avoid political pressures. The random selection model can be used to select precinct commissioners who live in the same districts. A more ambitious vision could also have a random selection of citizens to carry out their civic duty of the vote counting during elections. The Georgian state can trust its citizens at least to the same extent as it trusts the members of political parties to carry out this mission well. These more innovative approaches can help turn the Georgian civil society, in its widest sense, into a stakeholder in good elections and diffuse the power of local elites or influential individuals.
To enable substantial and truly ambitious changes, Georgia’s political parties shall undertake more resolute efforts and raise above their immediate self-interests. If past is any prologue, this seems unlikely. One wants to hope that the deep crisis currently gripping Georgia, may still turn out to become an opportunity to rethink the past mistakes and follow bold steps in the right direction.
This may be a chance for political parties to show that stakes for them are not merely about the quest for power, but the genuine common good benefiting everyone: a real democracy.