The opposition accuses Georgia’s ruling party of breaking its earlier promise to lower the election threshold. “Georgian Dream” says it made no promises.
Next October, Georgia will be holding its first fully proportional parliamentary vote, designed to expand the pluralism in the Parliament. Yet, a recent poll coordinated by the Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization for the International Republican Institute (IRI), showed that only two parties – the ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition United National Movement – are certain to cross the five percent threshold. Critics fear such an outcome would only cement the existing political polarization and leave many voters unrepresented.
Last year, Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze pledged to lower the threshold to two percent within a month following Georgia getting the EU candidacy “in December.” But soon after the European Commission issued such a recommendation in November this year, Kobakhidze said he promised no such thing and claiming otherwise was an “absolute lie.”
“When our promise was made in 2022, it was related to the decision to be made by the [European] Council in December 2022”, the chairman told reporters on November 15. “But then you remember that the European Council did not discuss Georgia at all, so this promise was automatically removed from the agenda.”
Chairman Kobakhidze is clinging to a technicality: indeed, the Commission delayed the renewed discussion of Georgia’s progress, initially slated for December 2022, extending the deadline. Yet, this deal was on the table for a more substantive reason.
Significant constitutional changes adopted in 2017 meant that Georgia would switch to a fully proportional election system with a 5% threshold by 2024. Opponents from civil society and the expert community feared, even then, that the 5% percent threshold, combined with a ban on forming pre-election blocs, would make the vote outcomes less representative of Georgians’ political choices and stand in the way of ending one-party domination in the government.
Some smaller parties have tried to adapt since, joining forces and creating common platforms to boost their chances. But part of the opposition keeps calling on the GD to keep the promise, while activists have been preparing for protests to demand the change.
Making and breaking election reform promises
The Georgian public has a history of getting promises for election system reforms through widespread protests. Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, on its part, has a history of breaking those promises.
The party first promised a fully proportional system with a zero threshold in 2020 against the backdrop of public protests. However, the GD later reneged on this promise and settled for a one-off mixed proportional/majoritarian model with a 1% threshold for the 2020 elections. The lowering of the threshold allowed nine parties to enter parliament. After these elections, the Georgian Dream often took credit and boasted that the parliament was representative due to the 1% threshold.
Faced with a fresh political crisis following the 2020 elections, the Georgian Dream compromised on a 2% electoral threshold in the EU-brokered April 19 agreement. Although the ruling party later reneged on the agreement, it still pledged to follow through with the reform of the electoral system. In September 2021, an amendment supported by the ruling party and the opposition passed its first hearing in parliament. But it went no further.
The GD returned to the issue again in July 2022, responding to the popular anger at Georgia’s failure to receive EU candidate status at the first attempt. Chairman Kobakhidze announced then that the 2024 elections would be held with a 2% threshold if the country was granted candidate status in December, a promise he says is now void as the EC did not meet the announced deadline.
EU chooses ambiguity
During the crises of this kind, Georgians often turn to the international partners for the arbitration. Speaker Shalva Papuasvhili says the 5% threshold is “normal” for most European countries. The EU itself has been reluctant to deliver a conclusive opinion.
The enlargement report published by the Commission in November recommended granting Georgia the candidate status “on the understanding that” nine reform steps were taken. The fourth step called on Tbilisi to “ensure a free, fair, and competitive electoral process” and “fully address OSCE/ODIHR recommendations.” The report calls for finalizing election reforms “including ensuring adequate representation of the electorate, well in advance of election day.”
In their subsequent media remarks, EU officials said the decision is up to the Georgians but pointed out that the agreement brokered by Charles Michel included the 2 percent threshold clause.
“You ask me about the threshold. This was part of the Charles Michel [agreement] negotiated two years ago,” Paweł Herczyński, EU Ambassador to Georgia, said in his media remarks on November 21.
While saying it’s “for the Georgians to decide,” Herczyński stressed that “elections make sense if people feel that their voice is heard.” Diplomat said the threshold is important “because a situation in which a big part of the population feels that their voice is not reflected in the future Parliament is not appropriate.” The Ambassador, however, also warned against a situation “in which you have a lot of parties represented and it’s very difficult to move forward because there is too much diversity is also not a proper one.”
Earlier, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano told Netgazeti that electoral systems, including thresholds, are determined by individual countries within the European Union. Stano noted that Georgia’s electoral reform was still underway and had already passed the first hearing with “multi-party support.”
“This multi-party consensus has also been a part of the EU-mediated [April 19] agreement in 2021”, Stano said, referring for further guidance on international standards and best practices to “relevant organizations such as the OSCE/ODIHR.”
OSCE/ODIHR did touch upon the benefits of a lower threshold in its 2021 Joint Urgent Opinion with the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe on Georgia’s election reforms.
“While there is no international standard for electoral thresholds, lowering the threshold offers the potential benefit of increasing political pluralism and aligning the mandates closer to the voters’ will by minimizing “wasted” votes,” the opinion said.
But the ruling party seems keen to exploit even the little wiggle room. “Some are claiming that the EU demands lowering the election threshold,” Speaker Shalva Papuashvili told the media today, “this is anti-European disinformation.”
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