GEORGIA: Explainer | Why do the parties start to merge?
22/07/2023 - 18:58 220 4 minutes read
Courtesy of Civil Georgia [website: https://civil.ge]
The merger of the “Strategy Agmashenebeli” party with the larger United National Movement is perhaps the first of several such developments. This is due to the new rules in place for the 2024 general elections that establish the 5% threshold to enter the parliament and ban pre-election blocs.
Georgia’s electoral system has undergone significant changes over the years. While the shift from a mixed to a fully proportional system for the 2024 parliamentary elections was lauded as a positive change, the higher threshold and the bloc ban are controversial. While the stated aim of the higher threshold is only to allow parties with solid voter support to enter parliament, there are concerns that the resulting legislature will be less representative of Georgia’s fragmented political field and that many votes cast for the minor parties may be lost.
Disproportionality and Electoral Threshold
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which sets constitutional law standards in Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which adjudicates, among other issues, the cases dealing with fair political representation, consider election thresholds compatible with the democratic process. But they warn that a balance has to be found between fair representation of views in the community and effectiveness in parliament and government.
According to Venice Commission, “In any case, the critical limit is set by the requirement, inherent in the democratic principle, that “minorities should be adequately represented.”
The degree of disproportionality in an electoral system increases as the electoral threshold increases. Similarly to the majoritarian “winner takes all ” system, those parties who make it above the threshold gain additional seats from votes won by parties stuck below the threshold, thus leaving some voters without representation.
The Venice Commission considers that for countries with small populations, like Georgia, an electoral threshold, balanced around 2-3%, minimizes disproportionality while maintaining the relevance and weight of parties. However, “wasted votes” are inevitable in any system with a threshold.
The Impact of the 5% Threshold on Georgia’s Parliamentary Parties
Introducing a 5% threshold in 2024 will significantly reduce the number of parliamentary parties and increase the number of wasted votes. If such a threshold was applied during the 2020 parliamentary elections, only the Georgian Dream (48.22%) and The United National Movement – United Opposition “Strength is in Unity” (27.18%) would have gotten the seats. The opinion of 20-25% of the voters would not be represented.
Regarding the 2020 Parliamentary elections, OSCE ODIHR emphasized that lowered threshold (1%) for parties to be represented in parliament “increased the apparent competitiveness of the elections, with many new parties entering the political arena.”
The effect of the threshold is not only arithmetical; it affects party incentives and voter behavior. Knowing that their favorite party may not cross the threshold, the voters may pick the closest alternative among those certain to do so or to abstain from voting. Some experts observe that in Georgia, supporters tend to vote for smaller parties despite the higher threshold, which means their voices will be lost.
Vakhushti Menabde, scholar and civic activist, says that although the system will be formally proportional, “its consequences will be more characteristic of majoritarianism, forcing political actors to act within the logic typical for majoritarianism,” meaning polarizing and radicalizing their discourse.
In Georgia, that means exacerbating the toxic polarization between the ruling GD and UNM, contrary to the EU condition of “de-polarization.”
Once the threshold is in place, parties are incited to rally behind the “locomotive” – a larger party – and to cross the threshold as a block. But Georgia’s new election law prohibits that.
Ban of electoral blocs
Allowing political parties to form pre-election blocs helps overcome the negative effects of higher thresholds. These blocs theoretically allow parties with similar ideologies and platforms to band together, reducing disproportionality and increasing electoral competition.
Yet, when a similar system was in place in Georgia, it incentivized larger parties to either discard their smaller parties once in parliament or to cannibalize and absorb them fully. It also created precedents of wealthy businesspeople buying their MP tickets by creating a stand-in satellite party and transferring the money to the larger “locomotive” party election coffers.
One way or the other, the bloc ban will further reduce the chances for small parties’ voters to have their voices heard in Parliament.
What could smaller parties do?
Under these circumstances, uniting to increase their collective strength and representation is the only chance for opposition politicians that ran under the banners of smaller parties to enter the Parliament. By merging, they hope to broaden their support base and present a more cohesive and compelling alternative to the ruling party.
Even though the political parties and civic activists have actively lobbied for a fully proportional election system, its potential for resetting the political system to a healthier state is heavily curtailed by the 5% threshold and the ban on blocs.
Trying to mitigate the dismal effects of these two provisions on smaller parties, their active members and leaders are incentivized to merge with larger parties. However, the public odium associated both with GD and UNM (they are leading the pack in the opinion polls for parties that Georgians pledge never to vote for – 39% for UNM, 34% for GD) may force some opposition-minded politicians to abandon party politics altogether.
One way or another, the election legislation sets the scene for another polarized parliament.
The material was prepared by Nana Tchanturia of Civil.ge. She was formerly election analyst at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA).
03/03/2021 – Insight
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