Georgia to reform electoral system after protests over Russia relations

Georgia’s ruling party has said next year’s parliamentary elections will be held under a new proportional electoral system following four days of protests over relations with Russia, which props up two breakaway republics in the country. 

Oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, head of the Georgian Dream party, on Monday promised constitutional amendments to phase out the current mixed system by the 2020 vote, as demanded by demonstrators.

This will speed up a planned switch to a proportional system, which was to happen only in 2024 according to a constitution adopted in 2017 with input from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. 

In addition, the 5 per cent threshold for a party to make it into parliament will be removed entirely.

The current mixed system “may serve our party interests but it can no longer meet the challenges facing the country,” Mr Ivanishvili said.

Meanwhile, Russia said on Monday it was implementing tougher checks on Georgian wine, similar to how it banned such imports in 2006 in what was seen as a form of political pressure. 

Protesters on Sunday wore eyepatches to reference two protesters who lost eyes in Thursday's demonstration as well as Russia's 'occupation' of 20 per cent of the countryCredit:
Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE/REX

Vladimir Putin already ordered Russian airlines to stop flights to Georgia, and the transport ministry said this weekend it would also ban flights from the country, supposedly over security concerns. Some 1.4 million Russian tourists visited Georgia last year.

Thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Tbilisi on Thursday after Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov took the speaker’s podium in parliament to chair an international session on Orthodox Christianity. 

The move was deeply divisive in this tiny nation on the Black Sea, which lost its South Ossetia region in a 2008 invasion by neighbouring Russia. Moscow also backs the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, leaving one-fifth of the country outside Tbilisi’s control. 

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters, injuring 160. Eighty officers were also injured as some protesters tried to storm the parliament. 

The speaker of parliament resigned on Friday, but demonstrators continued to march each night demanding the resignation of the interior minister and the switch to a proportional system. 

Georgian Institute of Public Affairs professor Tornike Sharashenidze told the Telegraph that the changes announced on Monday were a “huge achievement for Georgian democracy” and would result in a “much more pluralistic and fair” electoral system. 

In the current system, only half of parliament seats are allocated proportionally. Citizens vote for a party list in their district as well as candidates for single-mandate seats that are typically won by the ruling party. 

“The small towns in the districts are dominated by local kingpins and businessmen, all of whom want to be on good terms with the ruling party,” he said. “So they make a deal, ‘I’ll run here on my own money’. They run for (majoritarian seats in) parliament for the ruling party and win elections.”

Protesters flee tear gas outside the parliament on ThursdayCredit:
Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP 

Now Georgian Dream, which holds 107 seats, would probably win less than 50 per cent of parliament in 2020 and be forced to form a coalition, he predicted. 

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“Despite the problems they still maintained a moral superiority over the former ruling party; they were less brutal and less repressive,” Mr Sharashenidze said. “When they dispersed protesters at the parliament they lost this. They are viewed now just as the ordinary, brutal ruling party of Georgia.” 

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