The new Election Code of Georgia approved by the Parliament in late-December 2011 represents a major reform of the electoral system, but still does not guarantee equal suffrage. Rather than creating single-mandate electoral districts of similar population size, the Parliament opted instead to preserve disproportionate election districts which critics contend produce disproportional election results.
The parliamentary majority and several opposition parties last summer signed an electoral reform agreement that might have resolved at least some disparities in population size of election constituencies. Later, though, signatories of that agreement changed their mind and the Parliament ultimately refused to increase the number of single-mandate electoral districts from 75 to 83 and the number of parliamentary representatives from 150 to 180.
The new Election Code provides that the 150 Members of Parliament (MPs) will be elected for four-year terms under a mixed electoral system: 77 MPs will be elected proportionally based on party candidate lists; the other 73 MPs will be elected by majority vote. Two single-mandate electoral districts now falling within the territory of occupied Akhalgori and Liakhvi Gorge were abolished.
Although the new Code incorporates a number of novelties recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, it fails to accommodate a key recommendation which would have ensured greater proportionality of voting populations in single-mandate electoral districts. Specifically, the Code ignores the Venice Commission’s recommendation “to provide for constituencies of an approximately equal size in Georgia and, thus, to guarantee the equality of the vote within the framework of the mixed system.”
Boundaries of single-mandate electoral districts basically coincide with municipal boundaries. The number of voters in a district ranges between 6,000 and 150,000. Some opposition political parties have long demanded that district boundaries be revised. In their view, redrawing district lines would ensure a more accurate tally of votes cast in elections.
Representatives of the parliamentary majority insist that maintaining the old system of single-mandate electoral districts is a principled political decision because it guarantees legislative representation of every administrative entity in Georgia.
Equal voting power is envisaged in the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters adopted by the Venice Commission in 2002. According to that document, equal voting power “entails a clear and balanced distribution of [parliamentary] seats among constituencies on the basis of one of the following allocation criteria: population, number of resident nationals (including minors), number of registered voters, and possibly the number of people actually voting.” The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters further stipulates that the “permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10% and should certainly not exceed 15% except in special circumstances (protection of a concentrated minority, sparsely populated administrative entity).”
In Georgia, ethnic minorities constitute a majority of the population in six electoral districts. Concentrated minority settlements comprise more than 20% of the population in four other districts.
The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters does not define “sparsely populated administrative entity.” The average density of the world population today is 50.9 people per square kilometer, according to worldstat.info. The corresponding indicator for the European Union is 112 people per square kilometer.
In Georgia, population density averages 65.8 people per square kilometer. Thirty-eight districts in Georgia are less densely populated than the national average. As compared to the world average and the EU average, the number of less densely populated districts in Georgia comprises 30 and 50, respectively.
The average number of voters per district in Georgia is about 43,000. The country has a total of 15 electoral districts in which the average number of voters exceeds the 15% departure norm permissible under the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.
Electoral districts deviating from that norm are in Tbilisi and other large cities. The largest electoral districts – the cities of Kutaisi and Zugdidi and the Tbilisi districts of Gldani, Nadzaladevi, Isani, Samgori and Saburtalo – each count more than 100,000 voters. The number of voters also significantly exceeds the average in two districts of Kvemo Kartli region, namely in Gardabani and Marneuli where the share of ethnic minorities is high, as well as in Tskaltubo and Khelvachauri, both of which border large cities.
The number of voters in 43 election districts is actually more than 15% lower than the average indicator. Districts that are more densely populated than the average indicator, but with relatively smaller territories, are those of Poti, Abasha, Khoni and Terjola. The remaining 39 districts are sparsely populated.
Tbilisi State University Associate Professor Giorgi Meladze told Tabula that Georgia does not have a strict criterion for identifying sparsely populated regions. In his view, those entities in the country where the density of population is less than 50 people per square kilometer may be categorized as sparsely populated districts.
In total, 30 such districts exist in Georgia. The majority of sparsely populated districts are mountainous districts, including Khulo, Mestia, Dusheti, every district of Racha-Lechkhumi-Kvemo Svaneti region. Also sparsely populated are those districts in lowlands where vast territories are uninhabited – Dedoplistskaro, Sagarejo, Sighnaghi. That list also includes two districts in Samtskhe Javakheti and two districts in Kvemo Kartli, all of which are largely populated by ethnic minorities.
The average indicator of population density in many sparsely populated districts is much lower than the average national indicator. For example, it stands at five persons per square kilometer in Kazbegi, Mestia and Oni, seven persons per square kilometer in Lentekhi, eleven and fourteen persons per square kilometer in Dusheti and Tianeti, respectively.
Consequently, the very election districts in which the number of voters is low and disproportionate actually constitute “special circumstances,” according to the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.
Out of the 43 districts in which the number of voters is lower than the average indicator, the “special circumstances” exception may apply to 33 districts because of their concentrated settlement of ethnic minorities or sparse populations. The remaining ten districts – Lagodekhi. Kaspi, Vani, Khoni, Tkibuli, Lanchkhurti, Abasha, Martvili, Khoni and Tsalenjikha – have a higher indicator of population density.
It is impossible to bring boundaries of electoral districts in line with Venice Commission requirements without defining accurate criterion for sparsely populated administrative entities. In most mountainous regions of Georgia – and, perhaps, in other regions as well – a significant deviation from the number of voters is permissible following the standards of the Venice Commission.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 86, published 6 February 2012.