Last week we saw democracy in action in Georgia. On Monday, we’re going to see something completely different: a Constitutional Parliamentary Republic in action.
I’ll start with my predictions: I predict that the President Saakashvili’s UNM will remain the ruling party but lose seats in Parliament. Stories of voting irregularities and allegations of election fraud will circulate, but international observers will not report widespread systemic fraud/intimidation/etc. or deem the elections invalid. There will be demonstrations, but they’ll die down after a week or two without much consequence. As is usual with demonstrations the police response will be questioned, which will lead to smaller, follow-up demonstrations; also as is usual with demonstrations, media sources outside of Georgia will try to sensationalize it or fit it into some kind of clever overarching narrative and they’ll mostly be wrong. Then the American elections will happen and everyone will forget about Georgia’s elections and life will go on as usual.
The “why” of all this takes a little bit of background. Basically, the constitution of Georgia provides for one house of Parliament with 150 seats. The seats are divided between 77 “proportional” seats and 73 “majoritarian” seats. The proportional seats are assigned to parties, rather than individual candidates, based on the proportion of the votes they received, with the complication that a party must receive 5% or more of the vote to be granted proportional seats, and each party that clears 5% will get a minimum of 6 seats. (This seems like a lot, but clearing 5% would normally entitle a party to 4 seats, and to actually earn 6 seats they’d only need about 8%.) I’ll run through a basic example that, I think, is not altogether implausible as a potential outcome of this election.
Let’s say that Georgian Dream takes a big chunk out of the UNM majority and a smaller bit from each other opposition party, and the final vote tally looks like this:
UNM: 35% – 27 seats
Georgian Dream: 35% – 27 seats
Christian Democrats: 5% – 6 seats
Joint Opposition/New Rights: 15% – 11 seats
Labor: 5% – 6 seats
Other Parties: 5% – 0 seats
In this example, the “Other Parties”, none of whom hit the 5% threshold, get thrown out. Christian Dems and Labor both get 6 seats each, leaving 65 seats left to divide between the remaining parties. In this case the UNM and Georgian Dream, who tied, would both get 27 proportional seats and Joint Opposition/New Rights would get 11.
The other 73 seats are the “majoritarian” seats – although perhaps “pluralitarian” would be a better word, since to win them a candidate only needs to beat the other candidates in the race and have more than 30% of the total votes in the race – so in 2008 some candidates won “majoritarian” seats with less than 50% of the vote (and at least one with less than 40%).
“Majoritarian” elections are held in each of 73 districts, sometimes called “single-mandate constituencies”, which – like districts in the US – are not evenly divided by population. Just as a Senator from North Dakota gets the same vote as a Senator from New York, so does an MP from Kazbegi with (about 6000 voters) get the same vote as an MP from Kutaisi (about 160000 voters). Of course the arguments for including such an undemocratic element in the government are the same in Georgia as they are in the US – people who live in sparsely-populated areas need a mechanism to make sure their needs aren’t ignored by people who live in densely-populated areas. The Tbilisi middle class can’t be counted on to care for the poor farmers in the regions.
Still, this undemocratic allocation means that a candidate with a broad base of regional support will do much better than a candidate who is more popular among the Tbilisi elite. Tbilisi has at least 25% of Georgia’s voting population but receives only 13.7% of the single-mandate seats in parliament.
In this election, that’s a big problem for Georgian Dream. UNM won all but 4 of these single-mandate districts in 2008. in 48 of the current 73 districts, UNM won more than 60% of the vote. Notice that in the example above where UNM only got 35% of the popular vote, winning just these 48 districts would put UNM at 75 seats out of 150, meaning they could easily caucus with any other single party to break a deadlock and form a ruling coalition. It is easy to envision a scenario where UNM gets only 35% of the popular vote and wins fifty or fifty-five districts (remember, you don’t need a majority to win a district) and maintains its parliamentary majority – and UNM has been polling at 37%.
I think the biggest shake-up we might see is if the UNM gets less than half of the seats in Parliament. It might be interesting to see who they would form a government with and what concessions they’d have to make to do so. However, I don’t *think* this is a likely outcome. I also seriously doubt that Georgian Dream will win more seats than UNM.
Now, I’m no Nate Silver, and although I’ve presented a bunch of numbers and guesses and assumptions, the truth is that the Georgian elections are much less predictable than I’m making them seem, mostly because we just don’t have good polling data. Also, there’s no telling what voters will do in response to this latest scandal, so perhaps UNM’s numbers will drop, but that doesn’t mean Georgian Dream’s will rise. They’re not the only opposition party, and they’re new and have a credibility problem, so the voters who soured on the ruling party because of the prison scandal might well vote third party, or they might just stay home.
However, the overriding point here is that the UNM is not just the incumbent party, but also has a vast demographic advantage because of the combination of where UNM voters live and how Parliamentary seats are allocated.
And so, if my guesses are even close, this election will not end up hinging at all on allegations of voter fraud or election rigging. The ruling party’s bar for victory is low enough that they don’t have to cheat on election day to win. Perhaps this election will spark discontent with the way votes are distributed in Parliament or the way districts are drawn, but for now, I think UNM will stay in power and I also don’t think this particular election by itself will give the general public enough cause for grievance to start a revolution.
On the other hand, I could be wrong. I’ll let you know in a week how my predictions turn out.
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