From Tbilisi to Washington, there’s too much focus on elections

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive, enjoy voter confidence and lead to visible outcomes. Ideally, elections promote social integration…

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive, enjoy voter confidence and lead to visible outcomes. Ideally, elections promote social integration and trust rather than fragmentation. But in both countries, electoral systems have failed citizens who want control over their representatives and supervision of their government. The elections are at best partially competitive (most seats in the House of Representatives are designed to be non-competitive), and barely fair.

In Georgia, the Georgian Dream party has overwhelming financial and administrative resources. This is particularly true in the rural areas where the election process is opaque. Georgian Dream has a majority of voices on most precinct electoral commissions (PECs). Polls in Georgia suggest voter confidence in political parties, and citizens’ knowledge of what the parties are offering to electors, is very low. In contrast to the negative consequences of two monopolistic parties in the US, Georgia’s parties have no staying power; they are volatile, appearing and disappearing, moving from one alliance to another. Every single parliamentary election in Georgia since 1990 has operated under different rules.

What can be done?

In the US and Georgia, electoral systems have created a disconnect between the population and the government, and it is getting no better. The 2020 elections in both countries highlighted two avowedly democratic states, one in its adolescence, the other in its senescence, struggling with electoral systems that are failing their citizens. But restoring democratic legitimacy requires more than electoral reform.

Weakened democracies in Georgia and the US reflect a far deeper social and economic malaise. Both countries are characterised by a massive rise in economic and social inequalities (most notable are the racial disparities in the US), a new tribalism attached to and encouraged by polarised political parties, a dangerously manipulative digital world, a popular sense of powerlessness and neglect, and media that are increasingly voices of propaganda rather than sources of information. If these elections, once more, fail to produce any meaningful change or improvement in people’s lives, they will deepen political apathy and chip away even further at popular support for electoral democracy.

This is not an argument for dispensing with elections, but a case for supplementing them. We need other methods of economic and political empowerment.

Noe Jordania | Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

In the Georgian case, a model exists. During the first period of Georgian independence (1918-21), Noe Jordania, the chairman of the Georgian government, proposed a democratic republic in which the legislature would share power with popularly elected local institutions. The model promoted participation by ordinary citizens outside general elections every four years.

A parliamentary republic, Jordania noted, “retains all power – legislative, executive and judicial – in parliament’s hands… Not one of these functions is given to the people or some other organ independent of parliament.” A democratic republic, by contrast, “establishes as its basic principle, people’s political self-government. In this case, power is not just gathered by the centre, but is divided between the center and the periphery.”

There would be referenda – resembling state-wide ballots in the US – on major constitutional issues, budgetary matters, schooling, and welfare. Communities would be granted legislative initiative, the legislature would have to share its law-making powers, and ministers their executive jurisdiction. In this way, Jordania argued, “the people, through its representatives participates in the implementation of laws.”

The practical challenges to such a programme were enormous in 1918-1921, and the ambitious plan to enrich democracy did not come to fruition. However, Jordania’s programme is relevant today – it predates contemporary ideas of deliberative democracy, or what Benjamin Barber calls “strong democracy”. It does not reject general elections, but emphasises the establishment of diverse “mini-publics” where deliberation, debate, participation and a de-concentration of power could take place. Elements of this system have been introduced into Europe (most notably in Belgium) and in the United States (such as the Citizens Initiative Review in Oregon). The search for alternative forms of representation and power reflects a growing conviction that traditional models of electoral democracy are no longer a winning example of citizen empowerment.

The 2020 fall elections in the US and Georgia, are clear illustrations as to why we need to go beyond our hitherto simplistic assumptions about the democratic outcome of general elections, and establish new participatory institutions to ensure the civic guarantees we expect from a democracy.


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