Two controversial draft laws on who should elect the Tbilisi mayor have led to tough disputes between the right-wing opposition and the majority in the Georgian Parliament.
The National Movement-Democrats, who claim 131 of the 221 seats in the Georgian Parliament, want the mayor of Tbilisi to be elected by the Sakrebulo (City Council) members, who would themselves be elected by Tbilisi voters.
The New Conservative Party has prepared an alternative draft which states that the mayor of Tbilisi should be elected by a vote of the population.
The next election of a Tbilisi mayor is scheduled for early spring of 2006.
Currently, the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, nominates the mayors of Tbilisi and Poti. After the Rose Revolution of 2003, the mayors of Zugdidi, Kutaisi, Bolnisi and Gori were asked to resign, and Saakashvili began appointing interim replacements. Opposition politicians have complained that elections should have been held in those cities by now.
Giorgi Mosidze, committee chairman of the New Conservatives, explained that their alternative draft suggests a two-level system of self-governance in addition to the direct election of the mayor. On the first level, Tbilisi would be divided into 34 ubani (districts) and each ubani would have an elected governor who would serve for two years and would work to solve his ubani's problems. The second level would be the Sakrebulo and Tbilisi mayor, elected by the people for four years.
"Georgia is a member of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and accepted an obligation before the Council of Europe to provide for the election of local government officials. But the draft by the government proposes only election of the mayor, and (under their draft) the mayor is to be selected by the Sakrebulo instead of the population," Mosidze stressed.
He said the government wants to create an image of a well-organized self-government system, and does not want someone elected by the people who would be politically independent. "I suppose Saakashvili never will let anyone be out of his control, acting independently and with a good reputation, and thus become a rival of his in the future," Mosidze said.
A recent poll by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy conducted among 1,000 Tbilisi residents showed that 75.4 percent said the mayor should be elected by popular vote, whereas 4.2 percent supported the idea of the mayor being elected by the Sakrebulo., and 20.4 percent did not respond.
Giga Bokeria, an MP from the ruling party and deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee for legal issues, said the European governance charter does not mandate whether the voters or the Sakrebulo elect the city mayor.
"First of all, it is not an obligation; it is up to the government to decide," Bokeria said. "Even without the European charter, we will create a self-governance system without the interference of central authorities, under the conditions of Georgia's Constitution. Secondly, in both situations, whether the mayor is being elected directly or indirectly, the people will get the music they order."
Bokeria points out that the Sakrebulo members will be elected through a political party list system. Neither draft says whether or not the mayor can be a Sakrebulo member. The government's draft plans to reduce the number of Sakrebulo members from 49 to 25.
Both draft laws call for the elimination of the premier of Tbilisi. "The premier of Tbilisi is dealing with budget and administrative issues, while the mayor decides the city's policies," Bokeria said. "We decided to annul that position in order to avoid the double power. All powers will transfer to the mayor.
Concerning the organization of the Tbilisi municipalitiy, Bokeria said several issues need to be analyzed before Parliament adopts a law on local self-governance. "We need to sum up the rules and principles first," he said.
Khatuna Khvichia, the parliamentary program advisor of the American NGO National Democratic Institute, recalled that the current authorities, including Saakashvili himself when he was head of the Tbilisi Sakrebulo, criticized former president Eduard Shevardnadze for the same reasons as today's opposition criticizes Saakashvili..
"They used to blame Shevardnadze for not establishing decentralization, and what is interesting is that they repeatedly claimed that Shevardnadze was afraid to let the population elect Tbilisi's mayor, Khvichia said.
She stressed that traditionally the position of mayor is very influential and often the jumping-off point to a good political career.
"People usually trust the mayor," she said. "If the head of the city was elected by the population for four years, there would be no grounds for the Sakrebulo to dismiss him before those four years if he runs his policy independently. It would be very difficult to impeach him even though the Sakrebulo has the authority to monitor his activity. He would be the mayor with a big budget and a range of powers. But if the Sakrebulo elected the mayor, he would become a political marionette more easily controlled."
In response to the claim that the ruling party is afraid to elect the Tbilisi mayor directly, Bokeria pointed out that there is a big possibility that the future mayor would be someone from the opposition.
"I do not understand our opponents," he said. "Who elects the Sakrebulo? Of course, it's the people, and those candidates chosen by the people will elect the mayor. Is it a bad point if the mayor can be dismissed because of his inappropriate work? Our draft brings a guaranteed method of declaring no-confidence in the mayor."