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The Abkhaz parliament – In search of balance, by Ibragim Chkadua

International Alert: Georgian and Abkhaz perspectives from the region

The Abkhaz state has entered its twentieth year of independent existence. A huge, if not leading, role in shaping the legal and democratic aspects of state building in Abkhazia is played by the legislative branch - the National Assembly, i.e., the Parliament.

The history of parliamentarism in Abkhazia goes back a long way to the 1920s but this article deals only with the contemporary history of Abkhazia. It looks at the formation of the modern parliamentary style in Abkhazia, considers its role in the development and improvement of legislative mechanisms underpinning the existence of the State and the way а balanced interaction with the executive branch is achieved, and examines the prerequisites for a transition from the “first past the post” electoral system to a hybrid/mixed parliamentary system.

The executive-legislative tandem

The power hierarchy which emerged during the war and the subsequent blockade of the country, internal social tensions and the de facto absence of a functioning economy, together with the use of administrative and military resources have served as the basis for the formation of a rather robust tandem of the executive and legislative branches, growing stronger with each subsequent term of office.

The parliamentary elections of 2007 further strengthened the position of the pro-government deputies. In the first round, the opposition was able to elect six of its members to the parliament and in another seven districts its candidates advanced to the second round. Yet only one of them managed to get in the second round, which implicitly supports the opposition's accusation that the government was guilty of administrative intervention. As far as the party affiliation of candidates was concerned, it is important to note that candidates were nominated on the basis of party lists but the voting followed “first past the post” principle. It is noteworthy that live broadcasts of the televised debates involving different candidates were held on the main official television channel during the election campaign. This officially confirmed the democratic nature/status of the election campaign, but in fact had little impact on the popularity of different candidates, and, consequently, on the results. This is due to the lack of experience of holding political televised debates in the period between elections. One must not forget the direct and open interventions by the authorities during the election period, reflected in the complaints and claims filed with the Central Electoral Commission.

In fact, the recognition of Abkhazia's independence by the Russian Federation and a number of other countries took place precisely during that parliamentary term. In addition to the usual legislative activities that particular term was "distinguished" by a number of "odd" privatisations of large facilities, the hasty ratification of international agreements, the scandalous attempt to fast-track the extension of Abkhaz citizenship to the residents of the Gal District, the obscure role it played in taking out a $2 billion loan to repair the railway and so on. All those negative phenomena were directly linked to the legislative-executive power tandem, when legislative functions, as well as control over law enforcement, were often replaced by the commercial interests of certain groups of government officials and a number of MPs. The "mines" which were laid at that time are beginning to "explode" now with the question mark over the effectiveness or, even, the legality of the road maintenance transaction and other intergovernmental agreements.

The election of the fifth term/convocation of the National Assembly, or Parliament of the Republic of Abkhazia, coincided with the newly elected President. Following early presidential elections, Alexander Ankvab was elected to presidential office in Abkhazia. It should be noted that administrative interventions in the electoral parliamentary process were incomparably smaller than in previous elections. This led to the actual collapse of the campaign by the former pro-presidential party "United Abkhazia", though the opposition party FNEA (Fund for Popular Unity of Abkhazia) also failed to secure a controlling number of seats in the new parliament. The outstanding feature of these elections was an unprecedented number of candidates. Elections to the People's Assembly were once again held on the basis of the “first past the post” system.

‘This system is still the best option for Abkhazia’, said Ankvab at a press conference on 6 December 2011, responding to the question about the logic of moving from the “first past the post” to a mixed proportional representation system, and increasing the number of deputies. ‘I treat such proposals as a matter for discussion, first and foremost, because I am a believer in both these systems. But it seems to me that the system we have in place at the moment is still the best option. As regards the increase in the number of deputies, I do not think it necessary at the moment. Abkhazia is a small country, with a limited number of voters so 35 deputies are plenty provided they work efficiently’.[1]

156 people representing a number of parties and different groups took part in the battle for 35 seats. One feature of the current parliament is the fact that there is not a single deputy to represent the ethnic Russian voters, only one female MP and it has elected four deputy speakers, instead of the usual three. This seems to demonstrate the particular relevance of the pre-election debate on the need to move from the first past the post to a mixed electoral system, with a view to moving to the full proportional representation later. Only in this case party lists would reflect the need for ethnic as well as gender balance and there would be a real competition of political platforms and ideas.

The ostensible official non-interference in the process of the formation of the new parliament violated the tandem between the executive and the legislature. This was the result not only of the political will of the President, it was largely dictated by the new political climate in the country. The collapse of old political coalitions and the general protest mood of the electorate also had an impact. Of course, lobbying of individual candidates and administrative interventions also took place, to a certain extent, during these elections. The result is a parliament which stands out from the previous convocations due to its quality. In less than a year of its existence it has adopted a number of important legislative acts, introduced regular meetings in parliament with heads of different ministries and departments, and set up a number of parliamentary commissions, each specialising in a particular area. When, for example, there was great public controversy following tariff increases for international calls, parliamentary hearings contributed to the settlement of the public conflict; there have been parliamentary discussions on the banking crisis and so on. The parliament's adoption of the national budget for the year 2013 was a case in point, when for the first time in the history of Abkhazia, the President vetoed the law passed by parliament. The veto remained in place and no compromise solution found, but the very fact that veto was used created a precedent for an open conflict between the legislative and the executive branches. One of the most prominent members of the current People's Assembly Akhra Bzhania commented on the situation: ‘In my opinion, those who presented the parliamentary draft budget said a very important thing in their presentation: “We are introducing these amendments as a compromise, and as an offer to the executive to work together”’. In other words, Akhra Bzhania’s opinion was that the veto by the president of the parliament’s budget proposal was tantamount to the rejection of cooperation, and this is wrong. In his words: ‘There are several branches of power in Abkhazia, so decisions, including strategic decisions and budgetary decisions, should be taken jointly by them rather than single-handedly by anyone or any branch of government. This is all we wanted to say, and this was the point of our compromise and our offer to work together. If they are not accepted, well then we'll search for other ways’.[2]

An absolute majority of deputies voted in favour of the amendments to the budget but following the presidential veto that unanimity was broken. During the repeat vote they did not achieve a qualified majority to overcome the veto. This rather telling story confirms once again the need to move from the “first past the post” parliamentary system to a mixed system and, subsequently, to full proportional representation.

The public outrage following increase in electricity tariffs was even more indicative when following a majority vote the parliament recommended that the government revoke the new tariffs, and organised hearings with the head of the power sector. The confrontation between the parliament and the President around this issue grew even stronger as a result of the opposition rally and the crisis in the country as a whole. The final recommendations on tariff increases were put forward by the Parliamentary Commission and the president took these recommendations into consideration in his final decision, which makes the Parliament a significant player in the running of the country. In other words, the Abkhaz Parliament is regaining its function, outlined in the Republic's constitution.

Ibragim Chkadua, Journalist/Photographer

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[1] “Press conference with Ankvab”, Abkhazskiy Uzel, 7 December 2011. Available in Russian at http://abhaz-uzel.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1045:v-sukhume-sostoyalas-press-konferentsiya-prezidenta-aleksandra-ankvab&catid=77&Itemid=294

[2] ‘Akhra Bzhania: The Parliament’s variation was the result of compromise’. Ekho Kavkaza, 10 January 2013. Available in Russian at http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24819751.html

Source: International Alert

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