Most of new crop of legislators don’t come from either opposition or pro-government parties.
Anaid Gogoryan - Caucasus- CRS Issue 636.
This month’s parliamentary election in Abkhazia brought little joy to either government or opposition, as neither did particularly well out of two rounds of voting in which turnout was low.
Less than half the electorate voted in the two rounds, held on March 10 and 24. For the first time ever, one constituency in the Black Sea republic’s capital Sukhum failed to produce a winner because turnout fell below the legal minimum.
With results annulled in another constituency, that means 33 out of the Abkhaz parliament’s 35 seats have now been filled.
At a March 25 press conference, electoral commission chief Batal Tapagua said the vote had been a success, and he had not received any complaints or appeals against the results.
The results showed a swing away from established parties – both for and against the current administration – towards independents.
Of the nine serving members of parliament seeking re-election, only three won. The outgoing speaker of parliament, Nugzar Ashuba, and his deputies Irina Agrba and Sergei Matosyan were those defeated.
Only three members of the pro-government United Abkhazia party won seats, and party leader Daur Tarba was not among them.
“Certainly, many major figures from the pro-government party did not get into parliament. However, that doesn’t reflect a fall in the popularity of the president or of confidence in the government,” Spartak Jidkov, a political expert and member of the Ainar media club, said. “This can happen in a first-past-the-post system.”
Jidkov said the outcome suggested that voters did not want the opposition to come to power, either.
“It’s clear they don’t want that. The Abkhaz opposition did not have great success, although we’ll obviously have to keep taking them into account,” he said.
Four out of 11 opposition candidates made it into parliament, among them Raul Khajimba, leader of the Forum for National Unity, who lost to Alexander Ankvab in last year’s presidential election.
Alkhas Tkhagushev, a member of the Civic Chamber, a platform for civil society activists, said there was little government interference in this election. He said he had heard none of the allegations that proliferated after the last legislative polls in 2007.
“If you’re looking for a trend in parliamentary elections, then you can say this one was best yet, although there are still questions that need working on,” he said.
In part, Tkhagushev put the absence of obvious interference down to the lacklustre public interest in the election, given that parliament is manifestly weaker than president or government.
“The problem with parliament is that it plays a subordinate role relative to the executive. It looks like it is in the government’s pocket,” he said. “The supervisory role that parliament might play has been reduced to zero.”
Like some other commentators, Tkhagushev would like to see Abkhazia move away from an entirely first-past-the-post electoral system to a mixed one where some seats would be filled using proportional representation.
“I’d like to hope that plans for this are being drawn up,” he said. “Before the election, there were rumours that this issue wasn’t going to be pushed through, in order to avoid changing a set-up that suits the government, but that initial steps towards substantive reforms would start after the election.”
Leading journalist Ibrahim Chkadua cautioned against pinning too many hopes on the newly-elected legislators launching into a radical reform process.
At the same time, he was more optimistic about the prospects for incremental progress.
“It’s clear they [new members] will be better qualified, more varied in their political views, and most importantly, more willing to find fault with questionable legislative initiatives,” he said. “I also hope this new parliament will find fault with the executive where it can. That would definitely help to improve things in all areas.”
Jidkov, meanwhile, was hopeful that legislators would back President Ankvab’s declaration of war on organised crime. (See also Abkhaz Election Going Ahead Despite Attack on President.)
“With the arrival of a new president and the election of a parliament that doesn’t oppose him, there’s hope of basic improvements to the fight against crime, the imposition of order in public life, and stronger rule of law,” he said.
Anaid Gogoryan is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sukhum, and works for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper.