Go Local
08 November, 2012

We need to make some decisions about power at the local level, about how different levels of government are funded, and about who is elected. The current system is hyper-centralized. All decisions are made at the center and are simply carried out at the local level. Almost everybody I know outside of Tbilisi feels powerless. They believe that the decisions that influence their lives are made in Tbilisi and that those who have the power to make these decisions derives

that power not from their neighbors but via the central political leadership.

 

The National Movement really did little to decentralize. There were some elections of mayors in a handful of cities, but, considering how the state and party resources were so closely allied, there certainly wasn't a movement towards localization. Now, unsurprisingly, the National Movement is very interested in local government with real power because they see it as a path to influence and perhaps national power at some point. It is a shame that for the most part they denied this to the opposition for so many years. When there is no real local self-government, because power is centralized, and there is a constitutional majority in parliament, all the opposition is  left to do is to complain about the national leadership.  This is what turns citizens into cynics.

 

One of the first questions we must address when talking about local self-government is boundaries. Which boundaries will be used? There are the regions—rayons—which make more sense historically. However, nobody self-identifies as being from Khoni Rayon. People think of themselves as from Imereti or from a particularly town or village. Furthermore, the regional designation is probably too big and too varied in terms of population to be of much use as a governmental designation. The regional governors which are a half-Soviet, half-feudal institution should be disbanded immediately and never return. The rayons are convenient for many reasons, but how they relate to villages is important.

 

At this point, does Ajara really need to be an autonomous republic? Do Ajarans feel that is important? If the rest of the country were to get local self-government, maybe the Ajarans could have a referendum on their status as an autonomous republic. How will Abkhazia and South Osetia be dealt with in this arrangement, particularly the IDPs? First and foremost, what do they want to have happen?

 

An immediate question is the boundaries of the majoritarian seats in parliament. As everybody has said, the population varies too much. No majoritarian constituency should have more than twice the voters of any other electoral constituency. And there must be a process to change the boundaries periodically, perhaps every ten years or after a census, to take into account demographic changes. In the US, this is an incredibly complex, secretive, and corrupt process that is used by both parties to keep their sitting representatives in power and to prevent electoral competition. Best to avoid those mistakes.

 

There must be elections for executives and for councils. The councils must oversee the executives and have serious procedures which require the opposition to be present to ensure that all sides are represented. The big question is where are the executives elected: at the village level? And where else? The main thing is that before everybody starts circulating drafts there must be a determination of the principals: how many levels will there be, what are the powers of each level, who is elected how, and where the money will come from. The question of funding is absolutely crucial. It would be pointless to have a great number of elections and to have the center remain in complete control of who gets how much money. Funding is a way for the central political leadership to control local entities. What is needed is to think about is not just what taxes can be levied—because in reality only the central revenue service has the power to collect taxes—but how the transfers go from the revenue service to the local entities and for what. There must be a strict formula that can't change in order to punish or reward, or to implement special projects dreamed up by the leadership.

 

There are concerns that decentralization is dangerous. This was the Soviet view: centralize everything. Well, that didn't turn out so well. There must be a balance between central power and local decision-making. If there is a broad discussion about this and the decisions are clear to all, it will be an unquestionable step forward.

 

We just need to be sure it is clear, simple and fair.

 

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