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Society and communities

Strengthening democracy

On 28 November 2018 Salome Zourabichvili won the Georgian presidential election after her victory in the second round of voting. It was a result that was historic in more ways than one.

Zourabichvili is the first woman to be elected Georgian president, and the second to have held the office, with Nino Burjanadze serving as acting president on two brief occasions.

Zourabichvili will also be the last president of Georgia to be elected via a direct election. From 2024 Georgia will be adopting indirect presidential elections, where the head of state is not popularly chosen. It is hoped constitutional reform and a move away from head-to-head presidential contests will halt a slide towards political polarisation and populism.

This landmark in the former Soviet state’s democratic history owes much to the work of Fernando Casal Bértoa, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham.

In his unrivalled study of party politics in all 48 European democracies between 1848 and 2019, Dr Casal Bértoa found popular presidential elections damaged democracy. Pitching presidential candidates directly against each other destabilises party systems, erodes the quality of democracy, and increases polarisation by boosting support for anti-establishment parties and candidates.

"Direct presidential elections negatively affect party system stabilisation, reduce the quality of democracy, and increase polarisation by boosting support for anti-establishment parties."
Fernando Casal Bértoa

The polarisation experienced by Georgia was fed by the “winner takes all” mentality of direct elections, intensifying competition between the two main candidates or parties. Indirect elections, where the head of state is chosen by an elected body, avoid the damaging mudslinging and fragmentation of such head-to-head confrontations.

Dr Casal Bértoa’s study, funded by a Nottingham Research Fellowship, came to the attention of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a Berlin-based, non-partisan NGO dedicated to supporting democracy worldwide. DRI was concerned at the challenges faced by Georgia and in late 2016 Dr Bertoa was commissioned to study the causes of political polarisation in the country, where there was a growing movement towards constitutional reform.

His report identified the popular election of the president as a key driver of polarisation and suggested that indirect election of the head of state would bring parties together towards consensus.

Dr Casal Bértoa was subsequently invited to meetings with stakeholders, groups and organisations by Eka Gigauri, the Director of the anti-corruption agency Transparency International in Georgia, where he explained his research and findings and outlined the dangers of Georgia’s current constitutional model.

One such meeting was with Irakli Kobakhidze, then Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, who praised Dr Casal Bértoa’s “outstanding contribution to the historic constitutional reform process”. The meeting not only focused on the causes of political polarisation in Georgia and their potential solutions, but also on how to successfully implement constitutional reform. Kobakhidze took Dr Casal Bértoa’s advice on the postponement of reform until after the 2018 Presidential election to ensure widespread support from both sides of the political spectrum, and also agreed with the need to explain the value of the change to the public, led by academic and legal reasoning. On 13 October 2017, when the reforms came into effect, both of these elements were included.

"There is nothing more satisfactory that seeing how my research has a positive impact on the life of ordinary people."
Fernando Casal Bértoa

The new constitution was endorsed by Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Georgian Prime Minister at the time, who praised it for “making parties stronger and reducing political polarisation, ensuring the consolidation of democracy in the country.”

As a result of his work on this issue, Dr Casal Bértoa has won numerous awards, including the 2019 CES Routledge Award and the University of Nottingham Vice-Chancellor’s medal in 2018.

Dr Casal Bértoa is incredibly proud of the impact that his work has had. He said: “There is nothing more satisfactory than seeing how my research has had a positive impact on the lives of ordinary people.” He is hopeful that his research will be able to continue to inform constitutional reform in the future.

Currently, Dr Casal Bértoa is working with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung to avoid the readoption of popular presidential elections in Armenia, as well as to obtain their abolition in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. He is also planning on writing a monograph on the effects of different constitutional regime types and party system institutionalisation.

Fernando Casal Bértoa

Fernando Casal Bértoa is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations and co-director of the Research Centre on the Study of Political Parties and Democracy (REPRESENT)

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