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Georgian Elections 2020: a vote and more protests7 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics
Over the past two weeks two Georgias have voted, one country and one US state. While the world’s attention has been focused on the results in the US and the refusal of some to accept the election results, similar unrest has emerged in Georgia. The ruling Georgian Dream party won a majority of seats in the 31 October parliamentary election.

Citing evidence of voter intimidation and vote buying, the eight elected opposition parties united to reject the results of the election and are refusing to take their seats in the new parliament, demanding the resignation of the head of the country’s election commission and calling for new snap elections to be initiated. Since then, protests have emerged in the capital, but whether or not they will have an impact remains to be seen.

How it came about

The 2020 election was a watershed moment for Georgia’s political system. After mass unrest in 2019 due to the parliament allowing a controversial Russian politician to speak from the speaker’s chair in the Georgian Parliament, protests galvanized the public for months. This ultimately resulted in Georgian Dream (GD), the ruling party of Georgia founded by the country’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili, agreeing to significant electoral reform.

Prior to this agreement Georgian elections had been almost half proportional and half electoral in their construction. The popular vote dictated 77 of the country’s 150 seat parliament, while the other 73 came from district races which were dominated by GD. As such GD’s percentage of seats in the parliament would continually outstrip their popular vote. One of the outcomes of the negotiations with organizers of the 2019 protests was that there would be a shift to a completely proportional system of government, all 150 seats would be decided using a purely proportional electoral system. This was a significant victory for the organizers of the protests as the outcome would greatly diminish GD’s ascendent political position within Georgia.

Early in 2020, Georgian Dream’s chances of winning the election were in danger as their popularity dipped. This seemingly motivated an announcement that the shift to proportional representation would be delayed – protests broke out once more. A compromise was reached which provided the following core parameters:

  • 120 of the 150 seats would be decided based on popular vote;
  • There would be 30 district seats that would makeup the remaining segment of the parliament. These seats would go to a run-off election if no candidate was able to secure over 50% of the vote;
  • There would be a 1% threshold for parties to enter the parliament for the 2020 election, this would be raised to 4% in 2024.

Then, like in all stories about 2020, Covid-19 hit and Georgian Dream found itself popular once more. Georgia was held up as a major success story in dealing with Covid-19, managing to get on top of the virus with strict measures put in place by the government. By time of the election this firm grasp on the pandemic had slipped and Georgia was experiencing a prolonged spike in cases. However, heading into election night GD had a clear advantage in the polls with a predicted 42% support, significantly more than any other party.

What happened

Georgia Dream was declared the victor on election night, and drama has ensued ever since. Georgian Dream won 48% of the popular vote with United National Movement (UNM), the party of controversial former President Mikheil Saakashvili, finishing second with 27% support. After this the drop off is significant, with a series of minor parties failing to cross the 4% threshold they would need to enter parliament in 2024, but successfully surpassing the 1% required for this cycle. In totality opposition parties garnered 45% support compared to Georgian Dream’s 48%. However, in the district races Georgian Dream once more outpaced its competition winning 14 of the 30 races with the remaining 16 going to run-off elections as no candidate was able to secure an outright majority. In all but one of these races the Georgian Dream candidate won the most votes (just not over 50% of it).

After GD had been announced the victor all eight opposition parties spoke with a unified voice declaring the election invalid and accusing GD of stealing it through voter intimidation and vote buying. None of the opposition parties would set foot in the Georgian parliament while this result stood. Protestors re-emerged in front of parliament and remain there at the time of writing.

Indeed, the claims made by the opposition are not without evidence – like other contemporary examples. The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) found a worrying 4% discrepancy in its parallel voter tabulation, and both the OSCE and NDI made note of allegations of pressure on voters and irregularities in results and election protocols. A joint statement from Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, and ISFED declared the elections to be a “clear setback for Georgia and the worst elections held under the Georgian Dream government.”

However, these reports are also balanced against assertions that the election results can predominantly be trusted. In its final report on the election the OSCE states: “The 31 October parliamentary elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected. Nevertheless, pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process.”

Unsurprisingly, such reports hold little weight with those in the street and it is unclear how these protests will end or if GD will make further concessions to the opposition. Declarations from groups like the OSCE that account for problems but place elections squarely in the category of predominantly fair, lessens the pressure on international actors to criticise results or pressure GD to remedy the situation.

What this means

Protest has often been the driver of change in Georgia and this most recent outbreak has connective tissue with the protest movements of 2019 and 2020. Whether or not this batch of protests is the last gasp of this movement or will reach a crescendo and drive further change is uncertain – though the former seems unlikely.

The Economist’s democracy index has shown a decline in levels of democracy in Georgia over the past few years (2019 Georgia scored 5.42 out of 10, down from 5.93 in 2017 and 2016) with a regime type listed as “hybrid-regime.” However, the shift to proportional representation, and the relative stability of the country’s democratic institutions over the past 15 years has helped to establish Georgia as an outlier of democratic success in the region. While Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Central Asia remain deeply authoritarian, Georgia and neighboring Armenia have systematically, if not at all points consistently, moved towards greater levels of democracy.

After the end of the Cold War, Georgia, like so many other former Soviet republics struggled with adopting democratic norms. The 2003 Rose Revolution and subsequent election of Mikheil Saakashvili pushed the nation westward in political orientation, with the country seemingly embracing democracy, aligning itself with NATO and the US, and starting its eternal pursuit of EU membership.

In 2012 Saakashvili and UNM were ousted from power and peacefully replaced by Georgian Dream. The election result was not contested, something that is not always a given in this part of the world. This is not to say that Georgia is not without serious democratic flaws, it certainly is, many of which stem from the ascendant position of power which Ivanishvili holds in the country. It is to say that there have been promising trends towards democracy and fair representation in the country that far outstrip many states in similar situations to Georgia.

The vitality of democracy in the country is also evidenced by the activity of civil society in Georgia. While this is undoubtedly an exhausting exercise for participants, it is also a tried and true part of Georgian life. Indeed, Georgians have a history of taking to the streets in protest. It was done in 1978 as Georgians marched to reinstate Georgian as the national language of the country after Moscow had changed it to Russian. In 1988 Georgians took to the streets to oppose actions taken by the Soviet government resulting in the 9 April Massacre. In 2003 the Rose Revolution removed Eduard Shevardnadze from the halls of power and replaced him with a young, energetic Saakashvili. Then, after initial strong support, protests undermined the Saakashvili government as it seemingly became too comfortable with its hold on power. Mass protests in 2007, 2009 and 2011 rocked the country before the government was voted out of office and peacefully handed power over to Georgian Dream.

In this long tradition of protest movements, the opposition’s decision to boycott parliament is thus unsurprising, nor without grounds. It is yet to be determined though if these protests will amount to further change, or simply give way to future movements. For those who have gathered in the streets as winter sets in, the goal remains clear – free and fair elections.

Featured image: White smoke on a red background / Amanda Sonesson
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