Controversy over Georgia’s midweek presidential run-off date

15 November 2018
Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze (RFE/RL)

Georgia’s Election Administration has set the date for the second round presidential election for 28 November — a Wednesday. The midweek date was heavily criticised by the opposition and several major civil society groups.

The 28 November poll will see Salome Zurabishvili, who has been endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, face off against the opposition United National Movement’s (UNM) Grigol Vashadze, running under the Strength in Unity coalition.

Zurabishvili narrowly defeated Vashadze in the first round with 38.6% of votes to 37.7% — a difference of just over 14,000 votes.

After the Election Administration’s late-night decision on 14 November, the UNM organised a protest outside its office. Zaal Udumashvili, one of the leaders of the Strength in Unity coalition, called the Election Administration’s building ‘Zurabishvili’s headquarters’ and assured the public that Vashadze would still come out on top.

Time and mobility concerns

Critics have argued that although the election day will be a public holiday in Georgia, holding the vote on a weekday could still prevent some from participating — especially those who need to travel to where they are formally registered.

This includes students and workers who have migrated to Tbilisi from elsewhere, as well as voters abroad for whom 28 November won’t be a day off.

Hours before the decision was announced, three local watchdogs, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Transparency International — Georgia, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), urged the Election Administration to set the date for Saturday, 1 December instead, but without success.

The Election Administration ruled that voting at 55 polling stations outside Georgia would be possible until midnight — to help them participate.

According to the Election Administration, 0.42% of registered voters reside abroad.

Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria also criticised the Election Administration’s decision the next day. She argued that due to internal migration, a weekend run-off date would be a better option.

‘Citizens have to cover long distances to go to the locations where they are registered. The weekend would have made it much easier than [a weekday], even if it’s a day off’, Lomjaria told journalists.

Speaking to journalists during the protest outside the Election Administration right after their decision was announced, Udumashvili ‘didn’t rule out’ that some employers would still oblige employees to work on 28 November.

Another Strength in Unity opposition leader, Giorgi Vashadze (no relation to presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze) pointed out that those employed in state institutions would not face a similar problem, suggesting they would be encouraged to go and vote.

Election watchdogs and opposition parties alleged that during the first round on 28 October vote, the ruling Georgian Dream party pressured state officials to mobilise voters for Zurabishvili.

Observers noted a heavy presence of party activists, mostly from Georgian Dream, outside polling stations, with lists of candidate supporters expected to show up to vote.

Observers noted that this was a widespread practice and while not illegal, could be a way of exerting pressure on voters.

Double standards

Georgian Dream leaders shrugged off criticism about the midweek polling date.

Kakha Kaladze, Georgian Dream’s General Secretary and Tbilisi Mayor, said on Wednesday that he ‘did not see a problem’ with the date.

‘If someone wants to vote, they will manage it, just like in 2012’, Kaladze told journalists.

The 2012 parliamentary elections, in which the Georgian Dream coalition ousted President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, was held on 1 October — a Monday. The 2008 parliamentary elections were also held on a Wednesday.

In 2013, Saakashvili ultimately changed his announced plan to hold the presidential election on a Thursday and held it on the weekend instead.

Georgian Dream’s Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili’s past criticism of Saakashvili for his intention to hold the 2013 elections on a Thursday as well as for the 2008 Monday poll was widely circulated on social media and in online media, with many saying it constituted a ‘double standard’.

A ‘pre-agreed’ date

On 7 November, the Election Administration stated that they ‘would not violate the law’ by setting the date for a run-off on a working day.

Speculations that the Election Administration agreed the election date with the ruling Georgian Dream party gained momentum on 14 November when the Election Administration postponed their 13:00 meeting to summarise the election results for six hours.

Soon after the rescheduling, Georgian online media outlet 2020News reported that Tamar Zhvania, the head of the Election Administration, visited Ivanishvili at his residence. Zhvania later called the allegation a ‘blatant lie’.

Speaking to journalists at Georgian Dream’s office the same day, Kaladze said he was sure Zurabishvili would win on 28 November.

Some, including members of the United National Movement, pointed out that Kaladze appeared sure about the run-off date hours before the Election Administration met and made their decision.

Unexpected dissenter

Right before the Election Administration’s decision, Salome Zurabishvili came out against the weekday date, insisting that it would make it harder for the Georgian diaspora to vote.

‘I personally work a lot to reach out to members of the [Georgian] diaspora and to inform them about dual citizenship, for which I’ve been campaigning for so long. I think that diaspora should be more active, which is in the interest of the state’, Zurabishvili said.

However, Zurabishvili added that it was up to the Election Administration to make the final ruling.

In the last presidential elections, in 2013, the Election Administration denied Zurabishvili the right to register as a candidate due to her dual French–Georgian citizenship. In 2017, she gave up her French passport to become a candidate.

After returning to Georgia in 2012, Zurabishvili positioned herself as an advocate for dual citizenship, claiming it would help Georgian emigrants to keep stronger ties with their homeland.

As an independent MP, she advocated for more active involvement of Georgian emigrants and diaspora members into Georgian political life.

In April, Georgia stopped stripping Georgians of their citizenship after they obtain citizenship of another state.

However, on 28 October, Zurabishvili received only 1,231 votes from abroad, while Vashadze got 2,861.

‘Pro-Russia’ vs ‘Soviet diplomat’

According to the final results for the first round, Salome Zurabishvili received 38.64% of votes (616,000), while Grigol Vashadze got 37.74% (601,000).

Due to 2017 constitutional changes, Georgians are now directly electing their president by popular vote for the last time.

After a six-year term as Georgia’s sixth president, Vashadze or Zurabishvili’s successor will be chosen by a 300-member election board.

Initially, the Georgian Dream party were ambivalent about their presidential election strategy, considering even not fielding their own candidate.

On 9 September, the ruling party finally agreed to endorse independent candidate Zurabishvili. Georgian Dream’s Chair Bidzina Ivanishvili had been a vocal supporter of this.

Throughout the last months, both campaigns have accused each other of offering Georgians a candidate unfit for office due to their positions on Russia.

The rivals argued that Zurabishvili’s comments on Georgia ‘starting the August 2008 war’ were against the state’s interest, while both Zurabishvili and Georgian Dream MPs characterised her rival Vashadze as a ‘Soviet diplomat’ due to his early career in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On 14 November, Chair of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze criticised attacks on Zurabishvili. ‘Attacks, offences directed at a female candidate’, he said, represented ‘Asian mentality’.

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