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Georgian Dream face challenges in cities as local elections kick off

30 October 2021
Tbilisi mayoral candidates Kakha Kaladze and Nika Melia. Campaign images.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has vowed to win a universal victory and ‘no more elections for the next three years’ as Georgians go to the polls in the second round of municipal elections.

Saturday’s vote will see Georgian Dream candidates face runoff votes for 42 majoritarian seats on municipal and city councils as well as the mayors of  20 out of 64 municipalities and cities. Theses include contests in all five self-governing cities and 15 self-governing communities.

The main battleground will be in the capital city, Tbilisi, where incumbent Kakha Kaladze from the ruling party and the United National Movement’s (UNM) chair, Nika Melia, are facing off. 

The other self-governing cities are Batumi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, and Poti, where the contest is also expected to be tight. In all of them, Georgian Dream mayoral candidates are being challenged by rivals from the UNM.

In the 12 of the 15 self-government communities going to the polls, the race will also be between candidates from Georgian Dream and UNM. 

Among the most contentious is Zugdidi, where mayoral candidate Anzor Melia, the father of Nika Melia, came just 3 percent short of passing the 50% threshold to win outright on 2 October. He faces Georgian Dream's Mamuka Tsotseria, who received only 41% of votes in the first round.

On 29 October, Georgian TV company Mtavari published projections from IPSOS giving Anzor Melia 55% and 45% to Tsotseria, something that contradicted results published directly by IPSOS that gave the lead to Georgian Dream’s candidate. Shortly after, Mtavari accused IPSOS of a ‘corrupt deal’ and vowed to take the case to an arbitration court.

Former PM Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia Party, who won the third most votes overall in the first round, will challenge the ruling party for mayor only in Tsageri Municipality, in the northwestern region of Svaneti.

For Georgia’s majoritarian candidates also sent elections to the second round in 11 electoral districts in various regions.

Among the majoritarian council runoff votes, only one will take place in Tbilisi, in Saburtalo District, where Girchi — More Freedom’s Boris Kurua is challenging Georgian Dream’s Avtandil Tsintsadze. 

Opposition giant with coalition appeal

Nika Melia, who won 34% of votes on 2 October, falling 11 points behind Kakha Kaladze, stepped up his efforts before reruns to broaden his appeal beyond his party by vowing he would resign from the party chairmanship if he won. 

On 20 October, Melia also unveiled a coalition cabinet for Tbilisi City Hall, slating Droa’s leader Elene Khoshtaria, Lelo’s chair Mamuka Khazaradze, and Girchi — More Freedom’s leader Zurab Girchi Japaridze as his deputies. 

Georgian Dream have been quick to remind the public that they had already secured a majority in the Tbilisi City Assembly, hinting they would block the appointment of those deputies.

Nika Melia presents his proposed cabinet for the government of Tbilisi. Photo: Nika Melia.

UNM’s mayoral candidate in Kutaisi, Khatia Dekanoidze, followed suit and presented her shadow cabinet on 26 October naming two out of her four would-be deputies from the Lelo and Girchi — More Freedom opposition groups. 

The party in power, including Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, have warned voters several times that cooperation between them and an opposition mayor in Tbilisi or elsewhere would not go smoothly and could even torpedo development projects.

On 22 October, Gharibashvili advised voters against supporting the UNM’s mayoral candidate Koba Nakhopia in the western Senaki Municipality, arguing that ‘central government is ours’.

Irakli Gharibashvili campaigning for Georgian Dream mayoral candidate Ioseb Khakhaleishvili in Kutaisi on 23 October. Photo: Georgian Dream.

‘He won’t be able to take a step without us’, Gharibashvili warned. ‘I’m talking hypothetically: if any other [opposition] candidate wins in any municipality, they won’t have a prospect without the central government.’

Critics have accused the party of disrespecting local self-government institutions with such rhetoric. 

Concerns about the over-centralisation of political power and the ruling party being too incorporated into state institutions were raised again on 28 October when Georgian Dream organised a massive rally in Tbilisi. The party transported tens of thousands of Georgians, including numerous regional public employees, to the event supporting the party.

The same day, the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) issued their final report on the election campaign and the 2 October vote calling them marred with ‘increasingly worrisome trends of violence, intimidation, pressure against voters and candidates, and abuse of administrative resources, further blurring the lines between the government and the ruling party’.

Saakashvili: ‘My life depends on your vote’

The second round is being held on the background of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s continued hunger strike. He began on 1 October shortly after being arrested

The day before the vote, Saakashvili called the runoff election ‘decisive’ both for Georgian democracy and his life, urging Georgians to go out to vote.

‘I want you to know that the prolongation of my life is entirely tied to the choice that you are going to make tomorrow’, he said on Friday. 

The leaders of Georgian Dream have maintained since Saakashvili was apprehended that he planned to destabilise the country by showing up in Tbilisi unexpectedly to lead crowds to take over government institutions. 

Supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili outside Prison 12 in the city of Rustavi 4 October 2021. Photo: Tata Shoshiashvili/OC Media.

Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili went as far as claiming, without providing any evidence or confirming any related investigation, that Saakashvili and the UNM had plotted to assassinate opposition figures to precipitate a coup. 

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian PM claims UNM planned to kill opposition leaders in election ‘provocation’]

With the reports of his deteriorating health, the Georgian authorities have so far refused to transfer Saakashvili to a civilian hospital, insisting he be taken to the medical facilities in Gldani prison, an offer the former president has refused. The prison is infamous for the prison torture scandal that emerged during Saakashvili’s final months of rule. 

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