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Georgians to cast their ballots in crucial test for ruling party

1 October 2021
A billboard for Kakha Kaladze near Station Square, Tbilisi. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

On 2 October, 3.5 million Georgian’s will be eligible to vote to elect members of local councils and mayors of 64 municipalities in a crucial test for the ruling Georgian Dream Party following a series of scandals.

Tensions are running high as in their ninth year of rule, this is the first election for Georgian Dream party where they have campaigned with minimal endorsement from their founder and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili. 

After retiring from politics for the second and ‘final’ time in January, the Georgian billionaire broke his silence only once in June to specifically condemn former Georgian Dream PM Giorgi Gakharia, who is currently running for Mayor of Tbilisi with his own party.

In the summer, Gakharia vowed to upset the Georgian Dream–United National Movement (UNM) polarity with his For Georgia Party. 

However, he and other political leaders hoping to do so have found their plans in jeopardy after the founder of the UNM and third President Mikheil Saakashvili, vowed to be in Tbilisi hours after polls close on 2 October. 

Saakashvili, who has been convicted in absentia for abuse of office, is expected to be immediately arrested if he arrives in Georgia. On Thursday evening, Saakashvili posted two videos online in which he claimed to already be in the country.

The ruling party will be hoping to garner at least over 43% of proportional votes after earlier in April they committed to calling early parliamentary elections if they failed to pass this symbolic threshold.

Despite Georgian Dream’s change of heart on that promise, most opposition groups have claimed it is still an important threshold that could delegitimise the ruling party’s refusal to call the early election next year. 

The rejection of the April agreement by Georgian Dream is one of the several controversies that have sent Georgia’s relationships with the West to their lowest point in years. 

As expected, all eyes are on the Tbilisi race where incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladze will hope to avoid a rerun as he is expected to be challenged primarily by UNM chair Nika Melia.

[Read more on OC Media: Who’s who in the Tbilisi Mayoral election]

Violence, alleged pressure

The campaign period since 1 August has been marred by several physical altercations, politically motivated firings, damage to campaign materials, as well as alleged instances of misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party.

In the early hours of 21 September, Ivane Gvelesiani, a 55-year-old former public employee in Rustavi who had claimed he was fired on political grounds, was assaulted resulting in multiple injuries. 

Later that day, Davit Dautashvili, the son of a local majoritarian candidate from the ruling party, Mikheil Dautashvili, stabbed two supporters of the UNM in the southeast Georgian town of Dmanisi, resulting in his arrest the following day.

Ivane Gvelesiani (left. Photo: TV4); A man injured during the brawl in Dmanisi (right) Photo: Mtavari.

In mid-August, Georgian election watchdog the International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED) reported a continued trend since the 2018 presidential election campaign of political pressure on school headteachers, including targetting those seen as politically undesirable with unscheduled school inspections. 

An 11 September report by TV Pirveli raised these concerns, as according to them, Georgia's State Security Service kept dossiers on school heads and teachers and the Education Ministry did not extend tenures of some of them on political grounds.

The campaign was also marked with an unprecedented trend of opposition nominees cancelling their own list candidacies throughout the country, almost exclusively outside Tbilisi. 

Nika Sakandelidze, the majoritarian candidate from Third Power — Strategy Aghmashenebeli in the Ianeti-Bashi constituency of Samtredia District, in Imereti, was among several to claim he was pressured by police to cancel his candidacy. 

Sakandelidze (left) claimed he had to sign a statement annulling his candidacy in the local Georgian Dream office. Screengrab from Third Power online broadcast.

‘I was nervous while writing the statement and they [police officers] told me the previous one did it in 2 minutes’, Sakandelidze claimed, referring to police pressure on him on 19 September.

Pro-government channel TV Imedi reported about Sakandelidze as well as Lelo's majoritarian candidate Giorgi Shengelia annulling their candidacies in Samtredia a day earlier.

In early September, Imedi, as well as PosTV, another pro-government channel, reported dozens of similar cancellations, mostly by candidates of Gakharia’s For Georgia party.

In early September, Khashuri mayoral candidate Zviad Tepnadze and Akaki Bezhanidze, running for the Keda Municipality council in Georgia's Adjara Autonomous Republic, claimed separately that they had received threats for standing in the election. Both belong to For Georgia.

Akaki Bartaia (left) and Giorgi Gakharia. In 2004, police planted evidence on Bartaia and his friends after killing one of them, Amiran Robakidze.

Earlier in mid-August, For Georgia claimed that police had planted firearms on one of their supporters, Akaki Bartaia, in the city of Mtskheta, soon after he allegedly received threats for supporting Gakharia’s party. 

Media environment since summer

The campaign has also seen attacks on the media, primarily from the government.

‘There're no more radical, filthier human beings in this country than you’, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, who is running for re-election, told a reporter from TV channel Mtavari on 29 September, three days before the vote. 

The latest verbal abuse was part of a continued trend from the ruling Georgian Dream party to target not only their political rivals but also media outlets critical of their rule, especially TV channels Mtavari, Formula, and Pirveli.

The anti-media rhetoric continued in the aftermath of mass violence against journalists on 5 July, which was followed by leading TV companies demanding the resignation of PM Irakli Gharibashvili.

Two days before the vote, the government sued Davit Kezerashvili, a former official and the owner of TV company Formula, seeking compensation for embezzling state funds. Formula labelled to move an attempt to silence the media.

Following the scandalous leak of files allegedly from the security services earlier in September, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which was already facing a media backlash over their mobilisation of anti-queer protesters in July, openly threatened to endorse the ruling party unless the media stopped covering the content of the leak. The files implicated the high clergy in numerous crimes.

‘Similar to previous elections, high-ranking clergy are again present at the pre-election campaign and candidate nomination events of the ruling party’, ISFED reported on 23 September.

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian prosecutors silent on Church paedophilia allegations]

On 17 September, large billboards featuring journalists and calling them ‘evil’ replaced pro-vaccination banners in Tbilisi. The advertisements were paid for by an entrepreneur who denied acting on behalf of Georgian Dream. 

The ‘Bloody’ billboard in central Tbilisi. Screengrab from TV Mtavari.

On 17 September, the Communications Commission fined TV channel Imedi ₾5,000 ($1,600) for refusing to air ads from opposition parties European Georgia and the UNM, in defiance of the electoral code mandating national broadcasters to do so.

A reshuffled electoral system

After withdrawing from the 19 April agreement, which was brokered by the EU, Georgian Dream have approached the various reforms they had agreed to selectively. 

While they have rejected the provision for new parliamentary elections in 2022 and to reform the rules of selecting the Prosecutor General, Georgian Dream have implemented some of their promised reforms. These included an amnesty over the 20–21 June 2019 protests and amending the electoral system. 

The elections on 2 October are being held under a mixed system of proportional (or party-list) and majoritarian elements — with a 4/1 ratio in five large cities, including the capital Tbilisi, and a 2/1 ratio in the rest of the country in favour of the party-list component. 

Hence, in Tbilisi’s 50-member city assembly, 40 councillors will be elected through party lists and 10 to majoritarian single-seat districts.

The elections are being held under the Central Election Commission (CEC) headed by Giorgi Kalandarishvili, who replaced his predecessor, Tamar Zhvania, in late June, before her tenure was over. 

Giorgi Kalandarishvili (centre) was elected for only a six-month term, as his candidacy failed to find cross-party consensus in parliament. Photo: CEC.

As a result of recent reforms, Georgia boosted membership of the CEC from 12 to 17 members, with nine seats reserved for party representatives and 8 stuffed with professional, non-partisan members.

Opposition groups, however, have claimed that the ‘professional’ members of commissions are overwhelmingly sympathetic to or allied with the ruling party. 

In early August, the UNM and European Georgia unsuccessfully demanded that public employees be barred from serving as electoral commissioner candidates. 

Among the new measures in place for this year’s vote is a video recording of the vote counts in all polling stations that administer more than 300 voters, stricter rules against gathering, obstructing movement, or keeping track of voters in the vicinity of polling stations, and a mandatory but random recount of 10% of ballots nationally.

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