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Opposition refuses to concede, calls for protests and snap elections

29 November 2018
Grigol Vashadze (Facebook)

Georgian opposition presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze has called for protests in Tbilisi and snap parliamentary elections after losing Wednesday’s run-off poll to Salome Zurabishvili.

Vashadze, running under the the Strength in Unity coalition, gained just 40% of votes in the election, with Zurabishvili, who was endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, gaining 60%, a difference of almost 367,500 votes.

Leaders and supporters of the United National Movement Party–dominated opposition coalition gathered inside the Tbilisi Concert Hall on Friday evening to discuss their next moves.

‘We demand snap parliamentary elections with either a proportional or regional-proportional system’, said former presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze.

Georgia currently elects members of parliament with a mixed system of single-member constituencies and proportional party lists. This is set to change to a fully proportional system once constitutional changes kick in in 2020.

Referring to the president elect, Vashadze said that people had no political or moral responsibility towards ‘this soulless object’.

‘The political environment in Georgia has totally changed, we received 800,000 votes’, said Vashadze. He called the elections a ‘criminal farse’ and said they would not recognise the results.

They called on supporters to take to the streets on Sunday, 2 December.

United National Movement (UNM) leader Mikheil Saakashvili addressed supporters through a video call, calling on them to ‘say no to Ivanishvili’.

Georgian Dream Party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili played a prominent role in the election, including his family’s Cartu Foundation promising to pay off the unpaid loans of 600,000 Georgians.

‘The Georgian people have elected Vashadze as their president. I am greeting the people’s president Grigol Vashadze, i’m greeting the United Opposition’, said Saakashvili.

Saakashvili called Ivanishvili an ‘enemy of Georgia’ and said that he bought off people.

(Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The results, published in real time by the Election Administration, showed that Zurabishvili  won in every electoral district except for Rustavi and Georgian citizens abroad, including those on military service in Afghanistan, who overwhelmingly backed Vashadze (64% to 36%).

Zurabishvili called her victory ‘a big win’, adding that she did not expect a victory ‘in a Soviet fashion, with 70%–80%’. She said her first foreign trips would be to European capitals, including the Baltic states where a woman president was first to congratulate her last night.

Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, the French foreign office, in which she used to work, were among firsts to congratulate Zurabishvili.  

‘Unfortunately, no, I'm still waiting’, replied Zurabishvili when asked by journalists on election night if her rival had congratulated her on her anticipated victory. She later said she only expected Vashadze to accept and recognise the election outcomes, not to congratulate her.

After exit polls showed Zurabishvili was on course to win, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, currently outside of Georgia, broadcast a Facebook live session urging Georgians to ‘start civil disobedience’ and calling on police officers and soldiers to ‘stand on the people’s side’ and ‘disobey unlawful orders’.

Salome Zurabishvili casting her ballot. (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

At the time, other opposition leaders including embattled presidential contender Grigol Vashadze indicated they had yet to agree their plans.

In a press conference later that night, Strength in Unity leaders announced they would hold a large meeting with supporters to consult with them on how to proceed.

Violations during vote

Watchdog organisations observing the voting reported several violations at polling stations but International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED) concluded that ‘tabulation of votes was mostly conducted in compliance with relevant electoral procedures’.

ISFED reported violations at several polling stations, such as obstruction of observers, violence, violations of summary protocols, the number of ballot papers exceeding the number of signatures, breach of the rules of casting lots, violation of sealing procedures of election materials, and more.

On Thursday, a joint international observer mission from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament, called the elections ‘competitive’ but ‘undermined’ by negative campaigns on both sides. They also said Zurabishvili enjoyed undue advantage.

In their preliminary report, the observer mission said the ‘misuse of administrative  resources further blurred the line between party and state’.

They said the government’s promise before the election to relieve 600,000 Georgians of their debts, worth of ₾1.5 billion ($570 million) in total, ‘could amount to vote buying’.

Georgian Dream’s announcement that their chairman’s charity would buy out the debts in December came nine days before Georgians went to the polls to vote in the run-off.

According to preliminary results, Zurabishvili gained more than 531,000 additional votes in the second round. In the first round, she narrowly defeated Vashadze, with 39% votes to 38%, garnering 616,000 votes.

(Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

The international observers also noted that private media channels contributed to polarisation, while the public broadcaster failed to ensure their editorial independence and to remain impartial.

In a statement, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) said that in many ways, the election took on meaning well beyond the choice of the next president.

‘It became a referendum on political leadership, a power struggle over old grievances, and a false choice between doomsday scenarios. Election discourse, fueled by the main media broadcasters, intended to divide voters to extremes, depicting a decision between “nine bloody years of Saakashvili”, a reference to the former Georgian president, or “corrupt, inept rule of a billionaire oligarch”, referring to former prime minister and party chair Bidzina Ivanishvili’, the report said.

NDI urged the Georgian authorities not to ‘squander’ the ‘precious asset’ of democratic governance, which differentiates it from its ‘authoritarian neighbours’.

They concluded that the campaign had left many Georgians ‘who dislike either extreme image, feeling politically dispossessed’.

‘Leaders from both campaigns acknowledged that the election was negative, divisive, and harmful to Georgian democracy, but largely pointed fingers at each other for blame’, NDI concluded.

According to the Election Administration, independent and party observers appealed for vote counts in six precincts to be annulled do to violations.

In a press briefing on Thursday, President Giorgi Margvelashvili congratulated Zurabishvili on her victory and said he was ready to work with her team during the transition.

The outgoing president added that based on reports from observer organisations, he was ‘concerned with the drastic fall in the level of democracy’ in the run up to the second round.

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