Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Caucasus Report

Stakes Could Not be Higher In Georgian Parliamentary Elections

Thousands of people attend an election rally in support of the opposition bloc Georgian Dream in Zugdidi on September 22.
Thousands of people attend an election rally in support of the opposition bloc Georgian Dream in Zugdidi on September 22.
More than any national election since 1990, the Georgian parliamentary election to be held on October 1 is a potential major turning point in the country’s history. 

At one level, the election is a naked struggle for power in which President Mikheil Saakashvili’s embattled United National Movement (ENM) has resorted to increasingly desperate measures to neutralize the threat posed by the opposition Georgian Dream bloc headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.

But it is also, as Thomas de Waal pointed out in a recent interview, a referendum on the relative credentials and credibility of Ivanishvili and the ENM.

According to de Waal the poll also represents an opportunity for Georgians to demonstrate their commitment to democratization. He maintains that it offers them a chance to break free from the lingering Soviet-era mindset that opts to play safe by voting for the ruling party.

If this happens, it could bring about Georgia’s first-ever post-Soviet peaceful and constitutional transition of power.

A total of 14 parties and two blocs have registered to compete for 150 parliamentary mandates (77 under the proportional party-list system and 73 in single-mandate constituencies ).

Three opposition  parties – United Georgia, Georgia’s Path, and the Greens – opted not to run against Georgian Dream.

The general consensus among observers is that, apart from the ENM and Georgian Dream, only the Christian Democrats bloc and possibly the New Rightists and the populist Labor Party stand a chance of winning parliamentary representation.

For the first time since Saakashvili’s advent to power as a result of the November 2003 Rose Revolution, and despite the passage last year of a new election law that tips the odds in its favor, the ENM is facing the prospect of forfeiting power. 

That possibility is all the more alarming in light of the passage in 2010 of a new constitution that transfers many of the presidential prerogatives to the prime minister, effectively reducing the president to a figurehead. 

Consequently, the party that controls parliament gets to appoint the country’s most powerful official.

'Intense' Reprisals

Saakashvili’s second and final term expires in January 2013. It is not yet known who the ENM will select as its candidate in the ballot for his successor, or indeed in what capacity Saakashvili intends to continue his participation in politics.

Even before campaigning officially began, the authorities sought ways to minimize the influence of  Ivanishvili, who entered national politics less than a year ago, affirming his intention to win this year’s election and become prime minister.

They slapped multi-million dollar fines on Georgian Dream for imputed violations of legislation on party funding, a move that led a visiting Parliamentary Assembly delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  to deplore what it termed the “selective” imposition of “disproportionate” and “harsh” penalties “without clear or transparent guidelines.”

The authorities also confiscated  thousands of satellite dishes imported by the Maestro TV channel on the grounds that Maestro planned to distribute them free-of-charge as part of a clandestine deal with companies Ivanishvili owns in what the Prosecutor-General’s office termed an attempt at vote-buying.

The NGO This Affects You Too responded with a strongly-worded statement that characterized the reprisals against Georgian Dream as “unprecedented in their intensity and scale” and accused the ENM of showing no interest in creating a “level playing field” for parties participating in the election.

EU, OSCE Concerns

Nonetheless, Saakashvili continued to affirm that the election will be “the freest and most transparent in Georgia’s post-independence history.”

Predictably, the election campaign has been, according to the OSCE, increasingly “polarized,” “confrontational and rough,”  with the focus at times “on the advantages of incumbency, on the one hand, and private financial resources, on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms.”

The European Union has expressed similar concern, stressing that “elections should be first of all about political programs and ideas.”

The ideological component of the campaign has been largely confined to the ENM’s implausible portrayal of Georgian Dream as Russian-funded and Moscow’s stalking horse (even though its campaign program lists NATO and EU membership as strategic objectives).

A poll conducted in August by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) registered 37 percent support for the ENM, and 12 percent for Georgian Dream, and 3 percent for the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM). Twenty-one percent of respondents were unwilling to reveal who they would vote for, and a further 22 percent were undecided.

To what extent last week’s revelations, apparently orchestrated by Georgian Dream, of widespread abuse and torture in Georgian prisons have changed that ratio is an open question. 

The authorities have hit back, implicating former Minister for Conflict Resolution Goga Khaindrava in dubious ties with Georgian criminal groups operating in France and airing video clips showing prominent members of Georgian Dream badmouthing each other or apparently discussing how to buy votes.

Khaindrava had publicly declared that the prison abuse videos herald the demise of the ENM as a political force.

Citing the NDI’s figure of 43 percent of respondents whose preference remains unclear, de Waal predicted that Georgian Dream would garner 45 percent of the party list vote, the ENM 40 percent, and the CDM 10 percent.

Given the advantages the authorities enjoy in single-mandate constituencies, the ENM could thus end up with upwards of 80 mandates. Compared with their present 119, this would be a loss of one third. On the other hand, only 40 percent of parliamentarians are required to endorse the proposed candidate for prime minister.

Ivanishvili told a Georgian journalist in early August that his worst case scenario would be to win 40 percent of the 150 seats, and he fully anticipates winning between two-thirds and three-quarters.

In an editorial published in the “Wall Street Journal,” he was more cautious, saying Georgian Dream is “in a dead heat with the government.”

How Ivanishvili -- and his supporters -- would react in the event that the official results give them less than 40 percent of the parliamentary mandates is not clear.

Peaceful protests -- taking to the streets en masse -- are unlikely to have any effect; violence would play into the hands of the ENM insofar as Saakashvili would probably conflate it with a Russian conspiracy to overthrow the legitimately elected parliament.

Ivanishvili’s own political future in the event of defeat is unclear. He is not running for election, having been stripped of his Georgian citizenship last October and publicly spurned the constitutional loophole created to enable citizens of EU member states who have lived in Georgia for 10 years to stand for public office.

It is similarly uncertain whether and for how long the Georgian Dream coalition could survive as a united minority parliament faction.

Georgian Dream's six members -- Democratic Georgia, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, Industry Will Save Georgia, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and the National Forum -- have diverging ideologies and priorities that they have set aside for tactical reasons with the single overriding objective of bringing about regime change.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Victor from: USA
September 28, 2012 19:21
Yanukovych also supports EU integration and look how that has gone down.
In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
September 29, 2012 08:06
I see which side RFE/RL -- and de Waal -- are taking in this election!

For the life of me, I don't get this curious the characterization of ENM's portrayal of Ivanishvili as "as Russian-funded and Moscow’s stalking horse" as somehow "implausible". Huh?! He's anAn oligarch who made his millions in Russia, and successfully divested himself of his properties for millions. He has never been indicted. How can he be politically independent given how the Kremlin treats such figures in *Russia*? (See Khodorkovsky, see Lebedev).

As for "even though its campaign program lists NATO and EU membership as strategic objectives" -- oh, please. NATO is not going to take Georgia due to Russian backlash and the EU is not likely, either, so it costs them nothing to mouth that phrase.

In Response

by: Nick from: USA
September 29, 2012 23:54
If you knew better than you would know that all they said here is true. Even if he made his money in Russia, he didn't make Georgians bleed for it unlike Saakashvili. It was him who made giant amounts of donations to the current regime (a regime that the Kremlin hates) and the Georgian people. He never asked for any credit or any fame, he hasn't gotten credit for half the things he has done fore Georgia. The current regime managed to anger and piss off a man that lived in self seclusion so much that he changed his entire lifestyle and became a politician. Moreover I don't see your point about Russia at all. Not only are more than 50% of the companies in Georgia controlled by Russia, but he managed to loose territories and deepen the fissure between Georgians, Abkhazians and Osetians. So what possibly could Ivanishvili, a man advocating peace, do to be more rewarding for Russia??? Acknowledge the separatist regions?? Or make Georgia part of Russia? He faces way too much opposition to move either way, that is what DEMOCRACY is about when there is someone to oppose your ideas without fears. Democracy is not the 80% in a parliament agreeing on everything. Democracy is not the annihilation of the freedom of speed, AND it sure as hell is not the abuse of prisoners with brooms. These prisoners became an image to what the current government is doing to every decent Georgian. So don't you start talking about RFE/RL taking sides when Inside Georgia most of the media got crushed and demolished airing propaganda 24/7.

by: Alexander Smollett
September 29, 2012 02:41
Russia will try to hijack the opposition movement, tuning Georgian dream into Georgian nightmare.
In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
September 30, 2012 20:09
@Nick again, if you make millions in Russia, at some point along the way, you are either violating the law and/or befriending the powers that be and losing your political independence. This is just a fact of life. Given how many cases there are of this phenomenon, I marvel that anyone could claim Ivanishvili is independent and has nothing to do with Putin.

If he made donations to public works or even paying salaries, that's not making donations to the regime, that's showing that he's a Georgian patriot and trying to sway votes. It's classic ward-heeling on a giant scale. Hey, the best way to get credit is to feign modesty and say you're not seeking credit, you know?

Gosh, he lived in self-seclusion, and now he's making the ultimate sacrifice and selling his cut-rate pharmaceutical businesses and such and running in the Georgian elections?! Some people just need a small pond to be a big fish in.

If 50 percent of the companies in Georgia are owned by Russia, it's no different than Kazakhstan or Belarus or any other post-Soviet regime. But Georgia has gone further in trying to be culturally and politically free of Russia and that has incensed the Kremlin.

There's a lot that Ivanishvili could do to reward Russia and grow closer to Russia's political sphere -- and we'll see that play out if he wins. Just as we did with Ukraine. Everything from UN votes to letting those 50 percents creep up further to breaking ties with the West. It doesn't have to be about ceding territories that Georgians had believed belonged to them. It can be about a tacit concession.

Er, DEMOCRACY is when rich oligarchs from Russia can't buy the election.

Let's see. Crushed media? That crushed media that consisted of three independent TV stations that aired the horrible prison torture videos? Ok, then.

Prisoners aren't an image of what the government does to Georgia. They're an image of what the Soviet system has done to every one of these cases. And in this case, we need more research, as it may be an image of what rich oligarchs from Russia do when they have the capacity to get/buy their way into a closed prison system and spirit out a video and get it on TV. Neat trick, that!

by: Jack from: US
September 29, 2012 13:38
the rump republic of Georgia is a model NATO minion, as NATO Secretary General put it. Which means the "republic of Georgians" will do what Washington orders. There is no need to waste bandwidth on parlamentary "elections" in Tbilisi, just like there is no need to waste bandwidth on "elections" in US where ruling mafia presents American populace with pre-selected list of figurehead "candidates"

by: Ben
September 29, 2012 19:11
Who pays for these articles with Saakashwili`s distorted face and permanent half-lies about Khaindrava who was not slandered but was watched and filmed by French police.We know who pays for anti-Israel,anti-American publications-the oil money work.But the anti-Saakashvili sabbath in non Russian media amuses me.
In Response

by: Peter from: front of my computer
September 30, 2012 18:11
Ben, fact that Khaindrava was filmed visiting one of hic childhood friends woudl not worry me. What worries me are the dirty tricks of Saakashvili who during the long time advertised rally of opposition in Kutaisi suddenly decided to travel to Poti. To enable president to travel to Poti all roads were blocked to disable people from around the Kutaisi to attend the meetings. Contarary to that governmental officilas and employees at the companies owned by Saakashvili friends were threatened to be fired if they do not attend Saakashvili meetings. Prior to Saakashvili rally in Zugdidi, kids from as far as Poti were taken by buses to Zugdidi and told that they are going to school trips. If you watched news in Georgia you would hear news that 80% of private buses between Tbilisi and regions were cancelled so people would not be able to travel to their homes to vote. According to some news as before Saakashvili party has already lists of dead people - these will be votes to National Movement Party. Georgian media are saying news about death of Zhurab Zhvania - No.2 in Georgia after the Rose Revolution will be soon revealed. I do not think that opposition had said their last word.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.