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Georgians Keep It Casual At Election Time Despite Bruising Politics And A Tough Neighborhood

A man looks at campaign posters for opposition candidate Shalva Natelashvili in Tbilisi on October 22.
A man looks at campaign posters for opposition candidate Shalva Natelashvili in Tbilisi on October 22.

Georgia is in the final phase of elections that look too close to predict as opposition parties are ganging up to challenge eight years of one-party rule in a region where foreign interference and long-running enmities often boil over.

But despite all the history and outside noise, Georgia's 3.5 million or so voters haven't panicked ahead of the October 31 parliamentary elections.

In fact, as many as one-third of them still appeared to be undecided, according to some of the latest polls (one source suggested more than half of voters had not made up their minds).

That has left pundits guessing whether this election will be swung by voter lethargy, an unprecedented health crisis, an embarrassment of choices under the new electoral system, or the kind of "prerevolutionary mood" that brought the current ruling coalition to power in its first electoral test eight years ago.

But even if it's an upset victory for the opposition against billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream party, it is a stark contrast to the instability in and around Georgia.

BIdzina Ivanishvili (file photo)
BIdzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

Instability implied by the ongoing Russian occupation of one-fifth of Georgia's territory. Or swirling around a decade-long "bilateral war" that has dominated Georgian politics and pits Ivanishvili against Mikheil Saakashvili, the exiled ex-president still wanted in Georgia for a conviction based on his eight years in power that he says is politically motivated. Not to mention the nearby military conflict engulfing Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces battling for territory in a flare-up that has already cost many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of lives in a region historically racked by ethnic conflict.

Arguably the closest that Georgia appears to have gotten to preelection turmoil is a bizarre case involving a rekindled border dispute that seems perfectly tailored to arouse nationalist anger.

Two cartographers were charged this month with treason over maps from early last century suggesting that a sliver of Georgian territory housing a monastery complex might have been improperly ascribed to Azerbaijan during the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Critics, many of them from the opposition, accuse the authorities of drumming up the scandal to discredit opposition figures and previous governments.

Most polls show Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream far ahead of its second-placed rival, Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) allies, despite a flagging economy and memories of a rare, brutal crackdown on antigovernment and anti-occupation protesters in the summer of 2019.

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But opposition parties have vowed to stick together, and Georgian Dream's standing has been slipping since midsummer with economic indicators lagging and coronavirus infections exploding to record levels that are 40 times those of the country's peak rates in the spring.

'A Political Animal'

That is in part a result of the dogged determination of Saakashvili -- popularly known as Misha -- to get back into Georgia's political ranks.

"He is a political animal," Miro Popkhadze, a former Georgian Defense Ministry envoy to the UN and now a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), said in an election preview this week. "Whether you like it or not, [Saakashvili] is a factor."

He said the ENM has a corps of young leaders but that, if you travel outside the cities into villages and regions, there is still "a bilateral war there between Misha and Ivanishvili."

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses supporters via videolink at a preelection rally in Tbilisi on October 29.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses supporters via videolink at a preelection rally in Tbilisi on October 29.

But most polls show Georgian Dream's support hovering around 40 percent, double digits ahead of the ENM and right at the threshold for a party to govern alone under election reforms agreed to under a landmark deal reached with international help in March.

The so-called March 8 agreement on electoral and judiciary reforms set a new high-water mark for cooperation on the Georgian political landscape.

It took Western mediation to get there, but the deal accelerated the switch to more proportional representation in Georgian elections, among other goals.

Uncharted Territory?

That could steer the country's political leaders into uncharted territory, as no multiparty government has ruled Georgia since the 2003-04 Rose Revolution.

The election amendments also include a lower threshold of just 1 percent for parties to win a seat in parliament, and a larger portion of seats in the 150-member legislature (120) to be determined by proportional votes.

But while the result might be a fractious bunch of lawmakers, much of the opposition has united behind Saakashvili as its preferred prime ministerial candidate.

The FPRI's Elene Melikishvili has cast doubt on how much the Georgian Dream government has accomplished since elections four years ago.

Faced with what she described as "essential challenges" over rule of law and economic inequality, Melikishvili said her answer would be "not much."

That perceived failure, she said, along with the 1-percent threshold, "makes this election the most...fascinating…in Georgia's recent history."

'Increasing Polarization'

The EU's delegation to Georgia noted "increasing polarization and a remaining scarcity of in-depth reporting" within local media in the run-up to this weekend's vote, but was quick to note that Georgians had avoided some of the 21st century's biggest election scourges.

"[I]t is reassuring that hate speech and misinformation attempts do not seem to be getting traction, particularly on social media," said Asuncion Sanchez Ruiz, the deputy head of the EU's delegation to Georgia.

As in recent elections elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic has curbed an imbalance between ruling parties that enjoy regular access to the media and lesser-known parties trying to build a constituency.

An election poster for progovernment candidate David Sergienko in Tbilisi on October 20.
An election poster for progovernment candidate David Sergienko in Tbilisi on October 20.

That could hurt smallish and recently established parties' chances to squarely challenge Georgian Dream and ENM, even as the lower parliamentary threshold counters the traditional disincentive to supporting those same parties.

The ongoing pandemic could still depress voter turnout, though.

The government handled the first wave of the pandemic well, but this weekend's election comes just days after a new peak in daily infection numbers on October 24, when nearly 2,000 new cases were registered.

Mobilized Voters?

A number of polls early this month indicated that between one-quarter and one-third of voters were still undecided, suggesting a potentially game-changing chunk of support was still up for grabs.

That is reminiscent of the election in 2012, when anger over police abuses and other scandals eventually fueled 60 percent turnout to unseat Saakashvili and his ENM allies in the first transfer of power since the 2003-04 Rose Revolution.

Vakhtang Khmaladze, a former Georgian Dream lawmaker who worked on constitutional reforms, says high turnout has usually accompanied a "prerevolutionary mood" among voters.

"Such a period was 1990, when the first multiparty elections [under the Soviet Union] took place; it was the same during the 2004 presidential election [after the Rose Revolution] and in 2012 [when Georgian Dream unseated Saakashvili's allies]," Khmaladze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "At such times, voters are often mobilized."

But it's not clear whether the voter uncertainty signals an embrace of electoral changes that might translate into higher turnout -- which the opposition is convinced will help oust the current government -- or a ho-hum affair that will hand Georgian Dream a third consecutive win at the ballot box.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.