Speaking at a cabinet meeting two days before the October 21 municipal elections, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili appealed to all involved to “hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia.”
International observers’ assessments of the October 21 vote and the run-offs three weeks later for the mayors of six towns were not, however, as unequivocally positive as Kvirikashvili had clearly hoped. Instead, they noted that the dominance of the entire election process by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party “poses a challenge to democratic governance going forward.”
In many respects, the elections followed the same pattern as the previous ballot in the early summer of 2014. On both occasions, Georgian Dream won a majority of seats on municipal councils across the country, polling 50.82 percent of the proportional vote in 2014 and 55.65 percent in 2017. In the first round of voting, its candidates won four out of five mayoral races, including in Tbilisi, and in the second, five of six. (Candidates from the former ruling United National Movement [ENM] withdrew from the run-offs in Kutaisi and Martvili.)
Apart from GD, of the 22 individual parties and five blocs that registered to participate, only the ENM (17.07 percent), its offshoot European Georgia (10.49 percent), and the Alliance of Patriots (6.56 percent), all of which are represented in parliament, polled the minimum 4 percent of the proportional vote to qualify for representation on municipal councils.
As in 2014, so again this year opposition parties alleged that GD’s strong showing, both on October 21 and on November 12, was the result of malpractice and systematic electoral violations, including multiple voting. Over 500 formal complaints of malpractice were submitted to the Central Electoral Commission (TsSK) after the October 21 vote. The ENM and the recently created Council of Leaders representing 16 nonparliamentary parties called separately on the TsSK to annul the results of the ballot, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. The ENM plans to appeal the TsSK’s rejection of that demand. The TsSK likewise rejected demands for recounts in several polling stations.
International observers were less categorical and generally positive in their assessments. The U.S. National Democratic Institute noted “several cases of serious procedural violations, errors, and delays resulting from lack of officials’ understanding of the procedures, as well as instances of involvement of self-declared party-affiliated observers in the count,” but nonetheless concluded that overall “polling procedures were generally followed throughout the day and in most observed Precinct Election Commissions, the counting process was reported to be generally calm and orderly.”
The joint observation mission fielded by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, for its part, similarly noted “instances of pressure on public sector employees to support the ruling party that are at odds with OSCE commitments, “cases of misuse of administrative resources,” and procedural irregularities at some polling stations. At the same time, it acknowledged that “fundamental freedoms were generally respected and candidates were able to campaign freely” in the October 21 vote, with election day proceeding “in an orderly manner.”
Voter turnout was slightly higher on October 21 than three years earlier (46.65 percent compared with 43.31 percent), but lower in the second round runoffs (33.24 percent compared with 36.63 percent in 2014).
The one major difference in 2017 compared with 2014 was the number of independent candidates or those representing tiny parties who gave GD a run for its money. Independent candidate and former TV journalist Aleko Elisashvili placed second of 13 candidates in the Tbilisi mayoral election, polling 17.49 percent. (The winner, with 51.3 percent, was former soccer star Kakha Kaladze, who served from October 2012 as Georgia’s energy minister.)
A second independent candidate, Konstantine Sharashenidze, defeated GD’s Beglar SIoridze with 50.11 percent of the vote in the runoff mayoral vote in Ozurgeti, while a third, Ramaz Nozadze, placed second in the runoff in the second round in Khashuri.
Tamaz Mechiauri, a former lawmaker who quit GD in May 2016 to form his own party, For a United Georgia, was acknowledged the elected mayor of the Tianeti district after a recount that showed he defeated GD’s candidate by a single vote.
The Development Movement launched in the summer of 2017 by former parliament speaker and Republican Party chairman Davit Usupashvili placed second in one southern district.
That overall pattern suggests two incipient trends. First, at least some voters disenchanted with or alienated by GD are turning to candidates not associated with any of the other political parties or political figures that have dominated Georgian politics since the November 2003 Rose Revolution that first brought the ENM to power.
And second, European Georgia, which split acrimoniously from the ENM in January of this year, has succeeded in attracting a sizable proportion of the ENM electorate, placing second in nine districts. (The ENM polled 22.4 percent in 2014.) Buoyed by its showing, European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze went so far as to define his party’s primary objective as defeating GD in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, as noted by the NDI, “Georgia appears to have reinforced governance marked by one party’s dominance at all levels of elected office.” Or as constitutional expert Vakhtang Dzabiradze explained to InterPressNews.ge, GD has parlayed the constitutional majority it received in the October 2016 parliamentary elections into one-party rule, in which the dividing line between the party and state structures is being progressively eroded, with all the dangers that entails. As the NDI concluded, “With the further consolidation of power in one party, prospects for vibrant and pluralistic democracy are at risk.”