In the run-up to the Georgian municipal elections scheduled for October 21, the ruling Georgian Dream party has been accused of resorting to the use of administrative resources and pressure to ensure victory for its own candidates.
Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze and former Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, who is running for the post of Tbilisi mayor, both categorically rejected those allegations as untrue and unfounded.
Central Election Commission (TsSK) Chairwoman Tamar Zhvania, however, has said that there have been instances of the use of administrative resources but added that the number of such complaints has declined compared with previous years.
In an as-yet-unpublished report summarized at a press conference on October 17, representatives of Transparency International Georgia said some kindergarten heads were asked (where and by whom is unclear) to draft lists of parents who would vote for Georgian Dream. The NGO also said that in the predominantly Azeri-populated district of Dmanisi, southeast of Tbilisi, Georgian Dream members forced local Muslims to swear on the Koran that they would vote for the ruling party.
Meanwhile, 14 extraparliamentary opposition parties accused Georgian Dream of seeking to engineer the election outcome to ensure that the European Georgia party, which split early this year from the former ruling United National Movement, places second, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on October 16. European Georgia rejected that allegation as “rumor and utter rubbish.”
The opposition parties also claimed that over 200 opposition candidates for local councils have withdrawn from the race under pressure from the ruling party. They further complained of restricted access to the media, resulting in what they termed “an uneven and discriminatory preelection environment.”
Independent Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili, for his part, claimed the Central Election Commission has refused to allow election observers to verify the accuracy of voter lists. He construed that alleged refusal as evidence that the supreme election body is intent on falsifying the outcome of the vote in favor of Georgian Dream. Zhvania promptly denied that Elisashvili’s supporters have been denied access to voter lists, InterPressNews.ge reported.
The swift and categorical official reactions to such accusations are understandable, for several reasons.
First, Georgian Dream is particularly vulnerable to allegations of malpractice after being consistently criticized over a period of months by opposition parties across the political spectrum for pushing through parliament constitutional amendments widely seen as designed to ensure it remains in power indefinitely.
Second, voter turnout in local elections is traditionally lower than for parliamentary ballots, and these elections are unlikely to prove an exception, given what the U.S. National Democratic Institute termed “little visible competition or contest of ideas and policies.”
And third, in light of the large number of parties registered to participate (22, plus five electoral blocs and one initiative group) and the low popularity rating of all major parties, including Georgian Dream, observers predict that a second round of voting will be needed, especially in the five cities (Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Poti, and Rustavi) that are to elect a new mayor. No fewer than 13 candidates are vying for the post of Tbilisi mayor, including one representing former parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili’s new Construction Movement.
The elections are the first to take place since parliament amended the law on self-government in late June to reduce from 12 to five the number of towns and cities where the mayor is directly elected. The rationale cited for depriving seven towns of separate municipal status and merging them with the surrounding eponymous region was to save money, but opposition parties nonetheless alleged that the decision was intended to facilitate a Georgian Dream victory in the upcoming municipal elections, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on July 5.
An opinion poll conducted between mid-June and early July by the National Democratic Institute established that 59 percent of the population disapproved of the change, while only 16 percent approved it, with 45 percent predicting it will have a negative impact on the country. Whether those who disapprove will simply not bother to vote, or register their displeasure by voting for one of the opposition parties, remains to be seen.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on October 19, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili instructed all state bodies to ensure that the actual vote on October 21 does not furnish the slightest grounds for further allegations of the unfair use of administrative resources.
“I want to appeal in the first instance to state bodies, secondly to political forces, and thirdly to society as a whole: Let’s hold these elections in such a way that it is a further step forward to strengthening truly European democracy in Georgia, so that forced elections are consigned to the past once and for all, and such terms from the past as falsified, forced elections are forgotten,” InterPressNews.ge quoted him as saying.
To Georgian Dream’s rivals, that appeal may sound like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.