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Caucasus Report

Friday 20 October 2017

Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze has categorically rejected accusations of vote-rigging.

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. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

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In an as-yet-unpublished report summarized at a press conference on October 17, representatives of Transparency International Georgia said some kindergarten heads were asked (where and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The opposition parties also claimed that over 200 opposition candidates for local councils have withdrawn from the race under pressure from the ruling party.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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
If President Giorgi Margvelashvili (above) fails to sign the amendments into law within 10 days, parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze is empowered to do so.

As might have been expected, the tactical alliance between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and opposition parties from across the political spectrum has failed to persuade the ruling Georgian Dream party to amend the controversial constitutional amendments Georgian Dream’s parliament faction adopted in the third and final reading late last month. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili signed into law on October 19 the controversial constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by the ruling Georgian Dream party in the teeth of vociferous objections by opposition parties from across the political spectrum and from Margvelashvili personally.

He explained that he decided to sign in order to avoid possible political destabilization, stressing that it was “hard” for him.

Georgian Dream’s parliament faction adopted the amendments in the third and final reading in late September despite a concerted effort by Margvelashvili and the opposition parties to force last minute revisions. In light of Georgian Dream’s categorical refusal to yield on the crucial issues of holding the parliamentary election due in 2020 under the fully proportional system, rather than the current mixed majoritarian-proportional system, and the manner of electing the president, Margvelashvili formally vetoed the amendments on October 9. Georgian Dream’s parliament faction overrode that veto four days later after a debate lasting over five hours that two of the three opposition parliament factions boycotted.

The adoption of what opposition politicians and members of the presidential administration alike have branded the constitution of a single political force has exacerbated the rift between Georgian Dream on the one hand and the rest of the political spectrum on the other. That antagonism is unlikely to abate, given Georgian Dream’s whopping parliament majority (115 of the 150 mandates), the resulting limited influence of the opposition, and widespread public indifference to the entire political process.

After the Georgian Dream majority passed the draft amendments in the third and final reading on September 26, Kobakhidze invited President Margvelashvili to veto just two of its provisions that Georgian Dream had already agreed, at the urging of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of legal experts, to alter. The first entailed making an exception for the parliamentary elections due in October 2020 to the proposed ban on the formation of election blocs and lowering the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system from 5 to 3 percent of the vote. The second entailed abolishing the “bonus” system whereby the mandates left undistributed as a result of votes cast for parties that fail to garner the required minimum to qualify for representation in the new legislature are automatically given to the winning party.

Kobakhidze explained that if the president vetoed those two provisions, the parliament could amend the draft, thereby avoiding the need for a new legislative initiative.

On October 4, Margvelashvili met with representatives of the Georgian Dream parliament faction to discuss that option. The news portal InterPressNews.ge quoted faction leader Archil Talakvadze and faction chairman Mamuka Mdinaradze as telling journalists after the meeting, which Margvelashvili’s parliamentary secretary Ana Dolidze had described as “constructive and businesslike,” that the two sides reached agreement that the two additional changes should be reflected in the revised constitution, but that Margvelashvili had not come to a definitive decision.

Margvelashvili then met the following day with representatives of the 20 opposition parties that had participated last month in drafting an alternative set of constitutional amendments. In addition to preserving the possibility of forming electoral blocs and lowering the barrier for parliamentary representation from 5 to 3 percent, those proposed alternative changes included switching to the fully proportional system prior to the 2020 parliamentary elections; preserving indefinitely direct presidential elections (which Georgian Dream advocated abolishing after the 2018 ballot); and preserving the National Security Council, which is chaired by the president.

In the course of the October 5 deliberations, the opposition revised and reduced its alternative demands to four; in addition to the two changes proposed by Georgian Dream, it insisted that the 2020 elections be held under the fully proportional system and that the Georgian president should be elected by the parliament only after the parliament becomes bicameral. The existing constitution stipulates that the parliament will become bicameral only after Georgia regains full control over its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Explaining the rationale for those demands, Nika Rurua of the former ruling United National Movement said “the issues that the ruling party proposed [as a basis] for imposing a veto are secondary and constitute only a fraction of our demands. The most important thing...is that the people should have the right to decide their own destiny, including electing the president.”

Margvelashvili's office announced late on October 5 that he would veto the amendments, citing those four points. It said Georgian Dream’s willingness to revise the draft to meet those four demands would constitute consensus and demonstrate that the amended constitution is not simply “a one-party document.”

Kobakhidze, who has repeatedly crossed swords with Margvelashvili over the past nine months, denounced that decision, saying that the president “has squandered the opportunity to play a constructive role for once in the process of adopting the amendments” and that “the president and the opposition did everything to prevent reaching a consensus.” He also claimed that the Venice Commission, which on October 6 released its final assessment of the proposed changes, regretted Margvelashvili’s position.

Mdinaradze for his part warned that “we shall take note of the veto in the event that the issues agreed with the Venice Commission are reflected in it. That is, the two issues on which a universal consensus has been reached. But if other points, whatever they refer to, are added to these two issues, we shall have to override the president’s veto,” according to InterPressNews.

When Margvelashvili formally announced his veto of the amendments on October 9, however, the reasons he cited went beyond the four points agreed on during his deliberations with the opposition parties four days earlier. According to the website civil.ge, he also proposed that the parliament remove from the list of legitimate reasons for restricting freedom of belief “preventing crime” and “administering justice.” Echoing one of the Venice Commission’s recommendations, he also advocated that a majority, rather than a unanimous vote, should be sufficient in the event that the Constitutional Court is called upon to rule on the constitutionality of election legislation. What he thought could be achieved by making those last-minute demands is not clear.

Even allowing for the bad blood between Margvelashvili and Kobakhidze, the latter’s criticism of Margvelashvili’s actions over the nine-month process of drafting and adopting the amendments is not unfounded. First, Margvelashvili refused to participate in the role of the commission tasked with drafting the amendments because he was not named its co-chairman. Then he protested the proposal to abolish direct presidential elections immediately, whereupon the commission agreed that in 2018, when Margvelashvili is expected to seek a second term, the president will be elected by nationwide vote. And since the passage of the draft amendments in late June in the first and second readings, Margvelashvili has consistently sided with the opposition, calling repeatedly on Georgian Dream to ditch the existing draft and resume the entire process from scratch, while simultaneously offering to convene talks between Georgian Dream and the opposition on reaching consensus. Finally, he waited until the very last minute to float the idea of postponing the transition to the election of the president by parliament until a bicameral parliament has been created.

Analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze has suggested that Margvelashvili may have been motivated primarily by self-interest, specifically the desire to improve his political rating prior to his bid for a second term. He may also have been seeking to demonstrate that even though the president is largely a ceremonial figure and real political power is vested in the prime minister, he still wields considerable political influence. Margvelashvili’s insistence on preserving the National Security Council, which is subordinate to the president and which Georgian Dream proposed abolishing, and his frequent vetoes of legislation, tend to substantiate that hypothesis.

The consensus within Georgian Dream nonetheless appears to be that Margvelashvili went too far in seeking to sabotage the proposed amendments. As Georgian Dream lawmaker Zaza Gabunia was quoted by Caucasian Knot as saying during the October 13 parliament session, “the president should be a neutral arbiter, and not the leader of the opposition.”

All this is not to say that Georgian Dream was not also single-mindedly pursuing its own agenda, albeit with arguably greater finesse (as reflected in the timing of its proposed last-ditch concessions in September over allowing electoral blocs in 2020 and abolishing the unfair “bonus” system) to push through amendments that, as Caucasus scholar Tom de Waal has argued, “all have analogies in EU countries and are [thus] hard to object to” but which “seen as a whole, and combined with Georgia’s lack of progress on judicial reform, look like an effort to weaken checks and balances and cement Georgian Dream’s one-party domination for years to come.” Certainly that is how the opposition perceives the entire process.

In an extended interview with InterPressNews, psychologist Nodar Sardjveladze highlighted one relevant factor that has blighted the political process in Georgia for years, namely the fact that “in Georgia , taking one’s opponent’s opinion into consideration is considered a sign of weakness." Consequently, Sardjveladze continues, “the same brutal and primitive political reality exists in Georgia today as in the 17th and 18th centuries,” when the various Georgian kings and princes spent more time and resources undermining and fighting each other than on seeking to stave off the common enemy. That continued focus on party rather than national interests does not bode well for the future.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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.

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