Wednesday

27th Oct 2021

Opinion

Georgia's 'rigged' elections? Takeaways for the EU

  • An unstable and fragmented party system once again proved to be a critical obstacle for Georgia's democratic development and its path toward integration with the EU (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

A tale of two Georgias. Yes, Joe Biden keeps Georgia, as the recount has shown (although Donald Trump asked for a new recount.) But the US state remains crucial, given the runoffs for the Senate early next year.

In the meantime, parliamentary elections took place last month and this, in the other Georgia - the one that borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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The second round in this Caucasus country took place last Saturday (21 November). The winners are known, yet the country remains in a deep political crisis.

The opposition cried foul over the first round, held on 31 October, refused to participate in the second round and boycotted the parliament – an infamous trend that is known from the Western Balkans.

The parliamentary elections that took place amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic sparked hopes among Georgia's western allies that the electoral deal reached with the help of US and EU officials, could pacify the deeply-polarised political actors.

But actually the opposite happened.

According to the agreement, out of 150 seats, 120 are distributed via a proportional system, and 30 MPs via a majoritarian system with an electoral threshold of only one percent.

In the previous system, 77 MPs were elected proportionally and 73 through majoritarian electoral constituencies.

The opposition hoped that limiting the majoritarian component would increase their chances of success, as usually the majoritarian districts are won by pro-government candidates using their political resources.

Despite these changes, the ruling party Georgian Dream (GD) emerged victorious with 48.22 percent, while the main opposition party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili received 27.18 percent, followed by other parties with smaller vote shares.

The GD candidates were outright winners in 13 single-mandated constituencies.

Amid a boycott by the opposition runoffs were organised for the remaining 17 districts, that were also won by GD.

In total GD secured 91 seats in the parliament - that is 24 less compared to previous elections, but the party has still a comfortable majority for a stable one party-government.

After the first round, the political battle was also fought in the streets of Tbilisi.

On 8-9 November, hundreds of demonstrators protested against the election results, but the police dispersed them by using water cannons.

The opposition continued its hard line, calls the elections heavily-rigged and demanded early elections, otherwise they would refuse to enter the parliament. Which they eventually did.

Yet, the evaluation of the parliamentary elections in Georgia by international observers is somehow different.

The OSCE declared that despite a number of irregularities, the elections were competitive and the fundamental freedoms were respected.

This was in a sharp contrast to the opposition claims, who further questioned the integrity of some international observers.

At the same time, domestic and international observers like the National Democratic Institute and the US Embassy listed multiple violations and called upon the Central Election Commission to immediately address these claims.

'Too many parties, yet little choice'

In any case, these elections revealed the structural weaknesses of the Georgian political system.

First, it showed a paradox of the political landscape: too many parties, yet with little choice.

The voters were offered to choose among 60 parties, while only nine parties passed the historically low one-percent threshold.

While it is easy to guess the irrelevance of the rest of the parties, one should not easily conclude these nine parties offer the best representation of the people's will.

The political elite remains resistant to new faces, which further adds to voters' disengagement and frustration with political life.

In the second round, only 27 percent of voters went to the polls, following the boycott of the opposition parties.

Second, the political cleavage is still between personalities, while the programmatic differences remain modest.

Third and consequently, the elections unpacked the deep-rooted antagonism of the main political actors, which is a dangerous feature preventing parties from seeking any type of consensus.

While post-election events are still ongoing and might unfold in different directions, at least for the EU three takeaways can already be identified.

EU takeaways?

First, the EU should be aware of the tacit signs of the opposition's distancing from the West, because they disagree with the EU's assessment about the election results. While the EU should not turn a blind eye on the irregularities and support the democratic political process, it should maintain its principle approach and avoid politicisation. To do so, it should make its engagement more bottom-up and include an enhanced spectrum of actors, such as independent media, civil society and citizens groups.

Second, an unstable and fragmented party system once again proved to be a critical obstacle for Georgia's democratic development and its path toward integration with the EU. The EU should more strongly include in its conditionality the transparency of the electoral process and put an emphasis on the support of the political system by majority and opposition parties.

Third, in view of Georgia's EU-enthusiasm (82 percent of the population is in favour of EU integration), the EU should be careful not to fall in the 'rhetorical trap' and promise too much that could inspire politicians to make bold promises. For example, some senior politicians from the ruling party even declared that they would apply for EU membership. Instead, the EU should find a new realistic benchmark for Georgia's gradual integration in the EU.

Though this young pro-EU country has achieved much in the last 30 years, the polarisation of the political forces, as clearly shown by the recent parliamentary elections, is leading to dilute efforts to address the real challenges this country is facing.

Without addressing these deep rooted problems, Georgia's genuine democratic transformation risks a steep uphill battle, without guarantee of success.

Author bio

Teona Lavrelashvili and Steven Van Hecke of the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute are project manager coordinator respectively of the European Party Monitor.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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