What is happening?
On October 31, Georgia elects the tenth convocation of the Georgian Parliament, which, according to the recently passed changes, will consist of 120 lawmakers elected through proportional-party lists and 30 majoritarian deputies (change from 77/73 ratio), while the election threshold will be fixed at 1% of votes. A party that receives less than 40% of votes will be barred from establishing a single-party government.
Why is it important?
Judging by forecasts so far, Georgian voters may set the first precedent of electing a ruling party for a third consecutive term. Alternatively, Georgia may end up having the first coalition government since regaining the independence from USSR in 1991. Still, even if the ruling Georgian Dream party manages to secure the majority, the new legal context promises more diverse voices in the next parliament. The extent to which COVID-19 pandemic may affect the outcomes, as well as the voting procedure, may also be unprecedented – a recent report by Freedom House has flagged Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary election “as a possible positive example of international engagement in support of necessary electoral preparations.”
What is the general context?
Past eight years under the rule of Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, have been marked by a strict polarity between the GD and the United National Movement, the former ruling party. While Georgians grew tired of their mutually beneficial self-marketing as each-other’s alternatives, the polarized political environment, coupled with tools of influence the two parties have been employing, did not leave much room for long-yearned third forces that could offer viable options to solve embedded social and economic problems – top concerns for Georgian voters.
The pandemic was able to partly swallow up numerous concerns that were supposed to define the agenda of much-expected elections, despite the fact that it has further deteriorated the economic hardship of many Georgians.
Who are the major players?
66 Parties have registered to contest parliamentary seats, and 490 candidates will be running in 30 majoritarian districts.
GD has secured the constitutional majority (2/3 of seats) in the previous elections and proceeded to initiate major constitutional reforms, often in consultation with international partners. However, the party’s reputation suffered a major blow in 2019. This was partly due to its handling of June protests, and partly due to a subsequent failure to deliver on promised electoral system reforms. This cost the party its constitutional majority as some of its senior lawmakers who served as its key interlocutors with the West, defected.
Support towards GD dipped precariously low in the polls, as the majority of Georgians said the country was moving in the wrong direction. The onset of COVID-19 pandemic helped GD to engineer a surprising comeback – its prompt and dramatic handling of the first wave of crisis in spring 2020 left Georgia largely unscathed, helping the cabinet shore up support. However, some analysts argue, that the pandemic might yet become GD’s undoing – as the second wave of infections hit, the government looks more hapless. The full impact of this new crisis will only become known after the polls close.
Year 2020 witnessed a surprising ability of the otherwise radically different opposition forces to come together in enabling the March 8 agreement, which paved the way to the eventual electoral reforms. Yet, the campaigning period was marked by multiple rifts among the opposition parties as well, which was exacerbated by the decision of UNM to name divisive ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili as its prime ministerial hopeful.
Apart from UNM, the largest and strongest opposition force to date, three other parties led by former UNM-members – the European Georgia, Giorgi Vashadze – Strategy Agmashenebeli, and Girchi, are also expected to secure parliamentary seats.
Lelo for Georgia, a newly emerged center-right party led by banker-turned-politician Mamuka Khazaradze, is also likely to squeeze into the parliament.
Other parties with prospects of passing the 1% threshold include Shalva Natelashvili’s Labor party, Aleko Elisashvili’s Citizens, and two Russia-friendly forces: nativist Alliance of Patriots and United Georgia, led by former Speaker Nino Burjanadze.
Other nativist and ultra-conservative forces, including Georgian March and Georgian Idea, established themselves as political parties to run in 2020 elections, however, so far their chances seem slim.
What do the opinion polls say?
GD is ahead of the pack in most polls produced by both credible institutions and less reliable, party-affiliated research centers. The key question is “who will govern” rather than “who will win the polls.”
The latest analyses by the Georgian research project Pollster.ge, which calculates a weighted average of openly available survey results, GD’s ratings have been falling since August (53%), landing at as low as 42% by October 28 from 47% earlier in the same month.
The Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think tank, has also fielded its traditional expert polls soliciting responses from 50 local and foreign experts – they see the GD ahead with a proportional share in a range of 39 to 53 percent.
Considering the high rates of undecided voters in surveys (see: IRI, NDI polls), hardly anyone can predict the shape of the post-election government. The distribution of the majoritarian seats is expected to play a decisive role.
Who will be watching?
Although limited in size due to pandemic concerns, international organizations, including OSCE/ODIHR, PACE, and NATO Parliamentary Assembly are sending short- and/or long-term observers to monitor the elections. NDI, a U.S.-based non-profit, will monitor the election remotely, while IRI, another U.S.-non-profit,sent to Tbilisi technical long-term analysts. In larger-scale deployment on the ground, major local CSOs, including International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Transparency International (TI) Georgi, and Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) will be mobilizing thousands of static and mobile observers nationwide on the polling day. ISFED is also going to field the Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), a statistical method aimed at verifying official results.
How is campaigning going?
Considering that a tense campaign environment is nothing new to Georgia, several violent incidents in Southern Georgian municipalities did not make history.
As for the financial resources, the GD topped the party campaign donations. According to TI Georgia, the ruling party has been misusing administrative resources to win over voters, including the enforcement resources by employing prosecution bodies to discredit the UNM through opening investigations into charges nearly amounting to treason (See: Cartographers’ Case).
The Role of Social Media
The role of social media in influencing election outcomes has been becoming more prominent over the past years both in Georgia and globally, and pandemic-induced restrictions only added to its significance. According to social media monitoring reports by ISFED, anonymous pages were used to lead discrediting campaigns against both the ruling party and opposition. However, some of the bad influences may have disappeared since the last elections thanks to the efforts by Facebook and Georgian CSOs to combat coordinated inauthentic behavior linked to political parties, mainly to GD, as well as UNM, and by introducing new programs to fight disinformation.
Any signs of the Kremlin interference?
Although there were reports of Kremlin attempts to interfere with October 31 parliamentary polls, in particular, through alleged aiding of the Alliance of Patriots party, no massive concerns have been raised by election observers in this regard. The challenge, however, remains due to continued smearing and discrediting campaigns led by allegedly pro-Kremlin media outlets, directly or indirectly affecting voters’ value systems.
What to expect?
Even if the GD will again be able to gain the majority of seats to form a government independently, observers believe that a more diverse parliament and more lively democratic processes are likely. This, however, may impede decision-making and passing of essential reforms, some experts fear.
Another possibility is neither of the frontrunners – GD or UNM – will be able to form the governing majority, if the smaller parties refuse their lead.