Boycott: Last Resort As the First Response?

Opposition decision is controversial – but unanimous

The October 31 parliamentary elections were bound to be controversial. After all, they came about after a bitter contest and a painful compromise between the ruling Georgian Dream and the multi-striped opposition camp that united to demand more proportional representation. The respectable polling ahead of the vote suggested that the ruling Georgian Dream would finish ahead of the competition, and most likely be able to form the government. Even so, the ruling party support was in decline as infection rates soared and the shine came off its COVID-champion badge. Still, it came as a bit of a surprise, that all opposition parties that have crossed the low 1% threshold would announce their decision to boycott the new parliament. So what happened, and why?

Results that bite

Most of the opposition’s initial reaction – as it often happens in Georgian politics – was that of a knee-jerk irritation. This was fueled by highly partisan exit polls, which offered wildly diverging results. While all showed the ruling party in the lead, the two TV stations – pro-ruling party Imedi TV, and Rustavi 2 TV – exhibited the results that crossed the symbolic 50% barrier, while a more balanced count by pro-opposition Formula TV went to 46% and another pro-opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV went as low as 41%. This divergence allowed all sides to claim victory. The controversy was further fueled by the Central Election Commission (CEC) starting its election results dashboard – after a 7-hour delay – at an arbitrary point in a vote-counting that corresponded almost exactly to the pro-governmental exit polls. Even though the preliminary final figures have stabilized at the GD polling 48.2% and the biggest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) – 27.15%, it did not help dispel the feeling that something fishy was going on at CEC.

This was corroborated by the observer reports. Most importantly, the parallel vote tabulation (PVT) conducted by the respected and veteran watchdog, ISFED pointed to a possible 4% discrepancy with CEC results, increasing the share of votes received by the ruling party. David Sichinava, an experienced pollster from CRRC, ran the statistical data and showed that the divergence of more than 3 percentage points was recorded only twice – in invalidated 2003 elections that led to the Rose Revolution and in 2008 presidential elections, which were widely considered highly suboptimal. ISFED also reported that the final tallies did not add up in 8% of the summary protocols of the precinct commissions.

ISFED officers tell us, that it is difficult to assess without a full recount to what extent these wrong tallies would affect the result, but their very existence is an indication of a foul play, which needs to be properly studied.

“In such elections, when the fate of the ruling party hangs in balance,” tells us Zurab Tchiaberashili, of European Georgia one of the opposition groups, and incidentally a former head of ISFED-turned CEC chair in the early 2000s, “not only 4%, but 3, 2, or 1 percentage points acquire decisive significance.”  

Watchdog reports, including the international observation mission, pointed at other violations, including voter intimidation, violations of the secrecy of the vote, blurring of the lines between the ruling party and the state administration – usual ills of the Georgian election process. The non-governmental watchdogs also pointed out a more unusual rate of intimidation of observers and of the media representatives, especially in some precincts. The international reactions were those of worry, but nearly all pointed out that the reported problems seemed insufficient for invalidating the results.

Leap of faith

Of course, when the opposition refers to their “victory,” they do not challenge the fact that the Georgian Dream came first in the polls. The key matter at hand is the ability of the Georgian Dream to form the government on its own. Since all opposition parties have pledged to refrain from the coalition and to mutually support their candidates in Tbilisi’s 8 majoritarian districts, they hoped for GD falling short of 76 mandates required for the majority in the 150-member parliament. Indeed, all of 8 Tbilisi mandates went into a runoff, according to preliminary results.

However, the vote showed two other important results. First, the ruling party’s 48%, together with the majoritarian seats they already won in provincial districts gets them 75 votes, just one short of the majority. It is highly unlikely, that GD would lose all Tbilisi seats and 8 other countryside runoffs. Second, the opposition vote went overwhelmingly towards the United National Movement (UNM) – 27.1%, according to CEC preliminaries. Middle-way parties between these two arch-rivals, have both lost and fragmented the vote. The European Georgia emerged as a major loser, bleeding almost half of its electorate from the previous polls. This put more radically inclined UNM firmly in the driving seat of the opposition.

Pro and contra

The debate on whether to take up the seats, or to boycott outright was prevalent on Georgia’s social media. Most of the opposition was inclined towards the boycott.

Tchiaberashvili encapsulates their position: “when the government has primed the electoral mechanism in a way that it is not geared towards registering the will of the people, but towards assuring the ruling party remains [in power], we see no point of participating in the runoffs. Since we saw that the foundation of the process built in the first round is illegitimate, we consider it impossible to even participate in the second rounds – this would give legitimacy to a process, where the will of the Georgian people is not being registered.”

Most of the analysts and some of the former politicians strongly disagreed, expressing their opinion on social media. Korneli Kakachia, who heads the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP) said the decision to boycott was emotional, rather than pursuing a clear political objective. “It is important [that the opposition] respect the votes of their supporters. It would have been better to enter the parliament and complicate life to the ruling party from their seats.” It has been a long time since 9 opposition parties sat in the Georgian parliament, and this would have been an achievement on its own, he argued. Political analyst Ghia Khukhashvili agrees: “opposition could have triggered the political crisis while being in the parliament. Having 40% of experienced political leaders [in the opposition] versus the majority formed by silent political novices [of the Georgian Dream] would have laid bare the absurdity of the situation,” he argues.

Ghia Nodia, respected scholar and formerly the education minister under UNM administration, also said the boycott won’t damage the formal legitimacy of a single-party Parliament “of course the political legitimacy would suffer, but in whose eyes?” he asks “if we mean the international community, oppositions’ prestige would suffer more than that of the ruling party. If we mean the Georgian voters, those who would support the boycott did not believe in the legitimacy of the Georgian Dream’s rule anyway, while those who were undecided would find the opposition’s actions excessively radical.”

But the opposing side had its own arguments. Thornike Gordadze, the former deputy foreign minister for European integration says he supported the decision of the opposition to enter the parliament despite violations in 2016, but now thinks the boycott is the correct way to go. “Opposition now has popular support and support of all those people who society respects,” he argued in his Facebook post, “and the international community is not going to give ‘carte blanche’ to the Georgian Dream any more”. Gordadze says the unity of the opposition is what matters, but the important work is ahead to convince its own voters and also those who bent under intimidation from the ruling party, that there exists a political alternative.

Shota Digmelashvili was one of the key speakers of the “Shame” youth movement that helped muscle in the electoral reforms. He captures the mood of many of those who fought for legislative changes and are now feeling deceived by the failure to produce more balanced political system. “Personally I think, without claiming it to be absolute truth, that boycott should have been the last resort, when all other measures would have been tried, but still, I support the unity of the opposition in following this path,” says Digmelashvili. He thinks it is obvious that the united opposition would achieve more, than the fragmented one. “So, in this particular case the crucial matter is not which path the opposition chose, but that they decided to walk this path together.”

No endgame in sight

While the opposition has now committed itself to the boycott, the watchdogs are busy filing appeals to correct the evident mistakes in tallies. This work might throw up more data to justify the opposition’s stance – or embolden those who consider the opposition’s actions hasty.

Whatever the outcome, it is obvious that Georgia’s opposition leaders have jumped off the ledge without a specific enough objective and without a path to get there. At least, optimists say, they did it together.

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