Explainer | Georgia’s 2021 Locals – Why They Matter

The October 2 local self-government elections in Georgia have more attention than earlier municipal-level polls. Georgians will be casting ballots to elect mayors and municipal council (Sakrebulo) candidates through proportional and majoritarian votes. The elections, however, are partly a continuation of the 2020 parliamentary elections, which quickly escalated into a major months-long government crisis when opposition parties went to boycott the results, suspecting vote fraud.

As the disagreement, both locally and internationally, over the legitimacy of the election outcomes never subsided, the EU-brokered agreement introduced a clause for early elections as a solution: by signing the April 19 deal between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition aimed to end the political crisis, Georgian Dream took a commitment to hold early parliamentary elections in 2022 if it scored under 43% in 2021 locals.

On July 28, GD unilaterally quit the April 19 deal, however, making clear that it abandoned the commitment for early elections. The GD officials assure the public that the next elections will be held in 2024, whatever the outcome of the October 2 polls. The opposition, however, still considers October 2 as an informal referendum: in fact, the United National Movement, the main rival of the GD, refuses to refer to the upcoming polls by any other name than “the referendum.”

What is New?

Partly pursuant to the EU-brokered deal, the parliament voted several changes to the country’s election legislation, bringing new rules to the election system, pre-election campaigning, and staffing of the Election Administrations.

The amended Election Code has significantly increased the share of proportionally elected candidates in Sakrebulos, which had been defined individually for each district (like the change for 40 elected proportionally and 10 as majoritarians in Tbilisi Sakrebulo from 25/25 ratio), and lowered the party threshold in the proportional vote to 2,5% in Tbilisi and 3% in remaining municipalities across Georgia. The amendments also introduced additional safeguards against misconduct near the polling stations and employed new technologies for more accurate documentation of the vote count process.

The Central Election Commission has a new head: Giorgi Kalandarishvili was elected by the Parliament, but only for six months term after the ruling party and the opposition failed to reach a consensus over the candidate. The selection process was controversial, with some CSOs questioning their overall legitimacy.

Parties & Candidates

The key novelty among more than 40 parties registered for the upcoming elections is For Georgia, a months-old party founded by former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, which is expected to take both the ruling party and opposition votes. Gakharia’s party, which attracted both former government figures and civil servants as well as some fresh faces, has been vilified by both the UNM and GD, the two arch-rivals, as covertly serving their opponent’s interests. The ex-PM has refrained from tackling GD’s wrongdoings from his office tenure but has been busy deflecting and countering the avalanche of accusations and pressure from the ruling party throughout the campaign.

The rest of the opposition camp is largely the same, with some rearrangements: Strategy Agmashenebeli joined forces with smaller party personalities, turning itself into a Third Force. From the colorful fringe, the Girchi party has split into two: Zurab Japaridze, the former leader who fell out with his erstwhile pals, formed “Girchi – More Freedom”, which teamed up in Tbilisi and some other constituencies with UNM, European Georgia, and the fresh Droa! party (led by Elene Khoshtaria) to name joint opposition candidates.

Lelo for Georgia party, on the other hand, decided to largely go it alone, naming its own candidates in Tbilisi, and so did the Labor Party.

This year, ultra-conservative and nativist parties make less noise, partly after Levan Vasadze, a key conservative figure, largely withdrew from the public eye citing health issues, and partly because the ruling GD has veered strongly into their usual territory.

Main Battlefield: Tbilisi Mayoral Race

In terms of mayors, the Georgian capital will host the tensest race of the October 2 elections, with more than two mayoral candidates projected to end up with double-digit vote shares. The frontrunners are incumbent Mayor Kakha Kaladze, the ruling party candidate, who enjoys stable, high approval ratings, and the UNM Chair Nika Melia, endorsed by four opposition parties. Giorgi Gakharia’s candidacy was a late wildcard, turning the campaign into a three-way race, in which he may end up the kingmaker. Other candidates, such as For People’s Anna Dolidze, as well as mayoral picks of Third Force and Lelo for Georgia, may also take a share of votes in the capital, where the political offer is more diverse than in the provinces.

Pre-Election Context

Several major controversies precede – and are likely to influence – the municipal elections. The July 5 anti-Pride violence leaving dozens of media workers injured, coupled with anti-Pride and media-hostile statements on part of the ruling party, brought the Georgian Dream government under fire from the liberal circles and from abroad. But the same developments, however, may also help the GD attract conservative voters. The subsequent attacks on journalists, including from the ruling party figures, may further impact reporting during the elections.

The regular explosion of surveillance files or illegal recordings is an integral part of the Georgian campaign, and these elections were no exception. The biggest blow so far affecting the campaign is the leak of allegedly thousands of files of the State Security Service of Georgia, containing surveillance records on clergy, media, politicians, diplomats, and others. Responding largely with confusion, the government did not deny the authenticity of these materials outright but has been pointing an accusatory finger to the opposition, including the UNM and Gakharia’s team. As media outlets are sifting to the trove of the files, further controversial revelations may surface.

According to the August 2 IRI opinion poll, 67% said their vote will be influenced by proposed economic policy, followed by position on healthcare and social security with 48% (respondents could choose 2 answers). Both economy and healthcare have been in the spotlight since summer: while authorities continuously pointed at the blooming economy, citing rapid economic growth and increased salaries, the opponents and critics said it happened at the cost of human lives: the government refrained from repeated strict lockdown measures, and saw a major healthcare crisis with thousands in daily cases, dozens in daily deaths and paralyzed emergency services. As the pandemic is still raging, the cases started going down in September.

It is another question to what extent individual citizens were able to feel the economic revival: in two summer months, the country reported decade-high annual inflation rates, hitting 12,8% in August.

Campaigning, Opinion Polling

While most campaign promises of the parties address municipal issues ahead of these elections, several key trends could be observed: the ruling party was ahead of its rivals in starting active campaigning, with top government officials touring regions and giving speeches. While the continuous emphasis on the tourist potential of any place they went to has been widely ridiculed, recalling past sins of the UNM-linked opposition again remains an important part of campaign addresses. Similarly, the key campaign message of the opposition remains to achieve early elections through a “referendum.” Lelo, a smaller party, is additionally articulating the need to switch to a coalition government to reduce polarization.

A darker part of the campaign is usual reports about the misuse of administrative resources as well as alleged pressure and intimidation of government opponents. Observers have identified Gakharia’s For Georgia as the main target of such pressure, largely through dismissals of the former GD loyalists who jumped ship. The drug-test controversy, when Mayor Kaladze’s called on rivals to undergo a clinical examination to prove they were drug-free and thus “popularize healthy lifestyle” gradually turned into framing Gakharia as a drug user. The ex-PM refused to test in Georgia citing the government plot to rig the result, and flew to Vienna instead to get tested.

In the party ratings for the municipal elections, according to the August 2 IRI poll, the Georgian Dream leads by 28%, followed the UNM-led bloc with 15%, and Gakharia’s For Georgia with 9% of votes. Up to 28% of respondents, however, did not know their preferences or refused to name any party, so the thrill remains.

Who’s Observing?

Due to its particular political importance, the 2021 local elections will attract more attention from both international and local observation watchdogs than any other municipal polls. OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) will be deploying the largest international mission with over 40 experts and long-term observers as well as 350 short-term monitors. Locally, usual election watchdogs such as International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Transparency International Georgia, and Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association are running large-scale missions.

The Georgian watchdogs, however, are expected to be under increased scrutiny from the party in power over last year’s Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) controversy, when a calculation error in the major statistical method to verify the official results added to the post-election disagreements. The international missions will not have it easy either, judging by the past year’s attempts at varying interpretations of their reports, as well as the growing trend among the Georgian political class to mistrust and disregard the expertise of the reputed foreign institutions.

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