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Campaign Beat: March 18-29

The campaign for the 2024 elections, slated in October, is in full swing. The ruling party is trying to retain its majority for the fourth consecutive legislature term. At the same time, the fragmented opposition is trying to get its act together to loosen the Georgian Dream’s grip on power.

Starting today, the Daily Beat users will also receive the Election Brief every second Tuesday. We will focus on systemic issues that affect the election environment, the campaign hot-button issues, and curious news and incidents from the campaign trail.

The following covers election-related updates spanning March 18-29

Election environment

Changes in the Central Election Commission:  The parliamentary majority overrode the President’s veto and adopted the amendments to the Electoral Code of Georgia. The power to announce the competition and to nominate the Central Election Commission (CEC) chair passes from the President to the Speaker of the Parliament. Abolished is the position of the deputy chair of CEC, which was to be filled by the opposition representative. Majority Leader Mamuka Mdinaradze, PM Irakli Kobakhidze, and other GD leaders spun a conspiracy theory that the opposition (specifically, the Lelo party of Mamuka Khazaradze was mentioned) was planning to incapacitate the CEC chair and thus install the deputy at the key post ahead of the elections. GD leaders say the amendments fulfill one of the nine conditions of the European Commission, which is to ensure free and fair elections. Election wonks (and the President) cry foul.

Gov’t Ignores Calls to Expand Voting Abroad: On March 22, Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili downplayed the need to expand the availability of voting stations abroad. He said Georgian citizens should register at the Consulates and vote in the available stations, as per current procedure. Girchi-More Freedom and Droa parties have been running a “Ballot in your box” campaign calling on opening the stations in foreign localities where there are at least 50 Georgian citizens. President Salome Zurabishvili and many CSOs are endorsing this idea. President Zurabishvili lambasted FM Darchiashvili, saying he “shrugs off the responsibility” to facilitate the right to vote. GD lost to the opposition in most Western European polling locations in 2020. Between 800,000 and 1 million Georgians live abroad, according to various estimates.

Hot topics

GD campaigns on homophobia… Having spent the past month creating a polarizing media buzz, the Georgian Dream announced the legislative package “On Protection of Family Values and Minors” on March 25. GD Majority Leader Mamuka Mdinaradze said laws would require a change of the Constitution, in a tacit acknowledgment of the civil society and opposition’s assertion that these curbs to the rights of the citizens were unconstitutional. The Georgian Dream falls short of the majority required to adopt the Constitutional Law (it needs 113 MPs) but should be able to pass the draft in the first reading with a 2/3 majority (100 MPs). The next parliament would have to approve the draft with a similar 2/3 majority to make it into law. The mobilizing message for GD’s ultra-conservative base is clear – come out in numbers to vote for us, and we’ll get you rid of the “Gay Propaganda.” The delayed adoption may also serve to soften the international criticism, which is already incoming – the CoE Human Rights Commissioner did not mince her words, saying the draft is “the political manipulation of LGBTI-phobia in the run-up to elections.”

…leaving opponents guessing: Despite the GD announcement, the full text of the draft laws has not yet been made public. Seeing the ruling party’s obvious intent to manipulate the homophobic agenda, and also apparently fearing being painted as “pro-gay” and “against the protection of children,” the opposition parties are largely refraining from commenting before the text of the draft law becomes public. Their common line is to say GD is accenting homophobia to divert attention from other pressing issues, including the ones that directly affect children.

Campaign Trail

Cajoling the Church: On March 19, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze boosted the funding for the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) Patriarchate from GEL 35 million to GEL 65 million for 2024. The increase is to serve education and conservation works. PM Kobakhidze maintained this “has nothing to do with the upcoming elections.” Yet, the parties often look for the GOC favor, the country’s second most trusted institution (after the Army), ahead of elections.

GD Chair in Provinces: GD Chair Irakli Garibashvili has been touring regions of Georgia since March and has already met activists and locals in Ozurgeti (Guria), Zugdidi (Samegrelo), and Adjara. Garibashvili tells Georgians his party needs the Constitutional majority to keep the country at peace (pushing the “second front” narrative) and to prevent the corruption of children by “gender and gay propaganda.”

Riding on victory? The ruling party leaders tried to ride the wave of excitement as the Georgian national football team qualified for EURO 2024 for the first time in history on March 26. But PM Irakli Kobakhidze and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze were booed by some in the crowd. At the cabinet session the next day the ministers sported the national team’s colors, and PM Kobakhidze promised to decorate the team with state honors.

Keep spinning off: People’s Power, born as a radically anti-Western and anti-European offshoot of the ruling party, officially registered as a political party on March 18. Former GD MP Sozar Subari was elected as its leader. The movement was created in 2022 by GD deputies and initiated the infamous “Foreign Agents” bill (defeated in March 2023 protests) and stood at the origins of the “Gay Propaganda” bill. GD majority leader Mdinaradze congratulated the new party, saying “They are on the same side and share the same views on many issues,” including national values, traditions, peace policy, etc. People’s Power MPs are currently the parts of the majority faction.

#FreeMisha Campaign: The main opposition party, the United National Movement, has ended its nationwide campaign in which party members collected the signatures of an estimated 200,000 Georgian citizens, including electronic signatures from abroad, demanding the release of former Georgian President, UNM founder, Mikheil Saakashvili. On March 25, their procession, which began in the western Georgian city of Tsalenjikha and marched through Zugdidi, Kutaisi, and Gori, culminated in the capital, Tbilisi. The party held a demonstration in front of the presidential palace and handed the signatures to the President, who holds the discretionary power of pardon.

Social face of UNM: Apart from the hot-button issue of Saakashvili’s release, UNM mostly campaigning on socio-economic woes, blaming GD for poverty, rising prices, and galloping emigration. “While people are going in a forced emigration because of increased prices, unemployment, Ivanishvili’s party calls it “going for travel” and considers it an invented [issue]” said Tina Bokuchava; “Our opponent is, on the one hand, the Georgian Dream regime, and on the other hand the problems of the people and the country: poverty, emigration, and rising prices,” said Petre Tsiskarishvili; “Since 2012, more than 800,000 people left the country. Intelligent people are leaving the country to provide for their families,” said Ana Tsitlidze.

Grigoriadis film screening: European Georgia, together with the Liberty Institute, produced a film called “The 12 Judges of Lazare”, the screening of which took place in the run-up of Lazare Grigoriadis’ trial. The film is a courtroom re-enactment of a jury selection and jury trial based on the real case of Grigoriadis. The party hopes it serves to show the advantages of jury trials – one of its campaign promises – as a means to improve the quality of justice.

Welfare promises by Lelo: Under the leadership of Mamuka Khazaradze, Lelo for Georgia holds meetings with the people. During these meetings, as well as on television, party leaders promise “creating 200,000 jobs,” “raising pensions to GEL 1,000,” and “guaranteeing the first paid job for graduates. One such public meeting in recent weeks was held on March 24. On March 21, the party opened a new office in the city of Gori.

Competing for Student Votes: At a meeting with students on March 19, Lelo for Georgia informed students about the initiative to guarantee jobs after graduation. At the same time, PM Kobakhidze, together with Minister of Education Giorgi Amilakhvari, announced on March 23 plans to launch a paid internship program for graduates starting in September. PM Kobakhidze has already spoken to students about this plan in two separate meetings in Tbilisi and regional universities.

Get-together in the middle? Aleko Elisashvili, leader of the Citizens’ Party, which has two seats in Parliament, has proposed to join forces with parties and independent actors that he considers to be “in the middle,” i.e., not close to or affiliated with either GD or UNM. He specifically mentioned Lelo for Georgia, Girchi (not to be confused with Girchi-More Freedom…), Gakharia for Georgia, and Ana Dolidze’s For People. He also said that talks are currently underway only with Girchi. “If we want change, we have to temporarily put aside the party agendas and think about the common contours. Such in-the-middle forces could get 30-40 percent [of the vote in the elections],” Elisashvili said. 


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