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Campaign Beat: March 30-April 15

The Georgian Dream is using the re-submission of a highly controversial foreign agents’ law and its accompanying anti-Western and anti-liberal rhetoric as the key driver of its campaign. This matter, imposed by GD for no apparent ground, polarizes a large portion of politically active citizens and saps oxygen from healthy debate on campaign topics.

The following covers election-related updates spanning March 30-April 15.

Campaign Context

Russian Law is Back: On April 3, Georgian Dream Parliamentary majority leader Mamuka Mdinaradze announced that his party would reintroduce the infamous Foreign Agents Law with an edited title but with precisely the same content as in 2023. Despite repeated promises not to re-introduce the law after it was withdrawn in the face of massive public outcry, GD put it back on the agenda and is determined to ram it through despite international and domestic backlash. Georgia’s international partners, including the EU and the US, are strongly advising against it, hinting at the impact on the EU candidacy. Opponents marched on April 10 and held a large protest rally on April 15. The Parliament’s Legal Issues Committee green-lighted the draft, which the Parliament will consider on April 16.

President Clarifies Her Stand: In a break from her balanced position, on April 12, President Salome Zurabishvili told the journalist from the opposition-leaning TV Pirveli, that the Georgian Dream “is a Russian Dream.” Her disdain is caused by the foreign agents’ law but also by what she sees as a consistent drift of the ruling party away from the European path. President Zurabishvili said the 2024 elections will be “a referendum on Europe.” She slammed the government’s resistance to facilitating the vote of many Georgians who live abroad, especially in Europe. The President believes a coalition government should be formed after the elections with a “technical” focus only on implementing reforms for launching the EU membership negotiations, and the political parties should commit to holding another election a year later. In the same interview, President Zurabishvili said she would pardon Lazare Gregoriadisi, a youth accused of throwing an incendiary bomb at the police during the March 2023 protests, whom the court just sentenced to 9 years in prison. Gregoriadis’ case, reportedly full of procedural and legal holes, was seen by the opponents as a political retribution by the government. Zurabishvili’s term in office expires in December 2024.

Election Environment

Russian Law Overshadows CEC Selections: The ruling Georgian Dream party began interviews in Parliament with candidates for the Chair and members of the Central Election Commission and eventually chose those to be presented to be the Speaker of the Parliament. Two representatives of civil society organizations working in the selection commission walked out to protest the reintroduction of Russian law. The President’s representative working in the same selection commission joined them in open solidarity.

Resurrecting Quasi-Majoritarianism or Ensuring Responsiveness?: On April 3, Georgia’s Parliament adopted the amendment to the electoral code in the first hearing, abolishing the 40% threshold for electing deputies to the local councils (Sakrebulos) and introducing a concept of “a delegate” for the parliamentary elections. This means that no second rounds in the Sakrebulo elections will be needed, and the one with a simple majority of votes will prevail. Also, the parties would pre-select future MPs from local government. The proposed amendments have triggered concerns that the ruling party is clinging to the vestiges of the majoritarian system, an important base source of political patronage in the parliament, as a ploy to re-tweak the new, fully proportional election system to its advantage.

GD Eliminates Quotas for Women: On April 4, Parliament abolished the mandatory women’s quota for political party lists that had been in effect since 2020, which had significantly increased women’s representation, through a proportional system, in local councils (Sakrebulos) as well as in Parliament, bringing the number of women in the national legislature to 27 (out of 150). The abolition followed an agreement between the Parliamentary opposition Girchi and the ruling Georgian Dream. According to the deal, in exchange, Girchi will vote for the government’s candidate for the Central Election Commission Chair. Among others, abolition has been condemned by CSOs, public defenders, and the UN.

Other topical issues

Misogyny in Parliament: On April 4, opposition Lelo MP Salome Samadashvili demanded that her colleagues from the Parliamentary opposition Girchi party, Vakhtang Megrelishvili, and the ruling Georgian Dream MP Beka Odisharia be drug tested after they used misogynist language against the female colleagues during the deliberations in the parliament.

Ensuring Monopoly of Anti-Liberal Narrative? Almost three years after registering the pro-Russian, anti-liberal “Conservative Movement/Alt-info” as a political party, the National Agency of Public Registry of Georgia (NAPR) canceled the registration on a legal technicality, officially alerted by “an informer.” Ironically, a few days before the NAPR’s decision, Alt-Info’s notorious leader, Konstantin Morgoshia broke the news that his party would be on the ballot. Despite their disapproval of Alt-Info ideology and its activities, many watchdogs sounded the alarm that the party’s outright cancellation set a dangerous precedent.

Polls Mania: Pro-government Imedi TV broadcast the pre-election poll prepared by the Georgian Opinion Research Business International (GORBI). According to the poll advertised by Imedi TV, if the Parliamentary elections were held this week, the ruling Georgian Dream would get more than 60 percent of the votes, according to the allocation. GD is followed by the United National Movement with almost 13 percent, Lelo at 4.7 percent, European Georgia – at 4.5 percent, Girchi-More Freedom at 3 percent, etc. Many in Georgia found it hard to take the poll seriously; the same can be said about the one commissioned by the opposition Mtavari TV…

…and Alternative Poll: In its turn, the opposition Mtavari TV commissioned its own polls, according to which, if parliamentary elections were held today, 31.4 percent of respondents would vote for the ruling GD, followed by the opposition UNM with 9.6 percent. The For Georgia party is in fourth place with 3.3 percent, while the Lelo for Georgia party has 3.0 percent. Notably, the Ahali political alliance (co-founded and co-led by Mtavari TV founder Nika Gvaramia) came in third with 9.1 percent.

Campaign Trail

Make GD Transparent: Part of the parliamentary opposition including MPs from the political group Citizens, UNM, and MPs Tamar Kordzaia, Tamar Charkviani and Teona Akubardia called for the establishment of an investigative committee to examine the property of former Prime Minister and current GD Chairman Irakli Garibashvili. The opposition MPs said they had collected enough signatures to raise the issue in parliament. The former prime minister has been the subject of several investigations into his and his family’s alleged corruption.

UNM’s Tsalenjikha Showcase: On Autism Day, the United National Movement (UNM) unveiled a children’s rehabilitation center in Tsalenjikha in western Georgia. According to the UNM, the initiative was spearheaded by the municipality’s City Hall, led by Georgia’s sole opposition Mayor from the UNM, which allocated GEL 200,000 (approx. USD 74 600) from the town’s budget to establish this facility, serving 15 children.

Fingerpointing: Right after sentencing Lazare Grigoriadis to nine years in prison, his judge and the prosecutor were added to the website (Mona – მონა – is a Georgian word for “slave”), which is a joint project by the political parties Girchi – More Freedom and Droa, along with other opposition political parties, media, and CSOs. It aims to publicly identify individuals who serve the “system of the Russian governance established in Georgia today” and support it, as the founders state through participating in illegal surveillance, buying votes, putting pressure on citizens to organize votes, giving false testimony in court persecuting political opponents of the government, arrests, beating, or detaining peaceful demonstrators, waging an anti-Western campaign, etc.

An Alternative bill: The opposition party For Georgia and MP Teona Akubardia introduced a bill, “On Protection from the Influence of the Occupying Country – the Russian Federation,” to counter the draft law on foreign agents. The alternative targets Russia and those countries which do not respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. In a clear disapproval, MP Anri Okhanashvili (Georgian Dream), who chairs the Legal Issues committee, responded that the initiators were “hypocrites” and that the bill was “not serious.”

PM Overflows with Promises: On April 8, Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Kobakhidze announced at the Government session that all natural persons, including individual entrepreneurs, will have their recognized unpaid tax debts incurred before January 1, 2021, including penalty taxes, fully written off. His other promises include a controversial plan to build a new airport in Vaziani, a key venue for NATO-Georgia cooperation and the site of the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC)-a flagship of the NATO-Georgia Substantial Package, a key framework for practical cooperation between Georgia and NATO and a mechanism for integration into NATO.

Lelo Targets Drugs: The Act on the Protection of Youth from Drugs, presented by the opposition Lelo party on April 10, outlines a bold strategy: 1) Launching an ‘uncompromised fight’ against drug traders, producers, dealers, and distributors, and holding authorities, including police officers and judges, accountable for any facilitation of drug-related crimes; 2) Tightening control over drug use within the representatives of the government agencies; and 3) Shifting focus from punishing drug addicts to leniency and rehabilitation efforts, decriminalizing the drug use. Lelo attributes the alleged surge in drug influx to an “uncontrolled” Russian influx.

For Georgia tours Samegrelo: On March 29-31, opposition For Georgia leader Giorgi Gakharia toured the Samegrelo region of Georgia, meeting with people in Jgali, Kirtskhi, Khabume, Zugdidi, Senaki. “We, our team, will fight so that corruption and injustice do not exist in this country…” For Georgia leader, Gakharia told people.

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