By Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili (@TsurtsumiaA )
Election date misunderstanding
Under the constitution, the Georgian Parliament’s 150 members serve four-year terms, with 77 seats set by proportional representation and 73 in single-seat constituencies. Georgia’s constitution calls for the next parliamentary elections to be held in October, with the country’s president setting the exact date no later than two months before voters go to the polls.
In April, six months ahead of elections, in a televised briefing President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili set the upcoming parliamentary election date for October 8. The timing of the announcement has caused another misunderstanding between the president and the major political parties, which received such an early announcement with little enthusiasm. Some political parties noted that such a long pre-electoral campaign favors the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is in control of administrative resources.
President Margvelashvili, however, defended his decision, saying that a lengthy campaigning season will benefit all of the parties who plan to take part. Later, PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili confirmed the date of parliamentary elections as October 8, however he did not confirm the official launch of the election campaign. It appears that the pre-election campaign dates remain subject to further discussions with the Central Election Commission (CEC).
“We cannot afford to pay an extra 7 or 8 million GEL (approximate USD 3.5 million) for such a lengthy pre-election campaign. We are discussing all of the technical and financial issues with the CEC and we will make a decision on when to formally launch the campaign cycle,” noted Kvirikashvili.
The official pre-election campaign for the next parliamentary elections in Georgia was only launched on June 10, 2016, two months after the President’s initial decision, when Giorgi Margvelashvili issued another decree with regards to his constitutional duty.
Although the date was set finally, the electoral environment looks far from being ready for E-day: the ruling Coalition was dissolved and the component parties are expected to run for election independently. Moreover, a number of politicians from the Georgian Dream Party have founded new political organisations for the upcoming elections. In addition to these internal struggles, issues relating to media freedom, a fair electoral environment, and inability to reach the achievement on the new electoral system are the major challenges facing the ruling Georgian Dream group.
Disagreement over the electoral reform
An interparty group was unable to reach a favorable outcome on the major electoral reform with the Georgian government, parliament and the ruling Georgian Dream party. Negotiations lasting for months encompassed changes in the electoral system, the composition of the Central Election Commission, TV advertising during pre-election campaign period, and the ratio of political party representatives in the Central Election Commission. In addition, political parties discussed the possibility of lowering the threshold for representation from 5 to 2 %.
The opposition parties claimed that the ruling coalition (at that time) and the executive government did not demonstrate the political will necessary for implementing major election related changes prior to the next Parliamentary elections.
For its part, Georgian Dream refused to dismiss the majoritarian system for the upcoming elections and expressed its readiness to enact such changes for the parliamentary elections of 2020, but not earlier.
However, it was still able to propose a change in the Electoral Code, according to which 11 electoral subjects will be able to use TV advertising time free of charge. Private TV broadcasters expressed their dissatisfaction towards the amendments that will be financially damaging for the companies.
The dissolved Georgian Dream and the renewed United National Movement
Just before starting the pre-election campaigning the ruling Coalition Georgian Dream was dissolved with its 6 political parties getting ready to participate in the elections independently. The newest of the former coalition member parties, the Georgian Dream Party itself, was founded by the former PM of Georgia, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili resigned as PM in 2014 but remains as the party leader behind the scenes. The 2016 parliamentary elections will be the first time that Georgian Dream will participate as an independent electoral party. Its former partners (Republicans, Conservatives, National Forum, Industrialists, Free Democrats) have more electoral experience but have little hope of clearing the threshold on their own.
On the other hand, the major opposition and the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), has announced the policy of so-called renewal, or new-blood candidates. The UNM has already announced its top 10 candidates, consisting of former high officials and civil servants in charge of foreign policy, Euroatlantic integration and diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the law enforcement agencies are investigating the events of 22nd May, 2016, when the UNM leaders were attacked in the village of Kortskheli during the by-elections. Six men have been charged, without being arrested, in connection to the Kortskheli violence. Lawmakers from UNM party, who are currently boycotting the Parliament over the Kortskheli incident, accuse the energy minister and general secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Kakha Kaladze, of being behind the group.
The incident was highlighted in a statement issued by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its pre-election assessment mission. The report, issued on June 17, called the event “a particularly alarming incident, ” adding that civil society and opposition as well as governing political parties lack confidence that the police, prosecutors, or courts can be relied upon to respond – whether to electoral disputes or physical confrontations – in a timely, impartial, and effective manner.
Visa Liberalisation with Europe
Meantime, citizens of Georgia are expecting the lifting visa requirements with the European Union. Although Brussels positively assessed Georgia’s progress in implementing a Visa Liberalisation Action Plan in December 2015, the EU remains hesitant to take the final decision. The EPP party group president, Joseph Daul, was first to link the outcome of parliamentary elections to the visa liberalization. Civil society organizations in Georgia feared that the topic of visa free movement with Europe would be used for political gain by different political groups and asked Daul to support the European aspiration of Georgian citizens.
Later, Mr. Daul, who is closely linked to United National Movement, had to deny any such relation between the elections and the lifting of visa requirements. During his visit to Gorgia in March 2016, he clarified that current challenges of the EU might be the major reasons behind the delaying of the decision on a visa-free regime.
After the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the UNM lost its majority to the Georgian Dream, several leaders of the UNM were arrested and later sentenced. They included the former elected Mayor of Tbilisi, Giorgi Ugulava, as well as secretary general of the UNM and former PM, Ivane Merabishvili, and former Defense Minister Bachana Akhalaia. The UNM has accused Georgian Dream of trying to defeat former ruling party with the arrests.
Recently, in June the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the detention of Georgia’s ex-interior minister Vano Merabishvili was “used not only for the purpose of bringing” him before the relevant legal authorities on “reasonable suspicion” of various offenses with which he had been charged, “but was also treated by the prosecuting authorities as an additional opportunity to obtain leverage” over investigations into unrelated cases, including the one against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
As a result, the Strasbourg-based court found that there has been a violation of Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights taken in conjunction with Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security).
The UNM views the decision as a conformation that its leaders are being held as political prisoners in the country and repeatedly accuses Georgian Dream of using undemocratic tactics when dealing with political opposition
Rustavi 2 and press freedom case
One of the major guarantees of free and fair pre-electoral campaigning is the existence of a free media. For almost a year, the major opposition TV channel in Georgia, Rustavi 2 case, has been involved in a court case as the former owner who sold his shares back in 2006 appealed to the court to demand annulation of the sales contracts and over 18 million GEL ($7.5 million) from Rustavi 2’s current owners. As reported by Eurasianet, Khalvashi (the former owner) claimed that he was forced by President Saakashvili to give up the company in 2006 and transfer it to the owners who were chosen by the ex-president.
Rustavi 2 considered the event to be an attempted attack on the free media. Rustavi 2’s current Director, Nika Gvaramia, said he suspected that the judges are under the influence of the government. On the TV Show, “Archevani” Gvaramia stated the government, in his opinion, is interested in the disappearance of a critical media before the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Apart from the Rustavi 2 case, anumber of popular political talk shows have recently been closed down and popular journalists have been dismissed from the Public Broadcast, Imedi TV and Maestro TV.
Three months ahead of parliamentary elections – a major test for Georgia’s democracy – the electoral environment remains fragile due to the suspicions about the existence of political prisoners, attacks on media, and ambiguity about the electoral system.