Although international indicators herald Georgia as a success story for the Eastern Partnership region, contestation after the first round of the parliamentary elections has thrown the country’s politics into disarray. Only an orderly and fair second round vote has a chance to correct at least some of the negative impressions and transform political rivalry in Georgia into a more orderly form of competition.
While the US presidential election dominated political discussion in Europe in early November, another important electoral process took place in Georgia on 31 October.
Comparable to the Moldovan presidential election of last Sunday, the second round of the parliamentary elections in the liberal frontrunner of the Caucasus is important not only fur the country but also the wider region.
Unlike in Moldova, the second round this Saturday is expected to confirm the results of the first round in late October. This is because 120 out of 150 seats in the Georgian legislature were already filled by means of proportional representation (after a new system lowered the electoral threshold to three per cent earlier this year).
The three leading parties are the ruling political alliance Georgian Dream with 48.15 per cent of the vote in the first round, Strength is in Unity comprising the former liberal reformers of the United National Movement (UNM) of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili (27.14 per cent) and 3.78 per cent of the vote went to European Georgia.
Three smaller political parties (Lelo, Strategy Builder and APG) finished just above the entry barrier. With 115 seats Georgian Dream has, in fact, emerged stronger and holds a full majority.
Georgia is a staunch NATO ally and its liberal reforms are evidently successful. The mid-2020 constitutional amendments had opened a pathway for political rivalry in Georgia to transform into a more orderly form of competition – a trend very different from political processes in many other post-Soviet countries, not to mention Belarus or Russia.
What is important about the elections this Saturday is that there will be a peaceful transfer of power part of wider democratic representation – important not so much Georgia itself but also for the people of Russia, Belarus and rest of the former Soviet Union.
A largely positive international response
Ahead of the election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report on the electoral situation indicated that the reduced threshold for parliamentary representation “has increased the apparent competitiveness of the pre-election environment, with many new parties entering the political arena”.
The OSCE report also found that “the campaign has centred on personalities, rather than substantive issues”, being “prominent mostly in the media and online” and only technical issues remain unaddressed. All these comments are rather business as usual.
Following the election, the international election observation team from OSCE-ODIHR noted that “the elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected”.
There was one case of an assault on opposition journalists reported by the media and also highlighted by the US ambassador to Tbilisi and ODIHR. The OSCE’s human rights watchdog also mentions the changes in the management of two public broadcasters, one national and one local, in Adjara, and indicates that several opposition parties complained that their supporters were, “directly or indirectly”, intimidated.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) published an interim report on 16 November which stated that the ‘spirit’ of the reforms was “affected by credible reports of irregularities in the campaign period and on election day.”
”Most concerning” irregularities were allegations on “misuse of state administrative resources, vote-buying, intimidation of voters and observer groups, manipulation of precinct-level summary protocols.”
These motivated European Georgia and UNM to protest the electoral outcome so far with rallies in front of the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi last week. This week, however, the protests have seemingly calmed down although opposition party UNM appears ready to boycott the second round of the elections.
Only an orderly and fair second round vote has a chance to correct at least some of the negative impressions.
Is that the full picture?
Almost, because the spectre of Russian interventionism and disinformation is ever-present. The ruling Georgian Dream party has steered a stable and pragmatic course, being pro-Western and pro-European while not provoking Russia.
Other actors are not so concerned with the integrity of the Georgian state: Russia’s electoral horse in Georgia is the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG). International observers view APG as nationalist-conservative, social-conservative, right-populist and pro-Russian. In 2016 elections the party won six of 150 seats.
On August 24, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Centre in London, an anti-Kremlin watchdog, disclosed documents that revealed an alleged 700 thousand dollars transfer from Moscow state affiliates to APG. The report was immediately disseminated by the international and local media and analytical outlets. It is a criminal offence in Georgia, as well as in Russia if candidates and parties receive donations from foreign citizens, companies, international and religious organizations, movements, government agencies, as well as from anonymous sponsors.
Hence, Georgia’s attorney general ordered an investigation in the case. APG was already fined, at the start of the electoral campaign, for anti-Turkish, anti-minority and religious hate-speech.
The first-round election results from 31 October bear out the reality: the Georgian people have rejected the pro-Kremlin and anti-freedom approach of APG. Instead, they voted overwhelmingly to give the current government a mandate to continue its progress towards the clearly-stated goal of Georgian membership of NATO and of the European Union.
Georgian Dream secured 48.15 per cent of the vote, meaning a certain majority in Parliament. UNM and European Georgia, the primary opposition parties, scored 27.14 per cent and 3.78 per cent respectively. The APG scored lowly with 3.14 per cent and therefore remains a fringe movement.
The prospect of new protests
As indicated before, main opposition party UNM (running under the banner of “Strength is in Unity”) disagrees with what they claim are false election results in the first round (although the OSCE and other independent observers disagree with this assessment, as outlined before).
In the aftermath of the first round, the US and EU issued statements calling for the protests to be conducted peacefully. This has not always been the case. The government has offered ‘dialogue’ with opposition leaders (not negotiations; merely dialogue) – but it is possible that the situation could become worse if the protests turn militant.
Respecting the result of democratic elections – especially if one disagrees with the result – is the hallmark of a mature and stable democracy. If UNM leader Saakashvili continues to urge protest, civil unrest and other actions, this will put the party’s strategy in a bad light.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just completed a two-day visit to Tbilisi on Tuesday and Wednesday. At the same time, the UNM and other opposition leaders organised a rally, perhaps the last opportunity before Saturday to voice their concerns. Secretary Pompeo’s presence in Georgia’s capital follows different priorities – stability in the Caucasus after Russia brokered a ceasefire and a peace deal in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pompeo did not meet the opposition and stuck to his original visit plan, meeting with Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church and hosting a conference with NGOs “to hear their views on rule of law and judicial independence, as well as on economic and human rights”.
Some of the opposition leaders commented that Pompeo’s choices implied tacit support for the “rigged” elections, according to the local press. On 19 November, UNM announced that they will not take part in the second round of the parliamentary election.
Island of stability, not just the economy
Hitherto, dispatches about the 2020 Georgian elections campaign spoke of normality: university and schools were being opened before the elections, donations were advertised, etc – but the truth is that this was a desperately difficult election to organise in the era of COVID-19, and Georgia has done it well.
In a sea of military conflicts and political tensions around – Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Belarus, to mention just most important ones, Georgia looks like an island of stability.
The COVID-19 situation, too, seems better handled in Georgia than in neighbouring countries. As of 21 October, the pandemic cost Georgia 4.3 deaths per one hundred thousand citizens, low compared to Armenia – 21.2, Azerbaijan – 10.8 and Russia – 17.2.
This unique situation also demands an explanation.
The Georgia performance in terms of health security is remarkable also because of the fact that the country practically does not have a state-owned health care system. Taxpayers fund through a state budget insurance system only senior and physically challenged citizens as well as a few other exceptional groups.
In the past five years or so, the policy in Georgia has been to reintroduce universal state-owned healthcare. This “return to the past” would sooner or later crowd out segments of private health insurance. But the system has passed the COVID-19 test, for now.
One explanation for this success is the economy: if in 2003 the gross domestic product (GDP) of Georgia was 3.99 billion dollars, by 2019 it went up 4.5 times to 17.74 billion dollars, according to the World Bank.
In terms of GDP per capita, the growth is 2.9 times and, similarly, is the growth of per capita GDP at purchasing power parity – almost 3 times too for the period.
The outlook is not rosy, however: global foreign direct investment is expected to fall by 30-40 per cent in 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic (as forecasted by UNCTAD), while the decrease for Georgia is estimated by International Monetary Fund at 19 per cent. The unemployment rate went down from 18.3 per cent in 2009 to just below 10 per cent last year but is likely to go up by the end of this year, to approximately 14 per cent (the rate of 2016).
The World Bank forecast suggests a 12.3 per cent decline in GDP this year. No country has been left untouched by the coronavirus.
In terms of overall democratic performance, Georgia does relatively well in international indicators. The Nations in Transit 2020 report by the Freedom House shows a marginal decline in the country’s ranking (due to the election of Supreme Court justices, with life tenure one year before the elections), but it remains twice better than the average score of other former Soviet Union countries. (Only Ukraine does marginally better than Georgia.)
In terms of the overall legal and political environment, measured by the International Property Rights Index, Georgia (IPRI 2019) ranks number 54, at par with Slovakia and Hungary, and considerably ahead of Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. (Other post-Soviet countries are far behind Georgia.)
In terms of protection of property rights, Georgia (34) is much ahead of most Central European countries. Only Estonia (23) outperforms Georgia.
It looks as if the electorate has decided that “no change is a good thing”.
Increases in moral freedom
A few years ago colleagues Madrid, from the Fundacion para el Avance de la Libertad constructed a methodology to measure morality in politics, the World Index of Moral Freedom (WIMF). It is a measure of who in the country takes moral decisions – individual citizen or the government, or to what extent the state intervenes in ethical matters.
By 2020 WIMF Georgia’s rank is 36 of 160 countries, next to Sweden and ahead of Hungary, UK, Bulgaria, Iceland, Macedonia, Slovakia, Poland and Latvia. Armenia – 60, Belarus – 84, Russia is 97, and Azerbaijan – 107. No index is a direct description of reality, but it is obvious that in countries where the freedom of moral deliberation is “high” (Georgia belongs to this group), the electoral and political liberties seem better preserved than in countries with “insufficient” moral freedom, which is the category comprising the other countries of the South Caucasus.
Researchers in Madrid found that “high increases in moral freedom have been revealed for Georgia, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Ireland” – not a bad group of countries to be associated with.
The same foundation publishes also the World Electoral Freedom Index (WEFI). In 2019, only Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia among former Soviet Union countries were in the top half group globally. It is likely that in the 2020 WEFI, Georgia will move closer to Central European countries.
If civil unrest due to the first round of the parliamentary elections can be calmed down and democratic order restored after the second round, Georgia has tremendous opportunity to build on its potential and political network in Europe over the coming years.
The government and the people share a European dream; it is to be hoped that one day, soon, their dream is realised.