Georgian Election Showed Flaws in Country's Democracy

For the first time in history, Georgians elected a female president. It was not a fair fight. The elections were marked by negative campaigns and mutual defamation between the candidates. The opposition pushed for a radical political transformation of the country, while the ruling party abused its position and state resources. The elections revealed the problem of Georgian democracy – a society deeply divided into two groups: the supporters and the opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream party.

On November 28, the Georgians elected their fifth head of state since the country gained independence. Salome Zurabishvili, an independent candidate backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, won the second round of the elections with a solid majority of almost 60%. She defeated Grigol Vashadze, the candidate of the second strongest opposition party, the United National Movement. Both Zurabishvili and her opponent campaigned for deeper NATO integration. However, Zurabishvili also wants to revise the country’s relations with Russia and work on establishing tighter bonds between Moscow and Tbilisi.

The results were almost tied in the first round of the elections, which had a negative impact on the campaign. It can be hardly said that the presidential race followed democratic standards. Instead of focusing on a positive program, both candidates focused on denigrating their opponent´s reputation. According to international and domestic observes, the elections were marked by violent clashes between the supporters of each side, vote buying and intimidation of voters. The opposition protested against the results of the elections.

 

"According to international and domestic observes, the elections were marked by violent clashes between the supporters of each side, vote buying and intimidation of voters."

 

After the indecisive first round, the elections transformed into a referendum on the government. The face of Salome Zurabishvili on her election posters was gradually replaced by leading representatives of the ruling party, including its founder and leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishivili. The government also came under fire for bribing voters, after it declared the so-called credit amnesty, under which the state pledged to pay off loans for about 700 000 Georgian citizens. The amnesty should be co-financed by a foundation set up by Ivanishvili himself.

The United National Movement made it clear that in case of an election victory, they would have dissolved the parliament and called for a snap general election. This would have likely lead to a widespread civil unrest. Another source of discontent in parts of the Georgian society is the tight connection between the United National Movement and the former President Michail Saakashvili, who was sentenced in his absence to three years in prison for transgressing presidential powers.

 

"Polarised society, mutual distrust and deepening rifts between the government and the opposition could prove an obstacle to the democratic direction of Georgia."

 

A number of constitutional amendments came into force as the election campaign was taking place. These amendments were mostly pushed through by the Georgian Dream despite the opposition’s disapproval and a presidential veto issued in the October of 2017. The Georgian semi-presidential system is transforming to a strictly parliamentary system. Although the presidential office is becoming more of  a ceremonial position, the head of state still has a key constitutional function, having considerable influence on both the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Zurabishvili declares a pro-Western orientation and European integration as the two main aims of her rule. Pursuing closer bonds with NATO and the EU is supported by an overwhelming majority of Georgians, who still vividly remembers the Russo-Georgian war, which has forced the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is thus highly unlikely that the country will steer away from its pro-Western course.

The presidential elections proved that a polarised society, mutual distrust and deepening rifts between the government and the opposition, signified by the unfair campaign, could prove an obstacle to the democratic direction of Georgia. Only the 2020 parliamentary elections, which will see a battle over the actual power in the country, will show the effects of the constitutional amendments on the political system of the country and the actual strength of Georgian democracy.

About author: Petr Fena

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