By Ann Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili (@)
On October 8, 2016 Georgia held its eighth Parliamentary Elections. Only three political parties, the ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (48.68%/44 mandates), the largest opposition party United National Movement (27.11%/27 mandates) and a relative newcomer the Alliance of Patriots (5.01%/6 mandates) managed to enter the parliament.
Runoff elections for 50 (out of the total of 73) single-seat majoritarian constituencies were held on October 30 and ended with an overwhelming victory of the ruling party. GDDG candidates lost majoritarian contest in only one constituency (to the candidate of Industrial Party). The ruling party did not nominate a candidate in one constituency of Tbilisi, where independent but GDDG-supported former Foreign Affairs Minister Salome Zourabichvili won.
The election results have significantly reshaped the political landscape of Georgia. Only four political groups will be represented in the parliament and the ruling party will hold necessary amount of mandates to amend the constitution (113 required). With that, Georgia’s young democracy has entered a new cycle, which will test its political and democratic stability.
Despite the fact that the Election Date was announced months before, it was only in early September when parties kicked off their pre-election campaigns. Symptomatically, the ruling party was the last electoral subject to submit its list of candidates to the Central Election Commission (CEC). Access to administrative resources and significant private donations has put GDDG in a dominant position – compared to the ruling GDDG, vast majority of opposition parties ran on an extremely tight budget. Therefore, until September, even campaign ads were barely noticeable in Tbilisi, the country’s capital.
Despite the fact that the total of 25 parties and 816 majoritarian candidates ran for elections, the United National Movement (ruling party from 2004 to 2012) and the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (the ruling party since 2012) remained major contenders according to all pre-election opinion polls (NDI & IRI polls).
In the pre-electoral period, the United National Movement, campaigned actively and put relatively new political recruits in the electoral campaign. This move was assessed as an attempt to come out of the shadow of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former President of Georgia and the party founder, who is currently wanted by the law enforcement agencies in Georgia.
On the other hand, GDDG has also included a number of newcomers on the party list. However, the founder of the GDDG party and the mastermind of UNM’s electoral defeat in 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili was closely involved in campaigning through his numerous Q&A sessions with regional media organisations.
Apart from the major contestants, several newly established political parties were running in these elections. The “State for the People” party, founded by the prominent Georgian opera singer, Paata Burchuladze just few months before the elections, was largely seen as a possible entrant. Burchuladze united with several parties in an electoral bloc, including the New Political Center and New Georgia (both of which had recently split from the UNM), but the bloc collapsed weeks before the Election Day, leaving many of State for the People majoritarian candidates out of the electoral contest and reducing the chances of clearing the threshold.
Former coalition partners of Georgian Dream, Free Democrats and the Republicans ran for elections independently, but failed to enter the parliament.
Lastly, the pro-Russian Democratic Movement and the populist Alliance of Patriots also actively campaigned for the undecided votes.
On October 8, 51 percent of eligible voters casted their ballots. The Election Day received mostly positive feedback from the election observation missions. However, OSCE/ODIHR report noted that, “tensions increased during the day and several violent altercations took place near and in polling stations.”
Due to irregularities and violence, election results were annulled in four precincts, with three of them in Zugdidi, western Georgia, where Saakashvili’s wife Sandra Elisabeth Roelofs was running for a majoritarian seat and one in Marneuli, where UNM’s first round performance outnumbered that of the ruling party representatives. Repeat elections in these precincts did not reveal the winner and the contest went to runoffs.
The election results have triggered dramatic shifts in Georgia’s political elite. Before the run-offs, the leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania left politics and withdrew from the second round race in Gori. Apart from Alasania, several leaders and former Free Democrats MPs left the party and spoke of the possibility of cooperating with their former political opponent – GDDG.
David Usupashvili, the current Parliamentary Chairman and the leader the Republican Party has left the party as well. The Republican Party, the oldest political party in Georgia prominent for its liberal values, served in the parliament (2012-2016) as part of the ruling coalition. Parted from the coalition just months before elections, Republicans received less than two percent support in elections and none of its majoritarian candidates succeeded. Several leaders and tens of party members followed Usupashvili’s decision. Although he made it clear, he has no intentions to leave the political scene, Usupashvili’s political future is uncertain.
Post-electoral period has revealed significant divisions in the United National Movement as well, where Mikheil Saakashvili, broadcasting live from Odessa, Ukraine called the party not to recognize election results, reject participation in run-offs and refuse to take parliamentary seats at all. Part of the UNM leadership went against Saakashvili by accepting the parliamentary seats and running in the second round. Only Sandra Roelofs, number two on the party list withdrew from the runoff race and addressed the Central Election Commission to annul her parliamentary mandate.
Constitutional Majority in the Parliament
The election results have given a constitutional majority to the ruling party. Achieving constitutional majority was one of the electoral goals for GDDG and with 115 MPs in the parliament it will have a capacity for passing any of its initiatives without opposition’s obstruction.
The constitutional majority will enable GDDG to initiate several constitutional amendments which it failed to pass in the former sitting of the parliament. Firstly, it wishes to define marriage as a union of a man and woman only. The referendum on the definition of marriage was previously opposed and rejected by the President. Secondly, some leaders of GDDG have openly declared that the President should be elected by parliament instead of a popular vote. This initiative has not yet been brought to wide public discussions; however, the new parliament is expected to initiate the amendment.
⃰Note: Georgian parliament consists of 150 MPs elected by a mixed electoral system. According to this system voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats were distributed proportionally in a closed party-list contest, whereby the party must clear a 5% threshold to win representation. Georgia has moved to semi-presidential system only recently, where majority in the parliament forms the executive government headed by Prime minister. President of Georgia is elected by direct popular vote.