This week is the home stretch for Georgia's political parties, which have been scrambling to attract the sympathies of the largely undecided electorate since campaigning began in June. Anything could happen at the parliamentary elections on October 8, given that almost half of the electorate will likely make up their minds at the last minute, political analysts say.
Some 40 parties and blocs have registered to run in the elections. The result will likely be a face-off between the country's ruling party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG), and the leading opposition party, United National Movement (UNM).
Opinion polls conducted during the summer had the two parties neck-and-neck in voters' preferences, with 25.8% and 25.5% of votes respectively. But there have been no reliable polls in recent weeks, and disenchanted voters have yet to be persuaded by the political showmanship that characterise electoral campaigns in Georgia.
As was to be expected in a period when a lot is at stake in a short period of time, the tension led to violence over the weekend at rallies and campaigns in two provincial towns, leaving five injured.
A bomb attack against UNM MP Givi Targamadze on October 4, from which the politician came away unharmed but four others were injured, sent the Georgian government into a tailspin. After an emergency midnight cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called the attack a "sabotage against the state" plotted by Georgia's "enemies", a veiled accusation against either Russia, UNM founder Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now exiled in Ukraine, or both.
The violent episodes came at the end of a relatively calm campaigning period for Georgia, in which UNM and GDDG engaged in their usual bickering and political mudslinging, but to a lower extent than in the previous campaign in 2012. But more such incidents are likely to take place in the coming days, particularly in provincial towns, Ghia Nodia, director of the International School of South Caucasus Studies in Tbilisi, told bne IntelliNews in an interview.
"I expect that GDDG will fail to secure an outright majority in the party list competition, but may win the single-mandate majoritarian constituencies because they can use their resources to influence the results there. In some districts, some of their candidates may get less than 50% of the votes, so a second round will be held [within a month of the first round]. In the period between the two rounds, there are expected to be violent episodes at local elections," he believes.
This year's elections are the last in which Georgia will use the existing dual electoral system, in which voters cast two ballots. One is for a party in a nationwide vote, electing 77 MPs from among the candidates that are included on party lists. Parties must win at least 5% of votes in order to be elected to parliament.
Another ballot is for individual lawmakers in 73 constituencies. Between seven and 16 candidates per constituency have registered for the latter ballot. In order for them to win the election in the first round, the candidates would have to secure at least 50% of the votes. If they do not secure a simple majority, a run-off would be scheduled on October 22.
The parliament voted in June to scrap the mixed system starting in 2017, and to replace it with a proportional system.
UNM and GDDG have undoubtedly contributed to the volatility in the country surrounding the elections. Not only has a significant part of their campaigning focused on antagonising the electorate against their opponents, but party leaders on both sides have repeatedly made it sound as if victory for their parties was inevitable. By building up high expectations among their core followers, despite the high level of uncertainty involved in this year's ballot, UNM and GDDG are pushing their supporters on the path to violence if those expectations are not met.
Change versus status quo
The choice between UNM and GDDG boils down to a choice between change and the status quo. A former ruling party, UNM has established itself as a party of change - and even of revolution - in popular opinion, in large part due to the character of its founder Saakashvili.
Saakashvili assumed political leadership during the 2003 Rose Revolution, which effectively ended Russian influence over Georgian politics. The controversial former president, who governed the country between 2004 and 2013, is credited with transforming Georgia into a pro-Western democracy with aspirations to join Nato and the European Union (EU), as well as a foreign investor darling thanks to widespread reforms to clean up entrenched corruption and support the private sector.
But critics have decried his unorthodox means of reforming the country, the alleged abuse of power of state institutions during his administration, and his extreme anti-Russian stance, which culminated in Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008.
At the previous parliamentary elections in 2012, Georgians decided that they had had enough of the tumultuous politician and his party, voting instead for a newly-founded party at the time, GDDG. Just like in UNM's case, there is a larger-than-life personality behind GDDG, and that is former prime minister (2012-2013) and billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili founded, funded and marketed his party as a force for stability at a time when Georgians needed stability. Unlike Saakashvili, with whom he has a public and long-standing enmity, Ivanishvili is an industrialist who made his fortune in Russia, and who favours gradual reform over radical changes.
His party's predictability has endeared them to domestic and foreign investors. During the GDDG administration, the party maintained the pro-Western foreign policy initiated by UNM because they found it to be popular, while also fostering dialogue with Russia to normalise relations.
Nodia sums up the two parties' identities as follows: "UNM drives change, particularly as far as pro-European foreign policy is concerned, whereas GDDG follows that direction because it is popular. Under GDDG, the country did not develop much, but it was calm, whereas the UNM administration brought about more changes but was controversial."
Being a status quo party is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the status quo is popular, but Georgians are largely unhappy with their present government. The root of dissatisfaction appears to be the slower-than-expected economic growth, accompanied by the depreciation of the Georgian lari in 2015, and high inflation, unemployment and underemployment. Under GDDG, Georgia's economy, which remains a lower-middle income one, has slowed down significantly from the double-digit growth of the previous decade to figures ranging between 2% and 3% in 2015 and 2016.
Aside from GDDG's popular healthcare reforms, Georgians are largely critical of the ruling party. "I think that is because GDGD made a lot of promises and failed to deliver, so voters are disappointed. During this year's campaign, the party did not promise anything concrete, focusing its campaign instead on demonising the UNM and positioning itself as the force that would prevent UNM from doing terrible things if it wins the elections," Nodia explains.
Despite the fact that he is officially retired from politics, it is common knowledge in Georgia that Ivanishvili is still pulling the strings of power in GDDG and the country's politics. Case in point, the billionaire came out of the shadows of his real estate and industrial investments during the electoral campaign to host rallies in the provinces and give televised interviews on behalf of GDDG.
Meanwhile, UNM has sought to disassociate itself from its founder – who is now the governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, consequently lost his Georgian citizenship, and is wanted on charges of abuse of power in Georgia – but to no avail.
The party is led collectively by a number of representatives, including Giga Bokeria, Nika Melia and Tengiz Gunava. However, the party's fragile leadership has been unable to brush off Saakashvili's legacy from the popular consciousness. Incidents like a leaked recording that was released in late September, in which the party's founder appeared to be instructing the current leadership to stage a revolution in Georgia, do not make the task any easier.
"There are disagreements among UNM leaders and between Saakashvili and the party's leadership," Nodia explains. "I think that Saakashvili has much less influence over the party now than he used to. UNM’s leadership believes that the only way to defeat GDDG is at the polls, despite the fact that the fight might be unfair because of the ruling party's access to resources.”
Meanwhile, Saakashvili thinks that they should use unorthodox means," he says, adding that the leaked recording was probably old, but was released last week to further denigrate UNM by reinforcing its image as a destabilising force.
Some fear that Saakashvili could return to Georgia if UNM wins the elections, but that is an unlikely scenario, Nodia believes. Meanwhile, UNM has sought to ensure that the politician's core followers will vote for the party even in his absence by including his much more level-headed estranged wife, Sandra Roelofs, as number two on its party list.
Make or break
Seeing how tight the race between the UNM and GDDG is likely to be, smaller opposition parties could make or break a future coalition government. Nodia expects that five opposition parties - the Alliance of Patriots, the Labour Party, the Democratic Union, the Free Democrats, and State for the People - are likely to surpass the 5% threshold required to make it into the parliament.
The more votes these parties attract, the higher the likelihood that whichever party wins the elections will have to form a coalition. GDDG ruled during most of its term as the leading party in a coalition government, but the union began to disintegrate in March when the National Forum party left for undisclosed reasons.
The State for the People is an interesting new entrant on the Georgian political scene. Founded in May by opera singer Paata Buchuladze, an outspoken critic of Ivanishvili's, the party has tapped into popular discontent with the government by including populist measures such as tax cuts and more healthcare reforms in its platform.
An opinion poll in July and August forecast that the party would win some 6.9% of the votes, placing it third after GDDG and UNM. Nevertheless, its chances of making it into the parliament shrunk in September, when a four-party coalition centred around it disintegrated.
Nodia does not expect outright ballot rigging to be a problem at the elections. After all, Georgia is by far the most democratic country in the Caucasus and Central Asia. And, despite all the criticism against UNM, one of the party's main accomplishments was the fact that it conceded defeat in 2012, paving the way for the first peaceful transition of power in Georgia's post-Soviet history.
Besides, the elections will be monitored by international organisations such as the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and EU-membership aspirant Georgia is unlikely to want to disappoint after creating a good name for itself through a track record of respect for democratic freedoms in recent years.
However, Nodia expects that practices such as blackmail and intimidation are likely to be used before, during and after the elections. "This is a greater concern for me than ballot rigging," he says.
Georgia's electoral saga will not end after the first round of elections, for there are likely to be run-offs for the single-mandate constituencies at the end of the month, which may decide the shape of a future government as much as, if not more than, the first round.
The ruling party is likely to win a majority of mandates at least in the capital city of Tbilisi, if not the entire country, Nodia opines. "If GDDG continues in power, there will be more of the same. The direction of the country will depend on Ivanishvili's whim, although he is not formally in power anymore. UNM is likely to push for development more energetically if it wins, but there will likely be opposition to them because they have many critics," he concludes.