COLCHIS: In Georgia, the opposition may become the next COVID casualty

COLCHIS: In Georgia, the opposition may become the next COVID casualty
Georgia has coped well with the coronavirus, but pluralism and the opposition there have done less well / Max Fras
By Max Fras of the Eurasia Democratic Security Network April 30, 2020

While Georgia’s lockdown enjoys support at home and abroad, the public health crisis has had a negative impact on the country’s political pluralism and opposition. As every Caucasus democratisation conference speaker is likely to remind you, democracy is what happens between the elections as much as what happens during them.

In order to maintain its relevance in the political future of the country, Georgia’s opposition needs to work together (an all-too common refrain over the years) and, above all, insist on full implementation of the electoral and judicial reforms, or risk Georgian Dream institutionalising itself as the party of power for at least another term.

Ironically, securing a more pluralist multi-party democracy in Georgia will also require extending the current one-party rule by postponing the October elections - but will the key political stakeholders, exhausted by the current crisis, be willing to contemplate this?

A global success story

As most governments around the world struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19, Georgia has received steady praise from all corners for its handling of the pandemic. The government consulted key decisions with public health experts and epidemiologists early in the process. Out of concern for its citizens and healthcare system, Georgia halted international flights in March, sealed its borders and introduced severe lockdown measures on most of the population, including a near-total ban on mobility (including a one week car ban and a city lockdown of five largest cities) and commercial activity.

The country received an honourable mention alongside Taiwan and Iceland as one of the global leaders in the pandemic fight, partly credited to the swift government response and partly to societal resilience to crises. As my EDSN colleague Alexander Scrivener recently argued on these pages, civil strife and severe shortages that afflicted Georgia in the 1990s helped create a political culture that was better equipped to take decisive action even at huge economic cost.

As of April 28, the country had only around 500 active coronavirus cases and six deaths, against nearly 2000 in Armenia and over 1500 in Azerbaijan with over 20 deaths in each country.

Domestic discontent 

While the government’s general policy may save the country from the most devastating impact of the pandemic in public health terms, the domestic political developments suggest that Georgian democracy is in for a difficult year with its democratic opposition and political pluralism under severe pressure.

The long-awaited agreement on electoral reform, reached in March by the government and main opposition forces and facilitated by the US and EU, was an important milestone in achieving greater political pluralism and stability in the runup to the upcoming parliamentary election, which, for the moment, remains scheduled for October 2020.

In the agreement, the government considered the arguments put forward by the opposition and civil society against the current system (77 proportional seats and 73 single-seat constituencies, favouring the government). The proposal includes distribution of 120 out of 150 mandates under a proportional system, a 1% electoral threshold and distribution of 30 mandates under a majoritarian system. Furthermore, the agreement concluded that no single party that receives fewer than 40% of the votes in proportional elections can form the government (regardless of the number of majoritarian seats obtained).

But despite taking a more conciliatory tone towards the opposition taken during the March agreement talks, the Georgian Dream government has since shown no signs of changing its confrontational rhetoric and strategy. It consistently fails to guarantee judicial independence and protect civil society and free media. 

Back in January, the Tbilisi City Hall, run by Georgian Dream’s secretary-general, Kakha Kaladze) closed down the country’s foremost public space in front of the old parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue (citing renovation plans), effectively banning large gatherings in the location. In March, the Ministry of Finance decided to block the accounts of two independent TV channels, TV Pirveli and Mtavari Archi for unpaid taxes, a move seen by many as a way to further curtain government criticism.

Earlier this month, former Saakashvili defense minister, later opposition political party founder Irakli Okruashvili was sentenced for organising a ‘violent rally’ during last year’s Gavrilov protests.

Lockdown accelerator

The pandemic and ensuing lockdown has resulted in antagonising old political conflicts, strengthening the government’s hand and a broader conservative and (literally) patriarchal backlash in Georgia’s political and public life.

Opposition parties remain weak and fragmented, and rarely come together to oppose the government. The most recent example - a joint letter on the governments non-implementation of the March agreement, issued on April 23 - is likely to be ignored by the government amidst the state of emergency with full awareness of the oppositions’ near total lack of efficient tools for action.

Turbulent months ahead 

As the country remains on a very strict lockdown until May, and possibly until June, the country’s political life is likely to slide further into conflict.

As previous waves of political upheaval in 2003 and 2012 have shown, Georgian political parties and protest movements traditionally rely on physical meetings, public protests and mass rallies. This applies both to political parties as well as civic groups and initiatives, such as the Shame Movement.

Even if the government were to abide by the spirit of the March agreement - which looks unlikely at the moment - only three main opposition parties (United National Movement, European Georgia, and Alliance of Patriots) have the resources and membership to properly prepare for the October election. All the others have to invest time and other resources into building up their campaigns and canvas voters.

In the absence of any change, Georgian Dream and the current government can further monopolise the country’s public space and its political life. Although no electoral polls have been released since the lockdown, the global tendency of ‘not changing generals in midst of the coronavirus battle’ favours the government over any alternatives. Anecdotal evidence from Georgia suggests that indeed support for GD and the government has at least remained steady and support for opposition is decreasing.

The inevitable economic crisis is likely to leave many Georgians destitute, and  in the absence of state resources, the many may end up looking up to the country’s rich and powerful for help. Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream chair, the country’s de facto ruler and richest man will be only too happy to oblige in the absence of serious competitors.

As Georgia’s recent political history has shown, political change in the country is a matter of delicate balance of supply and demand. On one hand, for any change of power, the demand for political change needs to be ripe - and after two terms of Georgian Dream government in power, Georgia seems to be getting closer and closer to this point in the political cycle. On the other hand, supply of political ideas and opposition parties needs to be attractive to the voters, notably the large cohort of undecided voters. As things stand, the supply side of Georgia’s political life is seriously limited by the pandemic and the government’s activities notably with regards to judiciary, media and civil society.

Regardless of how the pandemic and lockdown will play out in the upcoming weeks and months, the current state of emergency is in force at least until May 22 (likely to be extended) and there is no chance for normality to return to Georgia before the summer. This is too late for all political forces to fully participate in the campaign according to the October schedule.

Want them to go? Let them stay

In view of the current state of affairs, Georgian opposition and its civil society will have plenty of work in the upcoming months if they want Georgia to remain a vibrant and pluralist multi-party democracy.

First of all, securing a more pluralist multi-party democracy in Georgia will require postponing the October elections, thus temporarily extending GD’s one-party rule. This would be a development without precedent (and legally tricky) and requires all key political stakeholders, already exhausted by the current crisis, to work together on securing a new electoral calendar. Georgian Dream has shown that it can be resilient to external pressure, whether from within the country (civil society and protest movements) or outside of it (Georgia’s western partners, notably the US and EU) and is unlikely to make it any easier.

Secondly, the opposition parties need to plan ahead and develop credible programmes going beyond the current crisis and addressing most pressing issues, notably economic ones. Moving the elections will help achieve a level playing field, but will not give the opposition parties credibility and manifestos they need to win over votes. 

Last but not least, any talks about postponing elections need to address judicial independence. Despite numerous reforms undertaken since Georgian Dream’s coming to power in 2012, Georgian justice system lacks credibility and independence, severely affecting the country’s society, economy and its politics.  Any immediate pre-election meddling in the judicial system is likely to influence its result, so all political forces need to work on ensuring greater independence of the judiciary well ahead of the agreed date.

Max Fras is an international development consultant and researcher, focusing on civil society, youth and education in the European neighbourhood and an 2019-2020 Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN) Fellow .

EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.