Georgian opposition parties plot forming a united front for October elections

Georgian opposition parties plot forming a united front for October elections
Georgia’s opposition parties may present a united front in the October elections to unseat the ruling Georgian Dream party. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 21, 2024

Several Georgian opposition parties have announced their readiness to set aside their political differences and collaborate in an effort to unseat the ruling Georgian Dream party in the upcoming October general elections.

The attempt to unite Georgia’s fractured opposition comes in response to Georgian Dream’s determination to push through the controversial Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which has sparked huge street protests.

Protesters and opposition parties fear the law will be used to restrict civil society and independent media ahead of the election, making it easier for Georgian Dream to be re-elected. NGOs and media that receive some foreign funding must put themselves under a special supervision regime or face fines.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the law on May 18, but Georgian Dream have vowed to overturn the veto using its large parliamentary majority, a move that is expected next week.

Zourabichvili has offered to convene a round table of parties to oppose the bill, which under one proposal would be called a "European Platform of National Resistance".

The call for unity was initially made by Mamuka Khazaradze of the opposition Lelo for Georgia party, who described the law as a “pivotal moment” in Georgia’s history that requires "wide public consolidation" on strategy, reported.

Khazaradze proposed "coordinated consultations involving citizens, youth, and parties that were involved in protests,” with a goal of "directing all of our efforts toward defeating this Russian government in elections".

Levan Khabeishvili, the leader of the largest party  –former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM – has endorsed and supported Lelo’s proposal, emphasising the need for unity.

"There can no longer be dividing lines between pro-Georgian, pro-European, pro-Western countries; we need to save our nation and our state, we have the future of our children to defend," Khabeishvili said.

He confirmed UNM’s readiness for "dialogue and all kinds of compromises," recognizing that unity was a "popular demand." Khabeishvili also backed Khazaradze’s call to refrain from internal opposition attacks.

Giorgi Vashadze, leader of the Strategy Agmashenebeli party, has also issued a statement confirming its readiness "to unite for Georgia and its European future".

However, the opposition parties will have an uphill battle to oust Georgian Dream from power. Despite Georgian Dream’s popularity in recent polls falling to 30% from the 43% it won in the last general elections, none of the opposition parties, including the UNM, command more than 10% support in the polls.

There are also fears that Georgian Dream will prevent fair elections being held. Georgian Dream deputies have proposed amendments to the Electoral Code that would abolish the advisory group of the Central Election Commission, which is formed during elections and is responsible for monitoring elections, advising the commission during electoral disputes, and observing vote recounts.

As Georgian Dream has control of considerable “administrative resources” to swing the vote in its favour, removing the election monitoring system will give the party much freer reign to massage the vote in its favour.

Georgian Dream has been introducing increasingly repressive measures as it attempts to retain control of the situation. There are reports of blacklists being drawn up of politically active members of the public, and smear posters have been pasted on the houses of opposition leaders. Some opposition members have been brutally beaten up in the street by masked gangs, others have received threatening phone calls at night.

Zurab Japaridze,  leader of the Georgian political party Girchi – More Freedom, Khatuna Saginadze, producer of the independent TV company Formula, activist Lina Gvinianidze and dozens of other people who actively participated in protests in Georgia against the “foreign agents” law were summoned to the interior ministry for questioning on May 18 as part of this campaign.

They were told they had violated an article of the criminal code on assemblies and demonstrations, but no other details were given and they were later released after “questioning”.

“The interior ministry is summoning people en masse for interrogation. This is classic state terror carried out by people in uniform. They kidnap protesters and physically abuse them,” Japaridze told Georgian Radio Liberty. “This is state terror, like in Russia. They are trying to intimidate people so that they do not come out to protests anymore.”

The EU has criticised the government crackdown. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a recent statement: “The EU stands with the Georgian people and their choice in favour of democracy and of Georgia’s European future. The intimidation, threats and physical assaults on civil society representatives, political leaders and journalists, as well as their families is unacceptable. We call on the Georgian authorities to investigate these documented acts.”

Borell pointed out that the European Council granted Georgia the status of a candidate country on the understanding that relevant nine steps set out in a Commission recommendation of November 8, 2023, were taken.

“These steps require human rights to be protected and civil society as well as the media to be able to operate freely. They also refer to the need for depolarisation and the fight against disinformation,” said Borrell.

“The EU has clearly and repeatedly stated that the spirit and content of the [foreign agents] law are not in line with EU core norms and values… The adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path. The choice on the way forward is in Georgia’s hands,” he said.

Both the EU and the US are expected to impose sanctions on Georgia when the president’s veto of the bill is overturned next week. This vote is also expected to spark a further wave of protests.