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Georgian Parliamentary Election: Elections Amidst Pandemics

On 31 October, Georgians are heading to the polls to elect the tenth convocation of the national Parliament. This election comes after 8 years of rule by Georgian Dream (S&D). No political group has stayed in power after two consecutive terms in modern Georgian history and this fact brings additional interest to the upcoming elections. Compared to the previous nine parliaments, elected after the restoration of independence, this will be the first time when Georgians will elect their highest legislative institution using the proportional representation electoral code. Out of 150 eligible seats, 120 will be allocated to the party lists and only 30 MPs will be elected in the specially created single-member constituencies. However, it was a long journey to the transformation from mixed-member proportional representation to mostly proportional electoral code. 

How the parliament and government will be formed? A brief overview of the new electoral code

One cannot tell the story of the 2020 parliamentary elections without recalling the events of summer 2019. The notorious visit of Sergei Gavrilov, a member of the Russian Duma, to the Georgian Parliament triggered anti-government demonstration and subsequent crackdown of protesters. The protest continued through the whole summer and the protestors demanded the resignation of top government and parliament officials, as well as a change of mixed-member proportional representation electoral system that traditionally worked in favor of the incumbent party in Georgia.

Initially, the Georgian Dream government proposed the total abolition of majoritarian elections and introducing a 1% threshold for parties to enter the Parliament. However, the Parliament, controlled by Georgian Dream, rejected the amended legislation. This triggered another political crisis in the country and increased polarisation between the ruling party and opposition. The negotiations to overcome the political deadlock lasted until spring 2020. With the active participation of EU and US representatives, the government and opposition agreed on the compromised solution: 120 seats out of 150 possible will be allocated using the proportional representation, while the rest 30 mandates will be elected through 30 single-member constituencies with the electoral threshold defined as 1%.

Under the compromise, if no party solely receives more than 40% of votes, a coalition government should be formed. The last mechanism assures a party should gain a sufficient amount of votes in proportional elections in order to secure the right to solely form the government. For instance, if the party has the clear majority in the new parliament (by winning the vast majority of majoritarian districts), but gets 39% in the proportional part of the election, it will need a partner to form a government.

The political climate right before elections

The updated electoral code, as well as the COVID-19 epidemic, has had a significant impact on the 2020 parliamentary elections. The minimal threshold for entering the parliament discouraged oppositional parties from forming broad coalitions. Though key opposition parties decided to have a joint list of majoritarian candidates against the ruling party. However, this agreement largely covered the districts of the capital city, and in early autumn it was violated by the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM-EPP). The tensions between oppositional parties aggravated over the role of former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili. UNM was criticized by the splinter party, European Georgia (EPP), over the employed electoral tactics and proposing the former president (now in exile in Ukraine) as a potential Prime Minister. The opposition parties signed a memorandum about the integrity of upcoming elections, common policies on judicial reform, and on economic and educational policies. However, they lack a common agenda, coordination of electoral tactics, and leadership.

Want to know what the parties stand for? See our attached document outlining the parties here.

Compared to the opposition; the government, until recently, had a stronger hand in terms of integrity, popular support, and electoral agenda. The ruling party fell to its lowest numbers of public support right after the June 2019 events. However, successful crisis management of COVID-19 initial outbreak by healthcare institutions increased positive assessment of public institutions and the Georgian Dream recovered its lost public support. Successful anti-COVID-19 measures helped the ruling party to create public discourse beneficial to its reelection. The polls conducted before the second wave indicated an almost certain chance (95%) of passing through the 40% closing threshold that will allow Georgian Dream to single-handedly form the government. However, after the infection and lethal cases skyrocketed and reached almost four digit numbers, the support to the ruling party decreased. The current projections still indicate that the Georgian Dream will likely win elections, but the situation may change depending on the COVID-19 epidemic development or last minute scandals, as what happened in 2012.

What to expect during and after the elections?

The Georgian political parties can be diverse in their names, but close inspection of their party policies indicates that there are not that many differences among them. A recent study showed that there is little political polarisation in Georgia, but an atmosphere of highly personalised party politics when people choose personalities rather than specific party programmes. Georgians are less divided on issues but differ on their attitudes toward specific politicians. This means that attitudes toward key political leaders and their ability to persuade voters to follow them could significantly impact the election outcomes. The current political landscape is dominated by Bidzina Ivanishvili—Georgian Dream chairman—and Mikheil Saakashvili—UNM leader and former President. Voters will likely make their decision based on these two figures during the upcoming elections. Other parties face an extremely difficult task in breaking this well-established dichotomy.

Less than a week before elections, it seems that the ruling party will most probably retain its power. However, unlike the 2016 elections, they will not enjoy the supermajority in the parliament and they will have to deal with much stronger opposition. Opposition parties have little chance to defeat the incumbent, however, their influence over the decision-making process will most probably increase as their representation in parliament will grow. In case Georgian Dream will gain only a narrow majority after 31 October, chances that the Parliament of the tenth convocation will not last a full four year term dramatically increase.