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Georgia By-Election: Landslide Victory, but Problems Ahead With a Low Turnout

Georgians will go to the polls on 1 October—for the last time before next year’s crucial parliamentary election. The voters in the constituency of Gori-Kaspi will decide on who will represent them for the final year of the current parliamentary term. In a country where polling is sparse and often considered unreliable—pollsters even admit that due to a high rate of undecideds that gauging voting intentions is difficult—could this by-election be a litmus test for the current government, led by centre-left, conservative Georgian Dream (GD~S&D)?

Politically, there would be enough reason to believe so. In August, the government of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (GD~S&D) came under fire for what was widely perceived as insufficient response in disaster management to a tragic landslide that cost 32 lives. In the beginning of September, GD filed articles of impeachment against President Salome Zurabishvili (*) over unauthorised visits to the European Union. The government—vying for the country to achieve EU candidate status this year—received international backlash over attempting to remove her from office. Shortly after, it was revealed that Garibashvili used a state aircraft for a private trip to the United States, prompting the liberal opposition party Lelo (RE) to consider his impeachment.

Then, the United States sanctioned Otar Partskhaladze (*), who briefly served as chief prosecutor of Georgia during Garibashvili’s first term as Prime Minister, over connection to Russian security agency FSB, with additional suspicions that he illegally held Georgian citizenship as he never denounced his status as a citizen of Russia. Subsequently, the National Bank of Georgia froze his assets but revoked its decision after only one day after criticism from GD, causing several high-ranking NBG officials to resign from their positions and the Georgian lari exchange rate to plummet. In Brussels, the partial non-compliance of Georgia with sanctions against Russia is seen as an obstacle for the country that was merely granted a ‘European perspective’ instead of formal candidate status last year—contrary to Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

With this political background and a general dissatisfaction over GD’s handling of its relations to Europe, experience from other countries would suggest that a by-election could be used a measurement to test the government’s popularity. Georgia uses the first-past-the-post election system to determine the winner in a constituency. GD candidate Giorgi Khojevanishvili won the seat in Gori-Kaspi with 56% of the vote in the 2020 elections. He later switched parties after several GD politicians around ex-PM Giorgi Gakharia broke with their former party and founded the centrist For Georgia (ForGeo~ EPP), but quit Parliament in February this year. Could the opposition, plagued by fragmentation and infighting, view this seat as a pick-up opportunity?

2020 election result of the Gori-Kaspi constituency

None of the major opposition parties filed a candidate for this election, with the only opponent to GD’s Giorgi Sosiashvili being the nominee of the minor extra-parliamentary party called For Social Justice (*). In fact, the past two by-elections of the current parliamentary term that took place in spring of 2022 and 2023 respectively remained almost uncontested, with GD sweeping both constituencies by landslide margins. Each time, GD won more than 90% of the vote. Centre-right UNM (EPP), the largest opposition party, has a long history of refusing to participate in by-elections and runoffs. In April’s by-election in the Poti, Senaki and Khobi constituency, UNM cited the switch to electronic voting as one point for its electoral boycott.

But a key reason in refusing to participate in by-elections remains the electoral system itself: UNM and other opposition parties have been long-time opponents of the parallel voting electoral system in place for national parliamentary elections, where a part of the seats is allocated according to the proportional vote and the rest in constituencies. Until 2020, 73 out of 150 seats were distributed in constituencies, using two-round first-past-the-post as election system. For the 2020 parliamentary elections, this number was reduced to 30—but only after public pressure. By 2024, constituencies will be scrapped altogether, and Georgia will switch to a fully proportional electoral system . Therefore, this election will be the last under the current electoral system that was in place for more than three decades.

The past two by-elections in this term as data points could give at least some indication of how things stood at that point in time. Turnout was below 30% each time—Georgians have generally low trust into their political actors, with up to 73% of voters stating that no party represents their interests. In the April 2022 by-election, GD retained its seat in the Rustavi constituency with nearly the same raw vote total as in 2020, underperforming by mere 1,000 votes compared to the regular elections—amidst a comparatively quiet news cycle. In the April 2023 Poti, Senaki and Khobi by-election, GD noteworthily underperformed by more than 5,000 votes compared to 2020. This election was held just shortly after a massive series of protests against a government-backed bill which was often dubbed as the ‘Russian Law’: according to the proposal of GD and its split “People’s Power” (PP~ ECR), non-governmental organisations that receive at least partial foreign funding would have to register as a “foreign agent”. This legislation was widely seen as similar to a law adopted in Russia a decade ago and was regarded as an attack on Georgia’s civil society sector, hampering the country’s European aspirations. After ten thousands of Georgians demonstrated against it, the bill was withdrawn, but GD took a hit in its popularity ratings.

With a relatively weak opposition not contesting the upcoming by-election on 1 October and GD experiencing several scandals, the key figures to watch will be turnout (2020: 57.4%) and mobilisation. After more than a decade in government, especially young voters are disillusioned with the government, but the opposition is unable to benefit from GD’s falling approvals thus far. The by-election can be seen as a test on whether GD, that tends to bring its supporters to the ballot boxes even in off-election years, is still able to actively mobilise. A significant underperformance in raw votes (2020: 41,333)—continuous with the trend from the April by-election after the March protests—might be a warning sign for the governing party whose electoral success is partially driven by a fragmented and unpopular opposition. It will remain the last electoral test ahead of next year’s crucial parliamentary election.