Is the pandemic a chance for the ruling party in Georgia?
The coronavirus pandemic caught Georgia in the midst of a political crisis. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the fall, and it is still unclear whether a proportional system will be used. And the conflict between the authorities and the opposition, although temporarily put on hold by the quarantine and state of emergency, is far from resolved.
How did this internal political crisis arise in Georgia, and who stands to benefit from the pandemic?
JAMnews tries to answer these questions with the help of Georgian experts.
A crisis within a crisis
Tensions began to grow in the country last summer, after the authorities tried to disperse an anti-government demonstration on June 20.
The crisis reached a climax in November, when the ruling party refused to fulfil its promise to transition to a proportional electoral system. This sparked more protests, which the authorities once again dispersed using force. Ten people were arrested.
The opposition demands a transition to a fully proportional electoral system, believing that a mixed system — where half of the 150 members of parliament are elected proportionally by party list, and the other half are from the majority party — is unable to adequately represent the will of the voters.
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The crisis seemed close to resolution – on March 9, representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream Party and the united opposition, mediated by the US ambassador to Georgia, agreed that future elections would be held according to a 120/30 system. That is, 120 deputies would be elected by party lists, 30 by majority party, in single-member districts.
However, the conflict picked up again almost immediately – on March 10, the court sentenced one of the leaders of the opposition party “European Georgia” and former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, to three years in prison for embezzling 48,000,000 lari [about $17,000,000].
Soon another opposition leader, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, was sentenced to five years for organizing a “siege on the parliament” in June 2019.
The opposition declared this a violation of the clauses of the agreement on the “release of political prisoners,” as well as the agreement not to use the court system in political confrontation. And another major protest was was scheduled for the beginning of April. However, the coronavirus epidemic, the state of emergency and the strict quarantine brought political life to a screeching halt.
Nonetheless, the October elections are fast approaching, and the law on amendments to the electoral system, which many depend on, has not yet been adopted, although the authorities promised to do so.
Will the ruling party fulfill its promise this time? Professor of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs Tornike Sharashenidze had this to say in an interview with JAMnews:
“When one political party deceives and leaves its own people behind, it may happen more than once. But I think that this time people will not be left behind… This time, the (agreement) is the result of negotiations, a compromise that was reached in the presence of Western partners, and it would be very rude for them (the authorities) to go back on it now.”
How much will the crisis help the Georgian Dream?
Tornike Sharashenidze says that another reason the authorities are still inclined to abide by the agreement with the opposition is that the ruling party feels more confident as a result of the crisis caused by the pandemic:
“The government has somehow managed to cope with this crisis. Of course, both we and the government were lucky that health professionals and specialists from the Lugar Lab and the National Center for Disease Control acted in their place.”
As of May 8, there are 623 reported cases of coronavirus in Georgia, 288 of which have recovered, and nine of which have died. The number of cases and deaths in Georgia is significantly lower than in the neighboring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Experts attribute this to Georgia’s timely decision to close the borders and impose a strict quarantine.
Tornike Sharashenidze concludes that the current prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, “looks like the most capable prime minister” among all those previously appointed by the Georgian Dream Party.
Kornely Kakachia, director of the analytical organization Political Institute, also believes that to some extent, the crisis played into the hands of the ruling party in Georgia.
“We know that when a crisis arises, as often happens in many countries when there is a war or pandemic, people begin to ‘rally around the flag,’ society unites around its leaders, and party affiliations lose their relevance.”
Kakachia believes that in fact, the crisis helped the Georgian Dream Party improve its ratings, however, their ability to keep these high ratings depends on many factors, first and foremost on the party’s economic program and on whether the government can attract international aid and manage it effectively.
Will the authorities be able to raise enough?
The success of the current administration will depend on how much international assistance it can attract from international partners to overcome the effects of the crisis, says Sharashenidze.
The government said that it would be able to raise three billion dollars, both to add to the budget and to help the private sector.
“How much money you have is one thing, but how well you spend it is an entirely different issue, how good your economic team is—you have to manage your money correctly. This is also very important,” says Sharashenidze.
Kakachia claims that attracting international assistance will not be as easy as it was, for example, after the war and at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, when Georgia received more than four billion dollars in aid.
“It will not be as easy to find the money Georgia needs, because there will be a lot of competition. Aside from us, there is a huge number of developing and developed countries asking for help. And resources are limited.”
In addition, the expert says, the Georgian government’s “main narrative,” that Georgia has suffered less from the virus than other countries, may work against them in their effort to raise funds.
“The government needs a convincing program for both businesses and ordinary citizens, for people who have lost their jobs. This will be of great importance in the pre-election period,” says Kakachia.
What chance does the opposition have?
Sharashenidze believes that part of the opposition made a mistake during the crisis: “Some were silent, some tried to be constructive, and some turned to excessive criticism.” Because of this, the unity of the opposition front was broken, and the authorities were able to take advantage of the inadequacy of the statements made by some opponents.
At the same time, he says that they “can’t count their chickens before they hatch,” and that the situation may change in a few months.
Kakachia believes that criticism from the opposition about the overly-strict state of emergency, draconian fines or the selective nature of the restrictions is unlikely to play into the hands of the opposition. In his opinion, the authorities may well canel the fines, which will turn the feelings of discontent in their favor.
At the same time, Kakachia brings up the problem of making sure the elections are conducted safely. The virus will most likely not be completely eradicated by fall, which means that holding both voting and election meetings will be problematic.
Tornike Sharashenidze also believes that after the summer, which traditionally is very passive in terms of politics, the opposition will have too little time for the election campaign, and the authorities will be able to use their administrative resources to their advantage.
“In this way, the pandemic dealt a very serious blow to the opposition,” says Sharashenidze.