Municipal elections are over - what will the opposition do now?
Municipal elections in Georgia, which the opposition saw as a referendum on the confidence in government, ended with the victory of the ruling party.
As a result of both rounds, the opposition only won in one of the 64 municipalities – Tsalenjikha. The fate of big cities was decided by several hundred votes.
The opposition does not recognize the election results and has already announced the beginning of an uncompromising struggle. The elections deepened the political crisis in the country. Experts and international observers point to the extreme and unprecedented polarization of society. At the same time, the third president of the country, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been on hunger strike for more than a month, further aggravating the situation in the country.
What will the struggle of the opposition be like and how government respond to it? What fate awaits the starving third president and how will the country emerge from the severe crisis?
- What is the opposition going to do and what do we know about its plans
The opposition calls the elections “rigged” and does not recognize its results.
How election observers assessed the election
OSCE / ODIHR and European Parliament observers assessed the second round of the October 30 local elections as “generally well-administered, but contributing to further polarisation” noting that “escalation of negative rhetoric negatively affected the process”.
However, the 23-page report of these influential international observer missions does not use the word “fair” and does not state that the elections were “fair and equitable”.
The report shows that international observers saw more problems not on the election day, but on days prior to it, in the pre-election period and in the political environment in the country in general.
“The sharp imbalance between resources and the disproportionate advantage of being in power have changed the playing field”, the report reads.
The report also noted that candidates could run the campaign freely, but during both rounds, “widespread and consistent allegations of harassment and intimidation were retained, as well as the inconsistent advantage of the authorities in power”.
The election was more strongly assessed by other international and domestic observers. A joint statement signed by Georgia’s 16 most influential international organizations said the election was “held to a low democratic standard”.
The statement also said that “in terms of technical administration, Election Day was conducted in accordance with the rules established by law”, however, the joint statement explicitly stated that irregularities identified before the election and on election day may have affected its results.
“During the pre-election period, irregularities detected by local and international observer missions during the voting and counting process on election day were clearly reflected in the free will of the electorate, public confidence in the election process and results”, the statement said.
The statements of the coalition leaders include the words “uncompromising struggle”, “struggle until victory” and “real public protest”.
However, what exactly the opposition intends to do – what strategy of struggle it chooses and where the main processes will take place – on the street or in the tribune of the Parliament and / or in the City Councils, is not yet clear.
Nor is it clear whether the opposition will maintain the coalition unity it managed to form before the local self-government elections.
For example, it is already known that the opinion of the opposition is divided on leaving or not leaving the parliamentary mandates.
One section believes that the opposition should relinquish its parliamentary seats and that the Georgian Dream should be left alone in the legislature.
Mamuka Khazaradze, the leader of Lelo, Zura Japaridze, the leader of Girchi – More Freedom, and Nona Mamulashvili, Ana Tsitlidze and Levan Varshalomidze, members of the United National Movement, resigned three days after the elections.
The first to do so was Mamuka Khazaradze who said that he was leaving the mandate to continue fighting on the streets.
“I am leaving because I will continue to fight with you on the street. We will fight until we win”, Khazaradze told opposition supporters gathered in Tbilisi on the evening of October 31.
Nona Mamulashvili, a member of the United National Movement faction, said she was “not going to serve in parliament where the country’s interests are not protected”. Ana Tsitlidze, who was included in the parliament by the UNM list, said that “the Dream should be left alone”.
Part of the opposition believes that all tribunes should be used for the fight, including the parliamentary one. For example, Khazaradze’s decision was not approved by Salome Samadashvili, member of the “Try – Partnership for Georgia” faction.
“I support crowded rallies and I will take part in all rallies, but it is no less important for the government to fight in the formal forums where we are represented”, Salome Samadashvili told RFE / RL.
Khatuna Samnidze, chairwoman of the Reform Group faction, does not consider it reasonable to leave the parliament either, especially since important constitutional changes must be made there. These changes should amend the rules of parliamentary elections in Georgia.
What about constitutional changes
The constitutional amendments should address electoral procedures – in addition to the fact that by 2024 parliamentary elections should be held in full proportional representation and the majoritarian system must be abolished, a 2% electoral threshold should be introduced instead of the 5% one in the next two parliamentary elections. This package of changes was prepared under the agreement of Charles Michel.
Discussions on the constitutional amendments began in September. The bill has been adopted in the first reading, there are two more hearings ahead. 113 votes are needed for its approval. Although the Georgian Dream has promised to make these changes, representatives of the ruling team have now begun to say that they have no obligation to approve them.
For example, on October 2, Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream, said it might be better for democratic development if the old system remained in place.
After raising the issue of constitutional changes, UNM lawmakers said they would formally retain their mandates until the amendments were approved.
Nika Oboladze, a member of the United National Movement, says that UNM members will formally remain in parliament and take part in approving the constitutional amendments.
Mikheil Saakashvili also changed his position regarding the parliament. On November 1, he called on his teammates to leave the mandates. However, he later said that his teammates should retain their mandates formally so that they, as MPs, could visit him in prison.
As for Zura Japaridze and Mamuka Khazaradze, they did not change their minds about leaving their seats.
Since the old Girchi has been divided into two, the Girchi – More Freedom was only represented by Zura Japaridze, and now it is completely out of Georgian parliament.
No one from the Lelo party has left the mandate except Khazaradze, therefore, the Lelo faction remains in the parliament.
● The street is a place for an alternative struggle
One thing that is more or less certain and does not raise questions is street protests. The street rallies are supported by almost the entire opposition spectrum, even those who are in favor of staying in parliament.
Along with the United National Movement, Mamuka Khazaradze’s Lelo, Elene Khoshtaria’s Droa and Zura Japaridze’s Girchi – More Freedom remain the main actors of the street rallies.
That is, the coalition formed by the opposition before the elections maintains unity even in the post-election struggle.
The European Georgia party does not refuse to take part in street rallies either, although this party has a different position from the others towards the radical protest.
The European Georgia’s leader Giga Bokeria says the opposition slogan “Elections have been canceled” is unacceptable to him.
“The fight against the authoritarian regime requires a complex and consistent approach, a necessary part of which is peaceful protests. But here I want to state in advance the position of European Georgia, that the that the ‘elections are annulled’ slogan is fundamentally wrong”, Bokeria said.
He opposes a “revolutionary, non-electoral” fight against Ivanishvili’s government, and says the opposition should not expect the population to succeed quickly:
“We must all be ready for a consistent, unfortunately, seemingly short-lived struggle, and this failure should not lead us to despair. Statements about us ‘no longer being patient and having to do something’, on the contrary, contribute to the establishment of nihilism on the part of the Ivanishvili regime and plunge the society into despair”, Bokeria said.
After the second round of elections, at the October 31 rally in Tbilisi, leaders of the opposition coalition announced continuous rallies in different regions of Georgia.
In the first week after the elections, three large rallies were held in Georgia: in Batumi, Zugdidi and Kutaisi.
Another large-scale rally is scheduled for November 6 in Tbilisi.
Several demands have been voiced at the rallies that have already taken place, including the release of Mikheil Saakashvili and a fair election environment.
JAMnews tried to clarify the main demands of the opposition, however, we were told that parties are not able to announce them until the November 6 rally.
The only thing that is clear at this point is that the opposition is ready for a long struggle. This rhetoric is heard in the speeches of the opposition party leaders such as Nika Melia, who said that he would not go home until the final victory.
In parallel with these rallies, another center of protest emerged in Georgia – in Rustavi, near the prison, where the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been on hunger strike for more than a month. Rallies are held there every day.
The rallies near Rustavi prison are organised by the National Movement and it are attended by representatives of various parties, and prominent figures – journalists, writers, artists, artists, etc.
Their main demand is the transfer of Mikheil Saakashvili to a civilian clinic for treatment amid his hunger strike.
The ex-president’s condition is already so dire that some have even resorted to a radical form of protest.
Elene Khoshtaria, the leader of Droa also went on a hunger strike in the parliament for three days already. At the beginning of the hunger strike, she said that she was neither Saakashvili’s teammate nor his voter, moreover, she had criticized him many times. Khoshtaria also noted that regardless of that, what was happening now was a sadistic and cynical revenge against a Georgian citizen and former president:
“This issue is in the state interest, therefore, creating a threat to Saakashvili’s health condition is absolutely inadmissible, even at one percent”.
Despite these demands, the government stubbornly repeats that Saakashvili will only be treated in the N18 prison medical facility where Saakashvili refuses to be transferred. The Public Defender also considers it inappropriate for the treatment of the former president of the prison hospital.
● Legal battle
In parallel with the rallies, the opposition intends to file a complaint about all election violations in the districts and take it to the courts.
The leaders of the opposition jointly made this statement as soon as they understood the preliminary results of the elections.
“The opposition must now protect every vote and draw up protocols on violations, which we will provide to our international partners”, Mamuka Khazaradze said.
Nika Oboladze, a member of the United National Movement, told JAMnews that the opposition did not have high hopes for this legal battle, but that it needed to show that they had used all the levers available:
“We are not refusing to fight formally. Firstly, because it further exposes the results and shows that we have won, especially in the eyes of our international partners. Secondly, it will be a demonstration of us trying to protect the votes, fighting legally as well as on the streets”.
● Tsalenjikha – new opposition front
Another place where the opposition is trying out different fighting tactics is the small provincial town of Tsalenjikha.
Tsalenjikha is the only municipality in Georgia that has an opposition mayor. Gia Kharchilava, a member of the United National Movement, says he intends to “turn his city into a hub of freedom”.
“Tsalenjikha has an ideological load – as one of the outposts of the opposition, a haven for dissent and a historical past with the Rose Revolution”, Gia Kharchilava told the Main Channel.
Tsalenjikha has been one of the main epicenters of events in recent days, and a number of initiatives have already emerged in connection with this small town.
On the second day of the elections, the international non-governmental organization Eastern European Center for Multiparty Democracy (EECMD) announced that it would open a new office in Tsalenjikha – the Democracy Hub.
The statement said that this will be a space where meetings and seminars will be held on issues of democratic governance, democratic politics and political activity.
Nika Gvaramia, General Director of the main opposition TV channel, said that the channel will change its legal address and will be registered in Tsalenjikha:
“The main value of the main channel is freedom. Tsalenjikha is the only place in Georgia where people have gained freedom”, Gvaramia wrote on social media.
Zura Japaridze, leader of Girchi – More Freedom party, plans to buy real estate in Tsalenjikha. Lelo leader Mamuka Khazaradze is going to move to Tsalenjikha and help the newly elected mayor:
“I will move to Tsalenjikha and buy an apartment in the near future. I will stand by the newly elected mayor of Tsalenjikha and I will use all my experience to turn Tsalenjikha into an oasis”, said Khazaradze.
After his statement, the initiative to start a business in Tsalenjikha was voiced by the President of Coca-Cola Bottlers Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia. Chkonia intends to invest in sports, education and infrastructure there:
“We, decent people, are going to stand by a decent person in the implementation of projects that may be contagious to those mayors who want to do something but do not have an example to follow”, Temur Chkonia told BM.GE.
The opposition is going to fight in several councils where the Dream failed to win a majority.
Nika Oboladze says that the spread information that the opposition is going to give up the won cities in protest is false:
“We are not going to give up anything. Everything will be the lever in the fight for victory”.
Moreover, part of the opposition, in parallel with the large-scale popular unrest, also spoke about “people’s impeachment”. The author of such a statement was the leader of the People party, Ana Dolidze.
Dolidze said that in those councils where the Dream does not have a majority, the opposition should start the procedure of impeachment of the mayor. Among such cities, Dolidze named Batumi, Kutaisi and Zugdidi.
● The government’s response
Government authorities’ statements about the election fraud and the struggle of the opposition and Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike, as always, were cynical.
“Sunday is coming up. The defeated politicians should rest, sleep and go to bed”, said the Minister of Culture Tea Tsulukiani to the opponents after the announcement of the preliminary results of the elections.
Mamuka Mdinaradze, chairman of the Georgian Dream faction, called the resignation of opposition leaders irresponsible.
“We are not really going to beg. We have not terminated our mandates twice and we are not going to persuade them to stay in the parliament for the third time”, said Mdinaradze, who had previously called Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike “fake”
“Someone is starving Khoshtaria so that Saakashvili does not starve. This is completely nonsense and a something of a comic genre”, was the reaction of the chairman of the ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze to the protest of Elene Khoshtaria.
Kobakhidze says that the parliament will continue to work as usual: “It does not matter who will enter it and who will not”.
However, Kobakhidze’s speeches have already shown signs of trade expected by the constitutional agreement:
“Parliament will discuss this issue and a decision will be made based on the discussion, taking everything into account”, said the chairman of the Georgian Dream.
● Saakashvili factor
Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been detained for more than a month, says in letters from prison that the change can only be achieved through crowded rallies:
“Our strength is in unity, and the recipe for victory is in abundance and in fatigue”, Saakashvili wrote, saying that with his release from prison, “extraordinary elections will be called in a maximum of ten days”.
Nika Oboladze says that Saakashvili’s factor played an important role in the elections and will be decisive in the opposition’s fight:
“The merit of Mikheil Saakashvili’s factor is that despite the pre-election pressures, administrative and more financial resources, appointments, the government has achieved a maximum of one percent victories. His factor will be decisive in this fight as well”.
Expert Gia Khukhashvili told JAMnews that “Saakashvili belongs to the type of politicians who see the processes in themselves and not in the processes themselves”:
“He has to live the country with his agenda, which he manages to do. It only damages the processes. Of course, he should be released, it is already a humanitarian issue and not a political one. But using this issue to overthrow the government is an impossible task”.
Khukhashvili believes that the opposition should not bet on street rallies. In his opinion, leaving the parliament, boycotting and putting all hopes only on the street protests is not the right strategy in which the process would lose its perspective. Moreover, it is wrong to think of a revolutionary scenario:
“I am not against the protests, there are grounds for that, but these protests should not take on a revolutionary character, which is what ex-president Saakashvili is pushing him to do. These issues will not be resolved on the street, we have seen this many times”.
According to expert Gia Nodia, the opposition is in a difficult situation. He says that in the face of Saakashvili’s imprisonment and hunger strike, it is difficult to imagine part of the opposition, and especially his teammates, believing only in a parliamentary struggle:
“Because on the one hand, there is a starving president, on the other hand, there is a government that says it does not care about his hunger strike. Thus, there is no institutional way to solve the problem. The opposition is in a difficult situation, it cannot afford not to concentrate on Saakashvili’s release”.
According to Gia Nodia, the opposition can achieve the release of the ex-president through rallies as a one-time act, while a fair election environment is a structural issue and it will require a long-term struggle.
“Victory through elections (Tsalenjikha factor – JAMnews) should become a precedent and the use and dissemination of this factor should be a long-term strategy of the opposition”, said Gia Nodia, adding that the main thing now is for the opposition to do everything possible to avoid the expected violent scenario.