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Once a frontrunner in democracy in the region, Georgia now faces a crisis of democracy. What was supposed to be the country’s first predominantly proportional parliamentary elections that would strengthen representation and bring in a diverse, pluralistic parliament resulted in the opposite. Georgia’s 2020 parliamentary elections became known as “the least democratic and free” in the Georgian Dream’s rule by the country’s leading NGOs and election-watchdogs.
With growing evidence and allegations that the elections were rigged, the united opposition boycotted Parliament and most have annulled their mandates. The boycott has now come to an end with an EU-mediated agreement between the government and the opposition that promises new, snap elections if the ruling party gets less than 43% in the fall local elections. But the 2020 elections and the crisis that followed proved the extreme weakness of democratic institutions alone as an instrument for political reform in oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgia. This, in turn, has reinforced the significance of boycotts and street protests as effective instruments for engendering change in the country.
Boycotting rigged elections
Despite growing evidence and allegations of election fraud, the OSCE’s relatively positive assessment of the country’s elections, combined with subtle methods of election rigging, has made the opposition’s decision to boycott the parliament rather controversial both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, some citizens do not understand why their chosen parties now refuse to represent them in Parliament. On the other hand, western partners – who are helping facilitate dialogue between the government and the opposition – have pushed the latter to enter Parliament and seek electoral change from within. As Kelly Degnan, the US Ambassador to Georgia, stated in a briefing, the opposition’s “reflex is to take it to the streets and boycott.”
Indeed, the contentious nature surrounding the opposition’s move is exactly what motivated me to write this essay. As someone who has observed the country’s elections, I would like to provide my point of view on why entering Parliament now would be, on the one hand, legitimising rigged elections and allowing the ruling party to get away with it in the future; and on the other hand, would serve as window-dressing for democracy in Bidzina Ivanishvili’s growingly authoritarian Georgia, where institutions matter less and less.
To begin with explaining why entering Parliament would be legitimising rigged elections, it is first important to make clear how the elections were, indeed, rigged. With a limited observation mission due to the global pandemic, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated in its assessment of the October 31st elections that “fundamental rights and freedoms” were respected on Election Day. Although they noted that “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process,” the overall impression it left on Georgia’s strategic partners is that violations on Election Day did not warrant something as radical as a boycott.
Georgia’s elections were, indeed, not rigged as explicitly as in Belarus or Russia. Rather, the rigging of elections was a long and sometimes subtle process that took place before, during and after Election Day. Consequently, given its limited observation mission and lack of familiarity with the Soviet methods used to rig elections, the OSCE’s rather positive assessment is unsurprising. The organisation made an almost identical assessment of the October elections in Kyrgyzstan, which were later overturned through mass protests by the opposition.
Unlike the OSCE, however, Georgia’s local NGOs and election watchdogs had greater presence and understanding of Soviet-style tactics used to rig elections, and their assessment contrasts sharply from that of the OSCE. According to a joint statement released by 26 of the country’s leading NGOs, including the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the “Georgian government has failed to ensure the elections adhere to democratic standards.” Furthermore, they went on to say that the 2020 parliamentary elections were “the least democratic and free among the elections held under the Georgian Dream government.”
The most common and practiced violation in this predominantly poor, post-Soviet country is vote buying and intimidation. For people who do not have food for the next day or fear losing their jobs, bribing and intimidating has served as an effective method for gaining votes both before and during elections. Although vote buying and intimidation happened throughout many years of elections in Georgia, NGOs and local observers noted that its intensity stood out during this election season. Observers witnessed cases of vote buying outside polling stations, and there were pictures of a man with a gun outside one polling station in a district in Tbilisi.
What especially stood out in this election, according to the ISFED, Georgia’s leading election watchdog, was that in eight percent of the election precincts, the number of voters and the number of votes did not add-up. In other words, there was either a greater number of ballots than voters or vice versa. Even greater question marks are brought by the fact that when ISFED submitted complaints regarding these violations to the election commission and later to the court, they were largely disregarded. Out of 162 complaints submitted by the ISFED, only ten were examined and ruled upon.
Aside from imbalances in protocols, the so-called Russian carousels, nullified ballots, and blurred lines between state and party were other noted violations on Election Day. When it comes to the carousels, people were caught voting more than once in different precincts and bussed from one station to another. Although Transparency International recorded a video of someone voting more than once, their complaint and request to annul the results of that precinct were disregarded.
Furthermore, according to the ISFED, 3.5 percent of ballots in total were nullified (not counted because of a ruined ballot or unclear demonstration of will by the voter), which is “significantly higher than in the 2016 parliamentary elections.” The ISFED also issued complaints that in some instances these ballots were nullified even though the will of the voter was clear, and nothing was wrong with the ballot. In one of the precinct recounts after the ISFED filed a complaint, it was found that votes for opposition candidates were more common than the official result suggested and that these votes were mostly disregarded as nullified ballots.
Finally, the blurring of the line between state and party – which the OSCE also reported on – created a hostile environment for observers, where in some cases they were even attacked. As an observer representing an opposition party myself, both of my complaints – written against the observers from the ruling party, who were writing down people’s voting numbers and sending them via SMS (an infamous tactic to track down who has come to vote and who still needs to be brought) – were disregarded. The commission members continued to remain on friendly terms with the observers representing the ruling party. As one member of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association put it, “Observing elections was like playing a match with a system on its own field, with its own rules and with its own referees.”
In the post-election period, additional questions and doubts arose when the Central Election Commission took more than seven hours to publish the preliminary election results. Once the preliminary results were released, some protocols were found to have been modified without official amendment protocols (that require signature of all commission members). In some cases, fake commission member signatures were used in the amendment protocols.
Given the scale and extent of the violations that could have had a decisive impact on the final results, recognising the results and entering parliament now would be throwing to waste the years of battle for a democratic and free Georgia by the Georgian people. Georgia is a country that in 2003 refused to tolerate rigged elections and took to the streets on what became known as the Rose Revolution. It is a country that managed to have its first peaceful transition of power through elections in 2012; a country that, having achieved all this, fought relentlessly to transition to a predominantly proportional election system – where citizens would be better represented and where the Soviet legacy of one-party rule would be eradicated for once and for all. Consequently, recognizing the results of this election and entering parliament now would be bringing the country back to the pre-2003 period – when citizens’ voices and votes simply did not matter.
Even if the opposition were to take advice from its international partners and attempt to fight for change from within, it would simply prove useless in Ivanishvili’s Georgia, which according to Transparency International Georgia’s recent report is a captured state. The opposition would merely serve as window-dressing, in a parliament that would help the ruling party create a perception that pluralism and institutions prevail in the country. The reality is that, with the exception of the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in Georgia’s 2012 elections, all major change in Georgia has taken the form of street protests and boycotts. The quest for a proportional election system in the past year was not any different.
The government decided to concede to a full proportional system only after thousands of Georgians took the streets in June 2019 and, together with protesting encroaching Russian presence in the country, demanded a switch to a proportional election system – so that the one-party rule that has dominated the country for the past 30 years would be replaced with a pluralistic, coalition government, and people would be represented more closely by the institutions and change could be made within. Given the growing number of angry Georgians that would not settle until their demand was met, the government had no choice but to give the people what they wanted.
This concession was quickly erased, as Parliament did not approve of such change. Street protests broke out soon again. This time, however, the opposition joined in by boycotting Parliament. This led to negotiations between the government and the opposition with the facilitation of Georgia’s international partners (the United States and the European Union). As a result of these negotiations, a predominantly proportional election system was reinstated where 120 deputies would be elected with a party list and 30 with majoritarian (winner takes all) candidates. In addition, most of the country’s political prisoners were released.
As the US State Department spokesperson stated recently, watching the recent events unfold is like watching the same film over again. However, the reason the film is being replayed is not because the opposition and the people enjoy taking to the streets or boycotting Parliament. It is because, in Ivanishvili’s Georgia, institutions do not serve the people – they serve a party.
But boycott and street protests do not substitute for functioning democracy. Despite the EU-mediated agreement that brought the opposition into the parliament, Georgia will continue to be an epicentre of crisis in the region, and its institutions weak instruments for change, until a regime change to a pluralistic and democratic government occurs.
A version of this article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe on February 3, 2021.
Anastasia Mgaloblishvili is a recent graduate of the College of Europe’s Masters in European politics and governance. Her previous work experience includes the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office and Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security.