By Koka Kapanadze.

Georgia’s 2016 parliamentary election is scheduled to to take place on October 8th and will decide how many parties will enter the Parliament of Georgia and with how many seats. The 2012 Parliamentary Elections saw a peaceful transfer of power from the United National Movement (UNM) to the Georgian Dream first time in Georgia’s history. GD won 57% of the seats.

In the run up to this year’s vote, both of the leading parties, the Georgian Dream and the UNM, have sought to offer new faces. Paata Burchuladze, a famous public figure and opera singer, has also entered the political arena to lead the party, “State for the People”. This year’s election is one of the most contested elections in Georgia’s history and polls indicate that the leading parties have little chance of gaining more than 50% of the vote.

According to the Central Electoral Commission, there are 19 political parties and 6 coalition registered for 2016 Parliamentary Elections. Opinion polls have found the major contenders to be: the Georgian Dream, the United National Movement, “Paata Burchuladze – State for the People”, the Patriots’ Alliance, the Free Democrats and the Labour Party.

There are several important organisations that have been observing the elections, such as The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and many other local or international organisations, which have already been observing the campaign period.  Their main aim is  to ensure that the elections are held in peaceful and fair manner. The issues that have dominated the election campaign are the imprisonment of the opposition leaders, allegations of informal governance and the country’s poor economic performance.

According to a poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 33% of respondents think that the country is not heading in the right direction; 25% think it’s heading in the right direction; and 34% think that the country is not changing at all.

How do Georgian Parliamentary Elections work?

Recently there have been some major changes to the electoral system. Constituency boundaries were redrawn following a decision by the Constitutional Court. The decision was criticised by the opposition who accused the Georgian Dream of trying to gerrymander districts in their favour. Another major change is that majoritarian candidates for single-mandate districts will now have to receive 50% of the vote instead of 30%, as it was in the past. If none of the candidates pass the 50% threshold then a runoff vote will be held between the two candidates who won the most votes. Seventy-three out of the 150 seats of the parliament will be filled in this way.

The Georgian Dream have delayed plans to abolish the single mandate system till 2020, despite strong criticism of the system by the President, opposition parties, local  and international organisations which have said that the system doesn’t ensure a proportional distribution of votes. Supporters of the system claim that direct election of MPs leads to a sense of greater political responsiveness amongst people, however according to research conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), 69% of people doesn’t know who their local member of parliament is.

At the polling station, candidates will cast one vote for a majoritarian candidate running in their district, and a second vote for a national party list. Seventy-seven seats in the parliament will be distributed amongst the parties according to the proportion of list votes they received. Parties must pass a minimum threshold of 4% in order to win seats in the parliament.

Election in Numbers

More than 800 majoritarian candidates have registered for 2016 Parliamentary elections, out of which, 57 are independent candidates and only 132 are female. Three parties, the Georgian Dream, the UNM and Alliance of Patriots, have candidates in almost every electoral district. The Alliance of Patriots is represented in 71 districts and the Free Democrats in 64. The number of majoritarian candidates per district varies from 6 to 16. Initially State for the People had candidates in 72 districts, but one of the parties from the coalition, NPC Girchi, withdrew from the bloc thus reducing their total number of candidates. Girchi will no longer run in the 2016 Parliamentary Elections after the Burchuladze reportedly asked them to leave the coalition.

According to a report published in July by the National Democratic Institute, the aforementioned parties look set to win the largest share of the votes. According to an NDI poll, if the elections were held tomorrow 19% of respondents said they would vote for the Georgian Dream, 14% said the United National Movement, 13% refuse to answer and 5% said they wouldn’t vote for anyone. Four percent said they would vote for Paata Burchuladze – State for the People, and 3% said the Alliance of Patriots. Seven percent named “other parties” – with political coalitions were named by less than 3%: the Free Democrats, Labour Party, United Democratic Movement and others. However in its latest survey, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has also included Free Democrats (11%) and Labour Party (8%) in its top five parties. The NDI poll also found that 57% of voters were undecided.

A poll published last week, commissioned by Rustavi 2 and conducted by the German-American polling agency GFK found that the United National Movement (UNM) has just edged ahead of the Georgian Dream by half of a percentage point. Amongst respondents who stated that they would vote, 26% said they intended to vote for the UNM and 25.4% for the Georgian Dream. The Labour Party and the Free Democrats were selected by 3.8% and 3.6% of respondents respectively, whilst 2.6% of those surveyed said they intended to vote for Paata Burchuladze’s coalition, State For The People. One and a half percent of prospective voters said they would vote for the Patriots’ Alliance and Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement.

A fifth of of respondents said that they were still undecided as to whom to vote for.

The results show a slight increase in support for the UNM in comparison with polling data from August which found the Georgian Dream to be on 25.8% and the UNM on 25.5%.

Changes since 2012 Parliamentary Elections

The 2012 Parliamentary Elections were held in a politically charged atmosphere, after videos were leaked which showed people being tortured in Georgian prisons. Billionaire Bidznina Ivanishvili formed a coalition of opposition parties under the umbrella, ‘The Georgian Dream’, winning a majority of seats in the parliament.

Since that time a number of parties have left the Georgian Dream coalition. In November 2014, the Free Democrats became the first party to leave the coalition. The then Defence Minister of Georgia was the second to leave following a dispute over the so-called ‘Cable Case’. In April 2016 the National Forum which left the coalition and finally the Republican party of Georgia decided to run independently in the upcoming elections.

Even though Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former Prime Minister of Georgia and founder of Georgian Dream isn’t running in the elections himself, he has been actively promoting the Georgian Dream during interviews with GDS TV.

Election Campaign

Other parties have been campaigning by holding public meetings and their candidates have made a number of media appearances. Most of the parties have advocated for a  liberal economic agenda, promising to reduce taxes and to cut back on red tape for small and medium businesses. However, a number populist promises have also been made. For example Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Free Democrats, has promised everyone a minimum wage of 500 GEL.

Most recently, UNM leader and Member of Parliament Givi Targamadze survived an assassination attempt. Targamadze’s car exploded in central Tbilisi, close to Freedom Square. Targamadze and his driver were in the vehicle at the time, and sustained only minor injuries.  Five passers-by were injured and hospitalized. The police are investigating the incident as an attempted assassination, the Georgia Dream has accused opposition of involvement in the violent incident, while the UNM has criticized GD for inability to enforce the law and guarantee security of citizens.

During the pre-election campaign number of other incident have taken place. Shots were fired at a campaign meeting of majoritarian candidate Irakli Okraushvili in Gori. A member of Okrashvili’s security team and a party activist were shot. Okruashvili has claimed that responsibility for the attack lies with the regional Georgian Dream activists.

The relationship between the two major parties, the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement has soured in recent months after a number of such incidents. A UNM office was raided while the Prime Minister has accused the UNM of allegedly forming clandestine organisations to provoke tensions ahead of the elections. However the UNM has on a number of occasions accused the government of being behind violent acts committed against them and their supporters. In one controversial incident, leading members of the UNM were beaten up outside of a polling station in Samegrelo.

Pro-Russian Forces

Support for pro-Russian organisations has increased in recent years and they have been accused of disseminating pro-Russian views in Georgia. According to  NDI’s poll results 29% of pollees are expecting more profit from Russia. Both current and previous governments have been clear on supporting Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, but some political parties are still striving to change that direction. Such as Nino Burjanadze – Democratic Movement or Patriots’ Alliance who refrain from announcing any specific and direct statements, but tend to confine themselves arguing for better relations with Russia and pro-Russian foreign policy. As a matter of fact, Burjanadze has suggested to the Parliament of Georgia to discuss making constitutional change to Georgia’s “non-aligned” status.

The party that hasn’t refrained for expressing their pro-Russian attitude was “Centrists Khachishvili-Bedukadze”. This openly pro-Russian party has promised citizens to have Russian pensions that will amount at 400 GEL, double citizenship law to allow Georgians receive Russian citizenship and what’s the most important to allow Russian military bases in Georgia. The party was banned from elections by Central Election Commission on August 16. Chairwoman of the Central Electoral Commision, Tamar Zhvania, said that the decision was made after the National Agency of Public Registry announced that the Centrists’ party has had no legal leadership since 2006. However leaders of Centrist party Temur Khachishvili and Vladimer Bedukadze will run for elections as members of Georgian Communist Party – Stalinists.

Several organisations have addressed the implications for strengthening of pro-Russian forces, such as Institute for the Development of Freedom of Expression (IDFI) which thinks that Russian propaganda has intensified in recent years and that the Government of Georgia should come up with the national strategy against propaganda. According to poll conducted by National Democratic Institute (NDI) in May 2015, 68% of population support Georgia’s aspiration to become member of the European Union, 65% support membership of  the NATO and 31% supports Eurasian Union.

Funding and Political Donations

The financial monitoring of the parties is done by State Audit Office of Georgia, which publishes the reports on its website. Transparency International Georgia has also launched the portal, where citizens can see all the political donations to the parties  and cross-check it with the open source information about the legal entities and individuals and their affiliations.

It is prohibited to receive the donations from the individual or legal entity outside of Georgia, religious organisations, non-profit organisations, individuals without the citizenship or state institutions (with few exceptions). Donations also can’t be received in the anonymous way. The highest amount that the individual can donate is 60 000 GEL, whereas for legal entity it’s 120 000 GEL. This year Georgian Dream received donations worth 1,070,500 GEL. Paata Burchuladze’s State for the People takes the second place with 2,025,483 GEL, followed by Patriots’ Alliance with 626,948 GEL. United National Movement received the donations worth 566,614 GEL. Most of the companies or legal entities are donating to the ruling party.

Who’s observing the upcoming elections

Several important organisations will evaluate whether the proceedings of the pre-election period and vote counting process correspond to the international standards and obligations for democratic elections. Campaign activities and its media coverage as well as the work of the Central Electoral Commission will be observed during this period.

So far next organisations have been registered as the observers for upcoming 2016 Parliamentary Elections: OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Among international observers there are also: International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), US Embassy in Georgia, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Tbilisi British Embassy Tbilisi, Central Electoral Commission of Latvia, Central Electoral Committee of Estonia, Delian Project, Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey.

Four local organisations have also registered to observe the elections:

Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia), International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) and Public Movement “Multinational Georgia” (PMMG).

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has published its observers’ report conducted in the 8 regions of Georgia between 1-25 August. The report focuses on the pre-election environment in Georgia, and predicts that the elections will be highly competitive and that run-offs will take place in many single mandate districts. They’ve also stated that the media was generally balanced and impartial.

The international assessment has crucial importance for the democratic development of Georgia and regardless of the outcome the most important is that the elections are held in a free and fair manner.

If you want to follow the news regarding 2016 Parliamentary Elections you can click on the following link.