Georgians are voting today in the second round of local elections to choose Mayors and local Councillors in a number of key cities where the first round of voting, held on 2 October was inconclusive. The total number of voters eligible to vote in the second round is 2,088,722 - around half of which in the capital, Tbilisi
Georgians appear to be tired of the non stop polorised politics that has dominated public life in recent years, but it is unlikely that the elections will bring a closure to the huge divide within Georgian society.
The following commentary was published recently on our fortnightly digest Caucasus Concise on 21 October 2021.
Georgia after 30 October – beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?
The bitter debate around Georgian politics continued in recent days, ahead of run-off municipal elections in many major Georgian cities including Tbilisi, as well as various other communities. The first round of the municipal elections in these constituencies, on 2 October, proved inconclusive since none of the parties or their candidates secured more than 50 percent of the votes cast. However, these municipal elections were always about much more than who will run the municipal services. For many, the future of Georgia is in the balance.
The elections are seen as a referendum on the popularity of the incumbent government led by Georgian Dream (GD). To add to the drama, a few days before the first round, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, founder of the main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), turned up in Georgia, having smuggled himself in illegally, and was duly arrested. Saakashvili is now on hunger strike as he serves a six-year prison term for abuse of power during his presidency, and a number of other cases are pending. Saakashvili’s appearance and arrest further polarised an already divided country. In the elections on 2 October many of the opposition parties were squeezed out as voters shifted to the two opposing poles GD and UNM, but giving an outright victory to neither.
Ahead of the second round there has been some consolidation of the opposition forces around the UNM, but crucially, the leadership of two parties who between them won just under 14% of the votes in the key Tbilisi Mayoral election in the first round, decided to support neither GD nor UNM in the second round. Giorgi Gakharia’s ‘For Georgia’ secured 9.41%, whilst Ana Dolidze’s ‘For the people’ secured 4.56% coming third and fourth respectively. This lack of endorsement is crucial given that in the election of the mayor of Tbilisi in the first round, Kakha Kaladze, the GD candidate, received 45% of votes (216,344), while Nika Melia, the UNM candidate, came second with 34.01% (163,489 votes).
The UNM has tried to reinvent itself in the days between the first and second rounds of the vote – emphasising reconciliation, and putting forward in the crucial Tbilisi Mayoral and Council elections a coalition team, dubbed as a “shadow cabinet” representing the different parties that have rallied around its candidate Nika Melia.
Both government and opposition spokespersons have hinted that they saw the elections on 30 October as an end game. The GD hopes that an outright victory will silence the opposition once and for all, and that it will also bring to an end a cycle of elections which has politically exhausted the country. The next elections, if held on schedule, are three years away. On the other hand, the UNM believes that if it can capture Tbilisi – something that looked impossible some time ago but is now within the realm of the possible, it would have broken the back of the government, and replacing it shortly afterwards would be easy.
Unfortunately, a lot of this is wishful thinking. Whatever the results of the 30 October poll, politics is not going to go away, and the GD hope of three years of tranquillity is, to say the least, unlikely. Similarly, a UNM Mayor in Tbilisi, whilst possible, is very unlikely. Saakashvili’s presence, even if in prison and on huger strike, appears to have re-energised the UNM, but not enough.
Thus, come 31 October, Georgian politics are likely to look not very different from today. What some hope is the beginning of the end of a messy chapter in Georgian politics may end up being just the end of the beginning.
source: This commentary was first published on Caucasus Concise on 21 October 2021.