Georgia's parliamentary elections gave the opposition, led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, probably the best chance for revenge and a return to power.
Although the ruling Georgian Dream party remains the most popular, its ratings are far from peak. If in the current parliament the "dreamers" have a constitutional majority, as now, in this election there was a very real option that the votes received by the ruling party will not be enough to form a majority on their own.
And this meant for them a chance to lose power altogether. After all, all key opposition forces said before the election that they were not going to build a coalition with Mriya under any circumstances.
However, the October 31 election shattered the hopes of Saakashvili and his allies.
"Georgian Dream" won the third consecutive victory in the parliamentary elections.
The opposition, however, disagrees. On November 1, they held a rally to mark the beginning of protests against what they say were falsified results. The "traditional" allegations of violations were compounded by the closure of the demarcation lines between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which do not control Tbilisi, making it impossible for residents to participate in the elections. And let them be few, but their votes are symbolic - and should have reached the opposition.
How far will the confrontation go in Georgia? And will the opposition, as promised, risk giving up its mandates to prevent the newly elected parliament from working?
A chance for Saakashvili
At the beginning of the year, the opposition's chances for revenge seemed quite real.
The Georgian Dream has been in power alone for the eighth year in a row - and many are tired of it. Especially considering that the economic success of the "dreamers" is very moderate and does not meet their election promises.
And the course of "cooling" or "silencing" the conflict with Russia is negatively perceived by a large part of society - especially given that the Kremlin continues the tactics of "border", constantly mixing the "border" of their occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia deep into Georgia.
Last year, public discontent erupted into several spontaneous protests, which were dispersed rather harshly.
Rising protests forced the authorities to announce a reform of the election law last year. The threshold for entry into parliament was lowered to 1%, giving many small parties a chance to pass (only three political forces were able to pass in the previous parliamentary elections). And most importantly - the government then promised to abandon the "mixed" electoral system, according to which (as in Ukraine) 50% of deputies are elected on party lists, and 50% - in majority constituencies.
In Georgian realities, this system is incredibly beneficial to the authorities. Thus, in the 2016 elections, all, ie 100% of the elected majoritarians, joined the ruling faction, as a result of which "Dream" received a constitutional majority.
However, as soon as the protests fell asleep, Mriya tried to "take its word" and not change the mixed system. This met with resistance both within the country and in the West. In the end, they agreed on a compromise - the majority agreed to elect not 75, but only 30 deputies out of 150.
Elections without votes from the occupied territories
Zugdidi is the center of the Samegrelo region in western Georgia, one of the most politically active.
Until recently, the region was considered Saakashvili's "electoral base" - not least because of the fact that refugees from Abkhazia live there, as well as Georgians who remain living in the occupied territories. It is believed that they are loyal supporters of the former president, because it was during his rule that the authorities began to solve their problems.
"During the time of the nationals (Saakashvili's United National Movement) there were some changes, something was done, there were reforms ... Now I see only constant disputes between the parties, nothing more," said Dali, a 74-year-old refugee from Abkhazia.
However, during the eight years of the Georgian Dream's leadership, these facets have faded somewhat. The ruling party is also actively campaigning in places of compact refugee settlement. And although there have been no radical changes in the lives of refugees over the years (for example, in the places where they have settled, there are still problems with water supply and sewerage), many have believed the authorities' promises to solve these problems.
"Every election is associated for the population with promises, projects and programs, although I don't think there is a change for the better under any government," said Veriko Ehwa, a 33-year-old refugee from the Abkhaz-occupied Gali district.
She and her family live in a special settlement on the outskirts of Zugdidi, built for refugees. "Our houses have shared toilets, no water and no sewage system. There is no drinking water at all, we bring it from a nearby fire station or from a restaurant that was closed during the pandemic," she said.
Even more uncompromising to the current government are Georgians who remain living in the occupied territories.
Of course, this is not about all the inhabitants of Abkhazia, but about ethnic Georgians living near the demarcation line.
Most of them believe that the current government is not going to solve their problems, preferring to "appease" in relations with Russia. However, this time the people of Abkhazia were unable to vote against the current government.
Due to the pandemic, the self-proclaimed republic closed the checkpoint, and no exception was made for the elections.
Veriko Ehvaya says that her parents stayed in Abkhazia. Although their house was burned down in the 1990s during the war, they settled with relatives after obtaining a residence permit from the Abkhaz authorities.
"After obtaining a residence permit, they managed to go to Samegrelo, in Zugdidi, especially on weekends, but due to the Sukhumi pandemic, the Inguri bridge was closed, and now there is no way. Once they waded across the river, but it is so dangerous that no more Now they are sitting "closed", - she says.
The Georgian authorities, on the other hand, did not fight for the opportunity to vote for the residents of these regions, saying that non-participation in the elections was far from the main problem facing Georgian citizens in the occupied villages.
Therefore, they try to compensate for the ban on elections by solving other problems. For example, due to the closure of checkpoints, young people were unable to pass the exams for admission to Georgian universities - so in response, the authorities announced that this year all entrants from uncontrolled territories will be admitted to universities free of charge and without exams.
This was probably one of the important reasons why Saakashvili's allies were unable to regain Samegrelo. This year, the bloc of the Georgian ex-president came to the finish line in Zugdidi second, taking 38.5%. Instead, the ruling party got 46.5% here - a good result in the current circumstances.
All against "Dreams"
Another factor that influenced the course of the election campaign was the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is unknown whether this played into the hands of the authorities or against them.
On the one hand, at the beginning of the first wave, the government introduced a hard lockdown, banning both public transport and movement between cities. This avoided significant outbreaks during the first wave. At the same time, the government was quite successful in conducting anti-crisis communication with the population - which had a positive effect on its ratings.
But it still failed to escape the pandemic.
The second wave was powerful. The number of patients and deaths per capita there is higher than in Ukraine - so the ratings of the authorities began to decline again.
And because of the coronavirus economic crisis, the government was limited in the distribution of "social", which was still their key campaign trump card.
In this situation, the opposition found the strength to overcome the quarrel, agreed on joint action and signed a declaration of inadmissibility of the coalition with "Dream" in the new parliament. That is, even after receiving 74 seats out of 150, she had to go into opposition
According to the opposition's plans, after the change of power, a technical government headed by former President Saakashvili would be created, which would create conditions for holding new, more transparent elections.
These were serious ambitions - which proves the activity of the opposition before the election.
Despite COVID, their rallies were much more massive than before the 2016 election.
The largest rally took place in Tbilisi on October 29 - and was not without embarrassment. The first issue of Saakashvili's electoral bloc, the legendary Vakhtang Kikabidze sang the song "Tbiliso" - and sang a few verses in it ... in Russian.
In response to criticism, the singer tried to "steer", saying he wanted "people to understand what a beautiful country we are." However, the opposition headquarters later pleaded guilty to embarrassment, saying the singing was false and their employee had simply confused the soundtrack.
Maidan in Tbilisi
Were there significant election irregularities?
The non-governmental organization Transparency International-Georgia believes so, and has already made a statement, calling the current election a "step back" compared to previous ones. They talk, in particular, about the "physical confrontation near the polling stations" - the already mentioned fights between government officials and the opposition, in some of which journalists were injured.
But the main reason for doubt is the pause of 8 hours from the end of the election to the beginning of the publication by the Central Election Commission of the preliminary voting results.
The latter, according to the opposition, indicates election fraud.
Some opposition parties have already refused to acknowledge these results, which are much worse than expected.
Instead, the Georgian Dream will receive approximately 100 seats and retain a single majority.
Currently, according to preliminary data, they will win in all 15 majority constituencies where the election ended in the first round, and in addition - have the lead in 14 of the 15 constituencies where the second round will take place. In most of them, the gap between the candidates from the government and the opposition is less than 10%.
But the most important are the results on party lists. Nine parties are running for the new parliament.
"Georgian Dream" is gaining the support of 48.15% of Georgians. And together with the majoritarians, this is more than enough to preserve a single majority.
Saakashvili, on the other hand, has only 27.14% of the vote in the United National Movement. Other pro-Western opposition parties are also running for parliament: European Georgia (3.78%), Lelo (3.15%), New Georgia - Agmashenebeli Strategy (3.15%), and Bitter (2, 89%), Citizens (1.33%) and the Labor Party (1%).
The far-right Alliance of Patriots (3.14%), a party that has recently been accused of receiving funding from Russia, will also remain in parliament. Instead, Georgian Medvedchuk, the party of ex-speaker Nino Burjanadze (0.85%), the country's most pro-Russian politician, was a little short of votes.
Will the opposition be able to prove fraud and cancel the election results?
The opposition's arguments are undermined by the conclusion of the OSCE mission, which is an unconditional authority for the West. Although they heard "accusations of pressure" there, they concluded that "the elections were competitive and, in the end, fundamental freedoms were respected." The legitimacy of the election has also already been recognized by EU and US officials.
Despite this, the opposition calls on its representatives in the Central Election Commission not to sign the final protocol and discusses the possibility of boycotting the newly elected parliament.
The fact is that according to the rules of procedure, the parliament becomes authorized only after at least two thirds of its members have gathered for the oath. So, if the ruling party gets less than 100 votes (which is not a fact at all) - the opposition will have a chance to win re-election
Boycotting the new parliament is currently one of the most discussed options, said one of Saakashvili's party leaders, Serhiy Kapanadze.
However, whether the opposition will take this step also largely depends on how massive their protests will be. The opposition has now pitched a tent camp under the parliament building, announcing a major anti-government rally next Sunday.
So the coming weeks in Georgia promise to be very hot.
Yuri Panchenko, editor of "European Truth",
Maya Pipia, journalist (Zugdidi, Georgia)
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