🇬🇪 What is at stake in Georgia?
Today I’m having a look at the very east of Europe: Georgia. It is located at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia (Google Maps). Population: 4 million. Democracy Index: 91st of 165 countries.
Something remarkable is happening there. On Saturday, local elections will be held. But people vote on more than mayors and local councils. The ruling party, Georgian Dream, agreed to have another parliamentary vote if it fails to attract at least 43 per cent of support in the local ballots.
Georgia was plunged into a political crisis last year when opposition parties claimed massive fraud in the parliamentary election. What followed was a political deadlock that lasted for months. The European Union helped to end it.
In May 2021, European Council President Charles Michel brokered an exit agreement. Georgian Dream agreed to hold a snap parliamentary vote if it failed to get at least 43 per cent in the upcoming local ballot (next scheduled vote would be in 2024).
So stakes could not be higher, neither for the ruling Georgian Dream party nor the country's opposition. The opposition is calling Saturday's local elections a "referendum" against Georgian Dream.
On Monday, former President and founder of today's main opposition United National Movement (UMN) party Mikheil Saakashvili pledged to return to Georgia for upcoming local elections. First, he posted a photo on Facebook of a plane reservation to Tbilisi on Saturday; then, in a video address on Facebook, he said, that "I will be in Tbilisi to protect, together with you, your electoral choice".
The 53-year-old, who served from 2004 to 2013, has been accused by the Georgian judiciary of abuse of power and is living in exile in Ukraine. Georgian authorities said they would arrest former President Mikheil Saakashvili if he returned to the country. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili assured that if Saakashvili "sets foot on Georgian soil, he will be immediately arrested and imprisoned."
The ruling party is right to be concerned. It is by no means certain that Georgia Dream will be given more than 43 per cent of the votes. Also, because there is a new political force. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, once of Georgian Dream but resigned in February, is now the leader of a new opposition party, For Georgia.
According to a recent poll, just 33 per cent of Georgians intend to vote for Georgian Dream. UNM can count on around 25 per cent of the vote, with 10 per cent opting for Gakharia's party. For comparison: Georgian Dream received 48 per cent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections.
For sure the result of the upcoming election will be a test for democracy in Georgia.