With the world’s gaze fixed firmly on the drama unfolding in the United States, Georgia’s controversial parliamentary election has gone largely unscrutinised by the international press. Divisions over the results nonetheless threaten to further destabilise the Caucasus – a historically volatile area already shaken by ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, on Sunday 8th November, thousands are expected to rally outside the parliament building in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, to repudiate the results of last weekend’s election. But does this opposition point to a genuinely fraudulent election? Or, as with Trump’s electoral overthrow, merely the petulant dissatisfaction of a movement fairly and democratically defeated?
Owing to a recent revision of Georgia’s electoral system, which now sees 120 of the 160 parliamentary seats determined by proportional representation, last week’s election promised to be the country’s most democratic yet. So why has it engendered such controversy?
For a start, the results were incredibly close. Although the governing party, Georgian Dream (GD), declared victory with 48.1% of the vote, the ‘Opposition Alliance,’ an amalgam of 31 opposition parties, has also insisted that it received sufficient votes to form a coalition. Various opposition politicians, including Mikhail Saakashvili, former president and leader of the United National Movement (UNM) party, have alleged vote-rigging, and on the 3rd November opposition parties signed a joint statement renouncing their seats in parliament until a fresh election is held. Encouraged by opposition leaders, thousands of protesters are gathering daily outside the parliament building, waving Georgian flags and calling for the election results to be annulled. There has been no official release of exact numbers, but news outlet Georgia Today reports that ‘several activists have been detained’ and that warning gunshots have been fired by police.
So, why are emotions running so high? For many, concerns about Georgian-Russian relations were at the very centre of last week’s election, and there are fears that the continued tenure of GD will push the country towards a closer relationship with neighbouring Russia. Although both GD and the opposition alliance are keen for Georgia to join the EU and NATO, GD also favours closer ties with Moscow, which might deter them from making any concrete moves to ally Georgia with the West. As Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of UNM, asserts, ‘the Russian influence is getting larger and larger.’ For many Georgian people, this is a particularly unsavoury prospect considering the brief Georgian-Russian war in August 2008, which led to the separation of Georgian territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even now, over a decade after this conflict ended, visiting fellow at the European Institute Dr Max Fras asserts that ‘Georgia remains permanently exposed and vulnerable to creeping ‘borderisation’ in occupied Abkhazia and Ossetia, and Russian meddling in Georgian politics.’ Furthermore, if Putin’s response to Alexander Lukashenko’s precarious situation in Belarus is anything to go by, it seems likely that he will also try to exploit political instability in Georgia.
With Donald Trump already preparing a legal battle to challenge the results of this week’s US presidential election, we are reminded that a contested election is not necessarily a fraudulent one. In their coverage of the Georgian election, Al Jazeera asserted that most voters were able to cast their ballots ‘freely and in safety’. Similarly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the ‘elections were competitive,’ although they also reported ‘pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state.’ This malpractice sets a dangerous precedent, even if it was not enough to invalidate the results. On the flip side, Saakashvili’s currently unsubstantiated accusations of vote rigging are also deeply dangerous. No one can take the moral high ground in this battle between intimidation and misinformation.
In an age of ‘fake news’ and ever-increasing polarisation, recent developments in Georgia and the US serve as a reminder of the importance of political transparency and integrity. Unless these values are upheld, it is likely that more and more elections will descend into a confused melting-pot of coercion and rumour-mongering where it is unclear who – if anyone – has fairly won. The long-term implications of this election for Georgia – a country suffering, like the rest of the world, from the scourge of Covid-19 – remains to be seen.
Image: Jelger Groeneveld via Flickr