The Dispatch – October 4/5: Enjoy the Silence

Municipal Elections: Something for (Almost) Everybody? – Two Names That Come Haunting – Gakharia’s Party: Unwilling Kingmaker? – Jailed Saakashvili Attracts Rallies, Goes on Hunger Strike

“Silence before the storm” might be a rule elsewhere, but in Georgia, it was the silence that came after the storm: while digesting ex-President Saakashvili’s unexpected return and making sense of unanticipated outcomes of the municipal vote, Georgians were hit by a major Facebook outage. In a society – and, dare we say, politics, heavily dependent on the app that felt like a complete blackout. But don’t say we did not warn you some weeks ago! Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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A DAY BEFORE Fool me once – shame on you, fool me twice – shame on me. Nobody knows exactly how many times ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili fooled Georgian authorities from a time of crossing the state border – which now transpires happened on September 29, till the evening of October 1 when he was taken handcuffed, but with a smiley face, into Rustavi jail. Saakashvili made the day before the elections about himself, with media, politicians, and the wider public all engaged in a guessing game: did he come, did he not, is he in Batumi or elsewhere? The confused faces of Georgian Dream officials spent the day claiming – with some vehemence – that Misha did not cross the border. Party mandarins even gave his precise assumed location in Truskavets resort, Ukraine. And boy, they had to backpedal quickly.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated by the end of the day “they got him”. He went on to claim the authorities had known Saakashvili’s whereabouts all along – but the self-congratulatory statements from the Ministry of Interior and the prosecution’s office have been devoid of facts and details that could corroborate this claim. What will be remembered from that press conference, is a ceremonial act of servility: the PM congratulated the country on “St. Bidzina’s day”. Few Georgians have heard of that saint name-day before, but it so happens that Mr. Ivanishvili, Prime-Ministers billionaire patron is named Bidzina. What better than to offer your mentor his enemy’s head on a silver platter? An exploit worthy of Herakles, who Mr. Garibashvili is so appropriately named after…

SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY? The voting day went as usual: diverging exit polls have triggered celebrations from all sides, in that fleeting moment of Georgia’s elections, when everyone won and everyone is happy. But reports about alleged vote-buying, intimidation and pressure of voters and observers, mobilization of so-called party coordinators, and allegations of so-called “carousel voting” have abounded. The day did not go without reports of physical violence either. When the time of exit poll results came, however, it was clear that the GD has cleared the – rather arbitrary – 43% threshold of the nationwide vote, which found its way in the EU-brokered deal. So no pretext to call for snap elections. The sense of inevitable post-election turmoil has dissipated not with a bang, but a whimper. The opposition can entertain hopes for some major cities and municipalities, where the elections were pushed into runoffs. The ruling party is confident of sweeping the slate. There was something for (almost) everybody.

WHAT HAPPENED GD received a bigger share of proportional votes nationally (46,74%) than many expected, even though it lost some of its voters, if you trust data experts, to For Georgia, a party led by former PM Giorgi Gakharia that ended at 7.79% contrary to greater expectations. The United National Movement (UNM), GD’s main rival party founded by Saakashvili, saw significant gains, ending at 30.68%, according to preliminary results. The mayoral races in almost a third of all municipalities (including Tbilisi and 4 other self-governing cities) will go to runoffs, and in at least four Sakrebulos (municipal assemblies) the ruling party has lost its single-party majority. Taking a closer look at municipalities/election districts, however, it becomes apparent that the UNM may have had more success in majoritarian races if it had put its own candidates instead of backing other, smaller party hopefuls: the trend may partly owe to the raised polarisation, but also that complex system of endorsements might have confused some voters.

WHAT NOW? The reason for little post-election noise is partly due to major losers being the smaller parties, delaying the hopes for stronger representation of fresher, less polarized forces. The trend is largely attributed to Saakashvili’s arrival and arrest, to consider a stark change of voter preferences from pre-election polls to exit-polling results. Still, much will now depend on Gakharia’s for Georgia party: in the runoffs, the ex-PM refused to back any of the two forces, which was quite predictable: the party has been positioning itself as a “depolarizing” force but has been taking quite a sharp stance against UNM leaders while simultaneously fighting off a smearing campaign from GD. Still, the party will have to make up its mind in a couple of Sakrebulos where it is an obvious kingmaker. If not by statements, but by its actions Gakharia’s party will have to cast the die.

DO NOT RESUSCITATE The relative calm in Tbilisi still does not mean that entire Georgia is resting: Saakashvili’s prison cell in Rustavi, kilometers away from the capital city, attracted scores of people yesterday, including UNM leaders and media personalities, calling for the ex-President’s release. The jailed leader himself went on hunger strike, demanding the release of himself and those arrested in connection to his arrival. And he does look committed: Saakashvili reportedly warned doctors not to intervene even if he loses conscience.

In the meantime, the ruling party seems not to interpret the calls for “depolarisation” – here is one from the EU and the US – as “thumbs down” during the Gladiator’s fight. The prime minister was full of derision towards Saakashvili – “crazy”, “sick”, “dirty” man he said – and the UNM (which just got half a million votes of the Georgian citizens). Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani recently took the habit of referring to the UNM candidates as “carrion eaters”, adding a dash of macabre to her more usual “criminals”. will be reflecting more on the most symptomatic trends of the latest Georgian elections and ways ahead. But first, we have asked pundits from academia, think tanks, and civil society to assess key trends. Take a look here.

That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Tuesday and Friday!