Dispatch – November 1/2: Climate Change

Runoffs and Familiar Noise – Tsalenjikha’s Dream on Everyone’s Mind – Opposition Plans Rallies, But with Awkward Error – Gov’t Dismisses Lockdown Fears – Opposition Split Over Quitting Mandates – Gvaramia Talks Saakashvili’s Kidnapping Plots

Two days after the contested October 30 municipal runoffs, the Georgian Prime Minister talks climate change with world leaders in Glasgow. Yet at home, a different change of climate is on his opponents’ minds. Here is Nini with her usual take on updates from Georgia.

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HERE WE GO AGAIN Georgia held municipal election runoffs on October 30, and it will hardly surprise anyone that things are not quite calm in the country: according to official results, the ruling Georgian Dream party won 19 out of 20 mayoral races, losing only the Tsalenjikha municipality of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region to the United National Movement candidate. It also failed to secure one-party majorities in a total of 7 municipal councils (Sakrebulos). While its win in the capital city of Tbilisi was relatively solid, GD secured only narrow victories in part of municipalities, including Kutaisi, Batumi, and Zugdidi, where opposition hoped to win. Amid the reports of diverse election violations, the United National Movement and its coalition partners rejected the results, pledging rallies.

The concerns for the fairness of the vote were backed by reports of key local election watchdogs, saying the recorded violations might have affected the election results and free exercise of voters’ will. Among familiar alleged breaches such as vote-buying, suspicious assemblies near the precincts, and interference with the work of journalists and observers, there were also concerns about unfounded invalidation of some ballots. Given that many of the mentioned breaches were also observed in the first round, which was no less tense due to its perceptions as a legitimacy “referendum,” and should the assessment about the impact be true for the runoffs, the question on whether the composition of local councils has been affected by these violations seems like a valid one. International observers have been quite straightforward:

TSALENJIKHAN DREAM Tsalenjikha, a provincial town nested northwards of Zugdidi, in the Samegrelo region, became the promised land for the opposition overnight. This is the only municipality where the opposition secured official victory in mayoral runoffs. Jokes have been going around on social media about its booming real estate market as suddenly every opposition voter wants to move there – the center of an anticipated policy miracle. But jokes aside, the real miracle was the GD candidate politely congratulating the rival there and wishing him luck – a move in a spirit of civic integrity that merits recognition, amid the toxic rhetoric Georgia got used to.

GD also failed to secure the majority in Tsalenjikha’s Sakrebulo. But neither should one downplay the remaining six such municipalities: while it failed to mirror Tsalenjikha’s miracle in mayoral races, Chkhorotskhu municipality from the same region has probably the least polarized composition –  UNM and For Georgia party have 7 mandates each, plus Lelo for Georgia with a single mandate, while the ruling party had to scrape by with 12 seats. Former GD Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who now leads For Georgia, has family roots there, which likely explains his strong showing. People in Martvili, on the other hand, got the most colorful Sakrebulo composition: their neighbor-who-made-it is one Fridon Injia, who, along with his three businessmen pals has formed probably the least socialist party in Europe — which is called, (surprise!) “European Socialists.” So Injia’s party got four mandates in his home municipality and is expected to duly ally with the ruling party.

FORESIGHT FAILURE During a Tbilisi rally on October 31, the opposition announced a series of massive protests for the coming week, starting in the regions and culminating in Tbilisi. Yet, they may have been quite exhausted from the campaign trail and picked the most appropriate day – Sunday – for their Tbilisi rally without noticing that it was the worst possible date: November 7. The disastrous handling of the November 7, 2007 protest has been the pivotal point that precipitated the decline of the United National Movement as a democratic force. One of the pending court cases against the jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili indeed stems from the allegations of the abuse of office on that very day.

Ignoring the date made the opposition coalition look awkward, insensitive, and unaware of its own sins in UNM’s case, but after controversies and (not-so-kind) reminders, the leaders acknowledged their mistake. Elene Khoshtaria, Droa party leader, said the rally will not be taking place on Sunday, because “it should not be on [November] 7.” She promised, however, to hold the rally on a day before or after the controversial date.

LOCKDOWN FEARS Ask this question in Georgia, and everyone around knows someone – who knows someone – who has reports that the country is moving into a strict lockdown early in November. The daily infections have been climbing steadily over the past weeks amid the heated campaign and reopening of schools and preschools. Many said it was only because of the elections that the authorities refrained from lockdowns so far. Now that the elections are behind them – and protests ahead – it might seem politically opportune to halt the public transport and even reintroduce curfew, the argument goes. The authorities have so far denied the rumors. Given the regional dimension of the current dissent, such restrictions in smaller towns may be less efficient anyway, but who knows.

THINK TWICE Protesting the conduct of elections, Lelo’s Mamuka Khazaradze – who was Melia’s deputy had the opposition won Tbilisi – said he is dumping his MP mandate, in a gesture that has been popular in Georgia’s latest political season. Saakashvili – still in prison, still on a hunger strike – called others to follow suit. UNM MPs Ana Tsitlidze and Nona Mamulashvili, as well as Girchi – More Freedom leader Zura Japaridze already did that. Some voices were raised, asking the opposition to think twice: the constitutional amendment bill that should lower the threshold for the next two parliamentary elections from 5% to 2% is awaiting its final approval, and needs opposition MP votes. Without these amendments, the next parliamentary elections may be no less polarizing, if not more. Should there be snap elections, the Election Code of Georgia says it will again take place in a mixed system (120 proportional/30 majoritarian), giving the ruling party a huge advantage. Such arrangements may well suit bigger parties with stable double-digit support but may strike the final blow to smaller forces.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE In the meantime, Saakashvili has moved into the second month of his hunger strike, and the ruling party still refuses to believe it is real: GD leader Mamuka Mdinaradze reportedly said they will wait for the 41st day (symbolically matching the ruling party ballot number), citing that a human can only go for 40 days without food. Those who believe that Misha’s hunger strike is real, increasingly fear for his health. Voicing a more outlandish concern, Nika Gvaramia, a Georgian TV mogul who also happens to be ex-President’s lawyer, referred to his sources to allege the government plot of transferring Saakashvili to a hospital in Gori, Shida Kartli, where his kidnapping by “so-called Ossetian special forces” may take place. The Penitentiary Service denied plans to move ex-President to Gori.

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the tongue-in-cheek coverage of Georgia’s political life.