On October 31, Georgia held by-elections for two vacant parliamentary seats in the districts of Martvili and Sagarejo (Channel 1, Rustavi 2, Civil Georgia, October 31). The by-elections did not have much significance from an electoral perspective, since even if the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition lost both seats, this would not have threatened its majority in the parliament. Nevertheless, the election results are indicative of the rapidly shifting political balance of power in the country.
Two key mainstream opposition political parties—United National Movement (UNM) and the Free Democrats—along with a number of other parties, decided to boycott the by-elections (Pia.ge, August 21). The challenge to Georgian Dream, however, came from another political party, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG), which until now had lingered on the margins and was not expected to perform particularly strongly. The epicenter of the by-elections became Sagarejo district, where Irma Inashvili, the leader of the APG, came very close to defeating GD’s candidate, Tinatin Khidasheli, who currently serves as the minister of defense. Khidasheli won by a mere 559 votes, garnering just over 49 percent of the total vote against Inashvili’s almost 46 percent (Cec.gov.ge, October 31).
Equally telling were the developments that followed the by-election in Sagarejo. The APG party and its leader Inashvili claimed that GD blatantly rigged the vote, stealing the victory from them (Netgazeti.ge, November 10). The allegations were followed by street protests, which garnered thousands of APG supporters (Ghn.ge, November 8). After the demonstration, Inashvili along with some APG activists started a hunger strike in front of the Government Chancellery, demanding a fairer electoral environment (Radiotavisupleba.ge, November 10). All these activities clearly illustrate the APG’s growing and ever more visible organizational strength.
Other domestic political factions largely consider the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia to be a marginal and somewhat odious political group. The party, founded in 2013 by TV journalist Irma Inashvili, advocates increased social spending and opposes the free trade agreement with the European Union. It also considers Georgia’s aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be fruitless; however, it claims to support the country’s EU membership (see EDM, February 13).
Back in 2014, the APG promised big electoral gains in the 2016 parliamentary elections (Civil Georgia, June 21, 2014). As the October 31 by-elections showed, the APG could actually be able to deliver on its promise. The highest ranking members of the ruling GD coalition seemed visibly shaken by the APG’s performance. Parliamentary Chairperson David Usupashvili stated that GD cannot hope for success in the 2016 elections unless the coalition stays united. He declared that UNM is no longer the only significant opposition force in the country (implying that the APG is an alternative force) and urged GD to change from within or else voters would oust them from power (Cp.ge, November 1). The deputy speaker of the parliament, Manana Kobakhidze, further stated that GD had much to do ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in order to retain the voters’ trust (Ghn.ge, November 9).
Needless to say, the APG has greatly benefited from widespread public disappointment with the mainstream political parties. As the latest public polls show, GD and UNM’s combined popular support stands at a mere 28 percent. The support is split almost equally between the two (Ndi.org, August 2015).
But a lack of popular support is not these two parties’ only problem. For instance, UNM has also begun to suffer from internal fissures. On November 12, Andro Barnov, a high-ranking UNM member and former president Mikhail Saakashvili’s chief of staff from 2012 to 2013, left the party and its Political Council and announced that he plans to establish a non-governmental organization (Rustavi 2, November 12). Moreover, on November 5, a UNM splinter group made up of former high-ranking UNM members of parliament, established a new political party—“Pine Cone.” They have vowed to transform their party into a potent, transparent organization, able to compete in the 2016 elections (Interpressnews.ge, November 20).
The shifting power balance within Georgian domestic politics is creating fertile ground for any group with political ambitions to launch a new political party on the national stage. One such candidate, in fact, could soon be President Giorgi Margvelashvili and his growing team of advisers. Regardless of the fact that the current constitution gives the president only symbolic powers, Margvelashvili has charted his own domestic and foreign policy path since his election in 2013, and he has managed to establish himself as an independent political figure (Civil Georgia, November 5; see EDM, November 5). Although Margvelashvili denies any plans to establish a political party (Info9.ge, November 8), he may change his political tune as the 2016 parliamentary elections approach or even later, when his term in office expires in 2018.
Overall, the Georgian by-elections highlighted the possibilities for serious change in the country’s political balance. Moreover, these elections underscored the general fluidity of Georgian politics, which creates opportunities for new forces to enter the political arena. These next 12 months before the 2016 elections, as well as the elections themselves, may in fact yield a whole new redistribution of power in the country. Georgian politics, which have never lacked drama, may become ever more dramatic over the coming months.