The agreement on Georgia’s electoral reform, signed between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and the united opposition at the US Embassy in Tbilisi on March 8 (Ge.usembassy.gov, accessed April 13), appeared to bring some level political peace back to the country. According to the deal, brokered by the United States and European Union, the 150-seat Georgian parliament will be elected this October with a 1 percent threshold; 120 seats will be apportioned via a proportional vote, and 30 will go to winners of single-member majoritarian districts. The GD largely acquiesced, following reprimands from the West. And although the opposition did not entirely renounce its willingness to engage in street protests, the Western-mediated agreement largely brought the political negotiations back inside the parliament. The opposition suspended its five-month boycott of the legislature and took part in voting to facilitate the passing of necessary constitutional amendments requiring a Constitutional Commission (Tabula.ge, March 17).
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Georgia, in late March, which prompted a state of emergency, nationwide lockdown and a curfew, compelled all of the country’s main political players to suddenly revise their political agendas and behavior. At first, the united opposition, spearheaded by the former ruling party United National Movement (UNM) and its spin-off European Georgia (EG), canceled a large-scale rally scheduled for April 4. But the novel coronavirus pandemic only temporarily halted the political squabbling between the opposition and ruling party. Notably, the GD government’s effective anti-COVID-19 measures, which so far contributed to one of the lowest death toll numbers compared to other countries, brought the ruling party some political and reputational benefits, much to the dismay of the opposition, particularly ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections.
As such, the opposition resumed its political attacks on the GD in recent weeks, largely focused on the government’s response to the COVID-19 threat. The accusations included the GD’s alleged unwillingness to conduct aggressive anti-COVID measures, delays in adopting quick tests, the purported absence of a sound anti-crisis plan, as well as conspiratorial reprimands, such as the claim that the authorities deliberately imported the coronavirus to Georgia in order to boost the GD’s political standing by rallying the population around its crisis response. The Ukraine-based former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, who sensed a sudden political opportunity, has become a particularly vocal critic of the GD and its leaders (1tv.ge, March 18; Interpressnews, March 20).
Yet, the opposition’s reproaches have, thus far, not fallen on fertile ground, at least judging by the public responses, including, crucially, on online social networks. The electorate has largely perceived the opposition’s condemnations of the GD’s COVID-19 response as efforts to use the crisis to score political points. Perhaps as a result, the opposition has more recently begun to scale back its criticism and shifted to engaging in more pertinent activities. Namely, UNM offered to assist in bringing home 1,000 Georgian citizens marooned in Europe amid the COVID-19 outbreak (Interpressnews, April 5). Moreover, the new opposition party Lelo, established by former banker Mamuka Khazaradze, has substituted blank criticisms with concrete suggestions on how to rescue the national economy after the COVID-19 pandemic passes (Bm.ge, April 7).
In an April 3 statement, 22 opposition parties expressed joint support for the government’s efforts to gain international financial assistance and emphasized “a full consensus” among the country’s political factions that the Georgian economy needs “a significant direct financial injection” from its strategic friends and international organizations (Civil.ge, April 3). In turn, the GD welcomed the opposition’s statement, underlining the importance of national unity amidst a crisis (Interpressnews April 4).
Of course, Georgian political actors’ most recently declared benevolent intentions with respect to COVID-19 cannot hide the heavy political pretext, predetermined by the coming elections. As the ruling party, the GD is doing its utmost to maintain and multiply the advantages going into the campaign that it regained following its sharp political losses a few months ago (see EDM, February 24). The Georgian Dream has unveiled a series of anti-crisis measures, including injecting 3 billion lari ($950 million) to tackle the expected domestic social-economic hardship (Agenda.ge, March 13) as well as invited domestic and international think tanks to give recommendations for coping with the emerging economic problems (Interpressnews.ge April 8). The GD party’s chairperson, billionaire and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, has donated some 100 million lari ($31.75 million) to the national anti-COVID-19 fund (Mtavari Ambebi, April 9).
Meanwhile, solutions to the purely political problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak are still unclear. The first issue is the date of the elections, formally scheduled for October 31. They will quite likely be postponed if the pandemic still does not allow the authorities to conduct the vote safely by the fall. The second problem is the fate of last month’s Western-mediated deal on electoral reform. The final adoption of the necessary constitutional amendments by the parliament remains in question if the state of emergency, initially declared from March 21 to April 21, stays in effect for a longer time. Chapter 77 of Georgia’s Constitution prohibits the consideration of any constitutional bill during a state of emergency. But neither the Georgian Constitution nor the country’s law on the “State of Emergency” prescribes any time limit for the emergency.
Meanwhile, GD officials argue that the ruling party will do its utmost to pass constitutional amendments and changes to the election code in time and that nothing will jeopardize the implementation of the March 8 agreement (Netgazeti, March 16). That said, uncertain prognoses about how the COVID-19 outbreak will evolve in Georgia over the coming weeks mean that there is currently little hope the state of emergency will in fact be lifted on April 21.
COVID-19 could become a test for how effectively Georgia’s transitional democracy is able to manage a deep crisis like a pandemic without broadly sacrificing democratic principles. So far, the ongoing state of emergency has not imposed any restrictions on the media nor on domestic freedoms of expression or the dissemination of information. But the situation remains fluid, and as the election looms closer, political pressures will continue to increase.