Voters are heading to the polls on October 8th in Georgia, the ex-Soviet republic, to elect its 150-seat parliament. For a country that has experienced near-continual political instability for the last 25 years, things have been calmer than usual this election season. Here’s what’s happening:
1. Things were relatively calm, and then a car bomb went off
Georgia has a history of colorful leaders and raucous elections. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, a prison torture scandal rocked the political landscape. In a not-so-democratic maneuver in 2014, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili announced his Georgian Dream (GD) party “will not allow victory of any other political force in any town or district.”
In comparison, these elections had appeared quite calm. Current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has emphasized that although he expects GD to win, the most important thing is that the elections are free and fair. His tweets emphasize progress on governance and electoral reforms, and he invited numerous poll monitors to the Oct. 8 elections.
There have been unruly moments. Rival politicians doused each other with water during a talk show — and on Sept. 27, a recording surfaced on YouTube suggesting the current opposition United National Movement (UNM) party might support a coup.
Then, on Oct. 4 a bomb went off in a UNM politician’s car. Although it is unclear who was responsible, the prime minister warned on Wednesday that the blast could have been an attempt to destabilize the country just days before the election.
2. The two main parties are likely to win seats
There are 25 parties running in the current elections. Polls to date suggest both GD and UNM will obtain seats in parliament. This may signal that Georgia’s party system may be stabilizing. In the past, each government turnover saw the previous ruling party disappear altogether. The polling suggests the UNM appears to have developed a strong party base.
3. Georgian Dream may have a slight edge
In Georgia’s mixed electoral system, there are 73 single-member constituency seats up for election, but candidates must have more than 50 percent of the vote to win a seat outright. The remaining 77 seats go to parties by proportional representation — parties maintain a list of their candidates but must win at least 5 percent of the national vote to claim their share of these seats.
The party list system may give GD a slight edge, as the party’s candidates are leading in the polls. GD is also likely to win more seats in the individual races, because first-past-the-post elections favor the larger parties. Former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili predicts his GD party will get 100 seats in parliament. In 2008, the UNM pulled off a similar feat to what Georgian Dream is planning: With 59 percent of the party list vote, the party took 79 percent of the overall seats in parliament.
4. A new electoral law protects the equality of the vote, but the redistricting is perhaps less than equal
Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled the country’s electoral boundaries were unconstitutional. The issue was the one-person, one-vote principle. In Kutaisi, 162,732 voters elected one representative in the first-past-the-post races. So did 5,810 voters in mountainous Kazbegi, meaning their vote had 28 times as much influence as a Kutaisian voter.
In response, the government redistricted — but there’s evidence of gerrymandering. Our research shows that Georgian Dream would have won nine extra seats in 2012 if the new electoral system had been in place. And there are a few funny-looking electoral districts that have noncontiguous territory, which likely will give GD an electoral advantage.
5. What’s likely to happen to pro-Russian parties?
The coming parliament is likely to represent the political center, rather than parties at the pro-Russian or pro-Western extremes. The (quasi) pro-Russian party most likely to gain seats is the Alliance of Patriots. Although survey data suggest Alliance of Patriots supporters are likely to support a Russia-oriented foreign policy, the party’s platform is largely pro-Western, and their website is in English.
One pro-Russian party was booted off the ballot following public outrage from their first campaign ad. In the ad, the Centrist party had offered to “legalize” Russian military bases, pass legislation allowing dual Georgian-Russian citizenship, and raise pensions to Russian-levels.
6. What about pro-Western parties?
The GD leadership has sought to assure the West that the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic organizations is a top priority. The country remains heavily involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan and still hopes to join NATO. In July, Georgia’s Association Agreement with the E.U. came into force. The E.U. indicated it wants clean elections if Georgia hopes to see implementation of a program granting visa-free access to E.U. countries.
But the new parliament may have few if any members of the Republican Party or the Free Democrats, two parties that hold staunch pro-Western views. In recent polling, the Free Democrats almost hit the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in the party list elections. The Republicans didn’t. It’s not clear how either party’s heavyweights such as current Republican Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili or the Free Democrats’ Irakli Alasania will fare in their single-constituency votes.
7. Many voters have yet to decide
A CRRC-Georgia and National Democratic Institute pre-election poll showed that 49 percent of likely voters were decided. Although subsequent polling has shown lower levels of uncertainty, many voters may not decide until they get to the voting booth.
The fact that they will be able to decide at the voting booth, however, is an important point. The problems Georgia seems to be facing in its party politics are looking more like the ones facing a democracy.
David Sichinava is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and formerly a senior researcher at CRRC-Georgia.
Dustin Gilbreath is a policy analyst at CRRC-Georgia, and the communications manager at Transparify, an organization that promotes think tank financial transparency. He co-edits CRRC’s blog Social Science in the Caucasus.
The views expressed in this article represent the views of the authors alone, and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia, Transparify, University of Colorado, Boulder, or any donor.