2024: a key moment for Georgia’s political development

A short assessment of the political context in view of the next parliamentary elections

, by Élise Maréchal

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2024: a key moment for Georgia's political development

Georgian parliamentary elections will take place on 26 October 2024 according to the Central Electoral Commission. Nine months ahead, it is already a very salient topic in the public debate in Georgia. Many observers expect Georgian Dream, the ruling party that has been playing a balancing act between Moscow and Brussels for years, to win again, as in 2012, 2016 and 2020. This could pose significant difficulties for Georgia’s effective rapprochement with the EU, especially since Bidzina Ivanishvili recently came back from behind the scenes to restore some order in the party. The effects of this official return are already being felt, with a change of Prime Minister on January 29, most certainly under the orders of Ivanishvili.

Parliamentary elections in a context of significant political polarization

The parliamentary elections of October 2024, which will allow the appointment of a Prime Minister, will punctuate Georgian political life this year. If the latter has been particularly polarized for several years, as witnessed by the boycott of the national parliament during several months by most of the opposition parties following accusations of electoral fraud during the 2020 parliamentary elections, the coming months are likely to be particularly tense given the huge stakes of the elections and the deep hatred between the different parties, even within the opposition.

The election of the 150 members of the Georgian parliament is carried out for the first time with a fully proportional electoral system and no longer mixed majority-proportional, according to the constitutional amendments of 2017, which provide for a threshold raised to 5%. The peculiarity of Georgian politics is that it is particularly fragmented, with more than fifteen political parties represented in parliament for only 150 seats, and with many mutual allegations, insults and personal rivalries between political figures, even within the parties, including GD. Indeed, in Georgia, a significant part of the energy of political parties, whether in government or in opposition, is devoted to criticizing and discrediting other parties. If Irakli Garibashvili announced on January 18, when he was still Prime Minister, that if the elections were held today, GD would get at least 60% of the votes, the latest IRI’s poll reveals a significant fragmentation of public opinion, with 25% for GD, 13% for UNM and between 1% and 4% for other parties (For Georgia, Strategy Aghmashenebeli, Lelo, Girchi, People’s Power, Citizens, etc.). So it is not simply some political pluralism, but a dangerous polarization that prevents political compromises and makes it very difficult for constructive alliances between parties that see themselves firstly as adversaries. This difficulty in creating viable coalitions will make it almost impossible to face GD, which can secure the support of a large segment of the population, and which, moreover, partly bases its political legitimacy on the opposition’s inability to present a real alternative in the eyes of the population. Indeed, the UNM, Georgia’s second largest party, was largely discredited at the end of Saakashvili’s term in 2012.

The Georgian electoral framework under criticism from Europe

The Georgian electoral framework has several flaws which prevent the realization of fair elections, in a context where the ruling party, under the direct influence of Bidzina Ivanishvili, has control over all public institutions and policy making through a patronage network. In this situation of state capture, parliamentary elections must be a crucial time to bring down this illiberal government. But Georgian parliamentary elections have been considered fraudulent or partly unfair by the opposition and many international observers, including the European Commission, for several years now. In its twelve priorities published in June 2022, the European Commission advised Georgia, in order to obtain the status of candidate for European membership, to « further improve the electoral framework, addressing all shortcomings identified by OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe/Venice Commission in these processes ». Yet the country still obtained the candidate status in December 2023, without fulfilling this condition.

Indeed, ODIHR and the Venice Commission have repeatedly highlighted the shortcomings of the electoral framework. In December 2023 they published a joint opinion which highlights that the same shortcomings are still existing in the Georgian Electoral Code adopted in December 2022: the constituencies delimitation, undue criteria on voter and candidate eligibility, high donation limits for election campaigns, regulation and oversight of campaign finance, media campaign regulations, measures to prevent voter intimidation, etc. Moreover, the joint opinion states that the ruling party has a dominant position in the selection of the members and the chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, which includes both partisan and non-partisan members. Local watchdogs have already identified practices of clientelism from the Georgian Dream, which can buy citizens’ votes. Transparency International Georgia and ISFED have analyzed the use of state services to offer voters unjustified benefits, such as the early release from the penitentiary, the pay-off of the debts, the restoration of driving rights, the postponement of military service, etc. This large-scale scheme of vote buying was identified for the 2018 presidential elections. On the other hand, there are numerous cases of intimidation in front of polling stations, threats to opposition journalists, and disinformation campaigns on social networks led by the authorities, in order to discredit activists, NGOs and political opponents.

On the other hand, regulations on the financing of political parties during the campaign period are in practice circumvented. As IDFI points out, the maximum amount allowed for a legal entity can be circumvented by making donations through different employees and not the company itself, while they do so in a coordinated way. Georgian Dream accumulates a vast majority of political donations and links were made between donations by companies and public contracts received before or shortly thereafter.

The formal comeback of Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili

One of the major events of the end of 2023 was the official return of the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of Georgian Dream, to the forefront of the national political scene, as the Honorary Chairman of the party, after promising in 2021 to leave “for good” politics. There is no doubt that even after his departure from the position of Chairman of GD (2018-2021), Ivanishvili kept a powerful informal role behind the scenes. That situation was acknowledged by numerous international observers, local watchdogs like Transparency International Georgia, and even by European institutions. The twelve priorities for Georgia issued by the European Commission in 2022 urge to “implement the commitment to “de-oligarchisation” by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political, and public life”, without citing Ivanishvili because of diplomatic courtesy, but making clear reference to him, since he is the only billionaire in the country with political influence.

In fact, Ivanishvili, who came to power in 2012 as GD leader and Prime Minister until 2013, continued to directly influence the political game through the ruling party, which has control over all Georgian public institutions (parliament, law enforcement, judicial system, public media, ministries, etc.). It is a kleptocratic system in which private interests capture the state through practices of systemic corruption, which exist thanks to a patronage network of people placed in key positions, such as Minister, Deputy Minister, judge at the Constitutional Court, with a subordinate relationship under Ivanishvili. It is important to underline that he made his fortune in post-soviet Russia in the metals and banking sectors, being notably part of the Semibankirschina and that he still has significant business interests in Russia.

After staying in the shadows for several years, denying any connection to Georgian politics, Ivanishvili unexpectedly reappeared in the spotlight by being elected Honorary Chairman of GD at the party congress on December 30, 2023. This is a new position created especially for him, in the amended statutes of the party. The latter provides that the Honorary Chairman shall be the “main political advisor to the party” and the one that approves the candidate for Prime Minister’s position.

The reasons for this return have given rise to many assumptions about its goals. What seems pretty clear is that the 2024 elections are a major reason for this official return to politics, in order to regain strong control over the party and to clean it up. Ivanishvili referred to the personal tensions inside GD that hinders the functioning of the party. He wants to become the “new center of gravity” to protect GD from “human temptation” because there are “risks’’ of the party “being tempted to invent the confrontation inside the team when there is [no one left to oppose] outside.” Thus, the oligarch presents himself as the savior that will allow GD to win the next elections. After promising that his return would not result in a cabinet reshuffle, on 29 January Irakli Garibashvili resigned as Prime Minister to make way for Irakli Kobakhidze, the Chairman of GD. There is no doubt that this decision was made by Ivanishvili.

Consequently, the year 2024 may be full of political developments in Georgia because of the parliamentary elections in October, which represents a real stake for the Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012. In a context of enormous political polarization, an electoral framework that does not really allow fair elections and with the very recent return of Ivanishvili in the spotlight, it is certain that 2024 looks tense. Especially since the freedom of media and freedom of demonstration are increasingly restricted. This complicated political situation could hinder Georgia’s negotiations to join the EU, as the ruling party is constantly playing a balancing act between Brussels and Moscow.

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