Georgian Elections: Citizens Head to the Polls Amid Ongoing Pandemic

  • John DiPirro

On October 31, Georgians will go to the polls in a high-stakes parliamentary election that the international community hopes will result in a more representative, European-aligned government. Over the course of a year, Georgia has made great strides in its journey to democracy, and is widely credited with having successfully managed the COVID-19 pandemic. The government now faces the challenge of holding free, fair and safe elections, and the victor must show it is ready to address a host of issues, including economic concerns and the continued path to democracy.   

This election was initially framed as a litmus test for the nation’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Would Georgia shift toward coalition-based governance and offer substantive choices to citizens? Or would the country continue with the polarizing and personality-driven politics of the past decade? The former would indicate progress toward achieving greater European integration, while the latter would suggest stagnation and even backsliding.

While the campaign period official began in September, preparations for this election date back to last year’s infamous “Gavrilov Night” – in which a member of the Russian State Duma was invited to preside over the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in Tbilisi. The optics of an elected official from an occupying state sitting in the Speaker’s chair were particularly offensive to Georgians, prompting protests and a violent crackdown. Since then, however, Georgia has demonstrated signs of democratic progress. In the fallout of the political crisis caused by this incident, ruling and opposition parties, with the assistance of the international community, were able to address protestor demands for a more proportional system, and successfully negotiated a shift from a 77/73 proportional-majoritarian system to a 120/30 arrangement. They also reduced the national threshold to win seats in the parliament from 5 percent to 1 percent, and mandated that no party could unilaterally form a majority coalition without a minimum of 40 percent of the vote. These reforms ensure a more accurate proportional representation of the public, and empower voters to support their party of choice – enhancing opportunities for healthy multiparty competition.

Today, with a more representative electoral system and a strong government response to COVID-19, public opinion ratings of the Georgian government and the ruling party are high. However, as recent IRI polling demonstrates, support of the government’s COVID-19 management is tempered by concerns over economic decline. Citizens want political parties to offer more substantive solutions on economic recovery, healthcare and social protection, particularly in these uncertain times.

More immediately, it is vital that the government takes every step possible to protect the integrity of this month’s election, while also prioritizing the safety of voters. The election administration must clearly define the procedures for safe voting – including for citizens in quarantine with COVID-19 – and the technical aspects of “in-person voting.” While the government has invested in educating the public on these issues, some voters remain confused and anxious over just how Election Day will work. Public education and awareness campaigns utilizing all communication channels must ensure that citizens not only know how vote, but that they know how to vote safely.

The question of whether the current government’s management of COVID-19 is enough to secure a victory in the upcoming elections remains to be seen. However, what is certain is that addressing the public’s most pressing concerns will be critical to continuing on the path to consolidating Georgia’s young democracy.

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