Questionable election victories and the sudden appearance of an ex-president

Ruling party wins local elections
national municipal elections in Tbilisi
A member of an election commission helps to a woman to cast her ballot at a polling station during national municipal elections in Tbilisi © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Shakh Aivazov

On October 2nd, the ruling party "Georgian Dream" (GD) won the local government elections. According to the results, the party received 46.7 percent of the vote, followed by the largest opposition party "United National Movement" (UNM) with 30.7 percent. The opposition hoped the outcome would lead to early parliamentary elections. The day before the elections, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who left the country in 2013 and was sentenced to several prison terms in absentia, suddenly turned up.

The ruling party may have got off lightly once again. With almost 47 percent of the vote, it is well above the 43 percent threshold for new parliamentary elections in Georgia that was previously set in an agreement brokered by the European Union between the government and the opposition. Even though the ruling party has since revoked the agreement, the opposition called this vote a "referendum" for early elections.

The polling stations had not even closed yet when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili already announced that his party "Georgian Dream" had convincingly won the elections. On the other side, UNM leader and mayoral candidate for Tbilisi, Nika Melia, also claimed victory: "According to our information, the opposition wins this referendum convincingly." It was "déjà vu" as so often after elections in Georgia: when the polling stations closed, several TV channels published post-election polls - roughly comparable to an election forecast - which, depending on the political orientation, saw either one or the other camp in the lead. One could have feared that massive accusations of falsification and irregularities would be made, combined with calls for protests, non-recognition of the election results and more. However, international observers attested that the election was essentially free and fair, although influence by the ruling party and administrative shortcomings were noted. Several opposition parties and non-governmental organisations, on the other hand, spoke of major flaws and even election rigging.

Run-off elections in all major cities

The day after the election was surprisingly quiet after the first official election results were published. "Georgian Dream" had hoped for a better result, and accordingly the first GD politicians seemed quite unhappy in front of the camera. In all major self-governing cities of Georgia - Tbilisi, Rustavi, Batumi, Kutaisi and Poti – there was no clear winner and hence run-off elections for the office of mayor will have to be held. In Batumi and Kutaisi, the UNM candidates received the most votes. What was particularly painful from the point of view of the "Georgian Dream" was that in the Georgian capital, the GD mayoral candidate Kakha Kaladze, who is also the General Secretary of the ruling party, will have to go into the second round against the UNM candidate Nika Melia. Kaladze is considered one of the most popular Georgian politicians and is in first place in various popularity rankings. In purely mathematical terms, 60 percent of Tbilisi voters voted for other parties for the capital's city parliament. A total of 31 parties ran for seats in the Tbilisi city parliament, but only six made it over the 2.5 percent threshold. 16 candidates ran for mayor.

Slightly more than half of the 3.5 million eligible voters exercised their right to vote. Sixty-four mayors were elected, as well as about 2,000 municipal deputies.

The liberal party "Lelo", which is part of the “Liberal Platform” initiated by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, received only 2.71 percent on average in the country, but entered parliament with representatives in several municipalities. The other parties of the “Liberal Platform” achieved even worse results. It was only in the capital where the liberal party "Girchi - More Freedom" achieved 3.3 percent of the vote.

These local elections were also marked by insults, high aggression, hateful rhetoric and verbal and physical clashes between the different camps. The ruling party "Georgian Dream" did not miss an opportunity to refer to the rule of Saakashvili and the UNM as a "bloody regime". According to GD, the so-called "destructive opposition" would plunge the country into chaos. A major victim of hatred and personal smear campaigns was former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who founded the "Our Georgia" party and ran as a Tbilisi mayoral candidate. GD party leader Kobakhidze called Gakharia a "cocaine addict", "traitor" and "liar". Nationwide, despite all the massive hostility, Gakharia's party "Our Georgia" achieved 7.8 percent of the vote, putting it in third place. Gakharia himself achieved 9.35 percent in the mayoral race for Tbilisi, putting him in third place.

Remarkably, e-voting was used in 31 polling stations in Tbilisi, i.e. voters cast their ballots in electronic ballot boxes. This is considered a test run for future elections and was administered by Irakli Khorbaladze, head of the NGO Good Governance Institute, who - together with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom - presented an e-voting system months ago based on experiences in other countries. E-voting in Georgia is supposed to exclude any manipulation in the future.

Ex-President Saakashvili: Is he really there?

One day before the elections, another topic dominated the political debate and media coverage: Georgia's ex-President, Mikheil Saakashvili, suddenly announced that he had returned to Georgia - although government officials and the Interior Ministry initially denied his claim. But on the evening of 1 October, it was official:  Mikheil Saakashvili had been arrested in Tbilisi and taken to Rustavi prison, as TV pictures showing a laughing Saakashvili in handcuffs confirmed. Why information to the contrary was disseminated by the government for a whole day and how the ex-president entered the country in the first place, remains an open question to this day.

What motivated Saakashvili, who has been living in exile in Ukraine until now, to take this step at this time despite an arrest warrant and the threat of a long prison sentence, is not entirely clear. His appearance and arrest do not seem to have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the local elections. On the evening of his arrest, he announced that he considered himself a political prisoner and was going on hunger strike. The latest update: In addition to numerous other charges - including abuse of power - there is now the charge of illegal entry of the country. In the meantime, the Prime Minister has announced that Saakashvili will have to serve the six years, that he was previously sentenced to in absentia, in prison. Ukrainian President Selenski, on the other hand, promised to stand up for the ex-president, who is also a Ukrainian citizen.