Big anti-government protest as Georgia’s ruling party fails to pass legislation on electoral reform

Tue 19 Nov 2019

Big anti-government protest as Georgia’s ruling party fails to pass legislation on electoral reform

On 17 and 18 November opposition groups took to the streets to block the Georgian Parliament. With almost 20.000 participants, the protest is the biggest in years. Protesters demanded  snap elections based on a fully proportional electoral system to be held in in 2020,  which the ruling Georgian Dream party promised after the wave of protests in June this year. But on 14 November the Georgian parliament voted down the bill that was meant to change the system to proportional in 2020 instead of 2024. While opposition fractions mainly voted for it, it was a significant number of MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream party that abstained, making the bill’s passage impossible. The accelerated reform was demanded by oppositions parties, who deem the current system to be beneficial for the ruling Georgian Dream party. For example, Georgian Dream won 77 percent of the seats in the parliamentary election of 2016 receiving only 48.7 percent of the votes. Small protests already took place in the days leading up to the vote on the legislative amendments. Protesters announced a rally to be held on Sunday 17 November, which continued on 18 November. Protesters vowed to keep blocking the entrances to the parliament until their demands were met. But in the evening law enforcements agencies managed to disperse the protesters, which included opposition leaders. Still the anti-government protests proved to be the largest in years, signaling the discontent among citizens with the ruling Georgian Dream party. The interior ministry of Georgia announced that 37 persons had been arrested on charges of petty hooliganism and disobedience to police orders.

United Opposition and divided Georgian Dream
The Georgian opposition seems to be united in its efforts against the ruling party, which is quite unique and shows how fed up opposition politicians are with the ruling party.  Opposition members have accused oligarch and Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of plotting the failed vote. Ivanishvili had promised political reform after a summer dominated by protests, which left 240 people injured. Tensions in Georgia have been on the rise due to stagnation of the economy and the belief among many Georgians that the current political system only serves the interests of Ivanishvili, who is considered by many to be the only man in power of the Georgian Dream party. Still the recent downvoting of the proposed change in the electoral system caused 12 Georgian Dream lawmakers  - including the deputy parliament speaker and other senior figures - to leave the party, a worrying sign for Georgian Dream. In addition, the US and EU embassies In Georgia expressed their concern over the failed vote claiming that “ it has increased mistrust and heightened tensions between the ruling party and other political parties and civil society.”

Reaction of Georgian Dream 
On 18 November Kakha Kaladze, secretary general of the ruling Georgian Dream party and Mayor of Tbilisi accused the United National Movement, the main (pro-Western) opposition party, of being the true organizer of the protests. Kaladze said that “the demand for a proportional electoral system was the pretext for this demonstration, while the real aim was to shift the political process to a destructive trajectory.” He noted that “given the lack of resources to mobilize people,” the opposition is trying to incite unrest. Finally Kaladze stressed that his party does not plan to discuss a new initiative to reform the electoral system. Claiming that the elections will take place within the current timeframe, urging his opponents to prepare for the elections instead of blaming the system for the lack of popular support.

Continuation of protests  
After the protest rally in front of the parliament was dispersed by riot police, protesters moved on to the central Rustaveli avenue. Opposition leaders declared that the rallies will continue until the demands of the opposition are met. European Georgia party leader, Gigi Uguvala, said that information about a future action plan will be provided gradually, adding that  “Ivanishvili frightens Georgian people with demonstrating force. It is the present reality… we will not give up this country. He will go, he has no other choice”. Meanwhile, the parliament resumed its work after the barricades blocking the entrance of the parliament were removed, the session was held without the lawmakers of the opposition parties. Speaker of the parliament, Archil Talakvadze, expressed regret about failure to pass the legislature concerning the transition to a proportional electoral system by 2020. He also said that on November 17, he contacted the leaders of the parliamentary opposition and asked them to return to “legal and constitutional frames,” as well as to return the political process to the Parliament. He promised that the 2020 parliamentary elections, which will be held through the mixed electoral system, will be held “in a democratic, competitive and free environment.” It remains to be seen whether the opposition remain united in their efforts to oppose the ruling party and can use the momentum to push it out of power. The  Georgian Dream party, look determined to remain in power, but minor cracks have began to show, exemplified by the 12 lawmakers who left the party.

France24 CivilGeorgia1 CivilGeoriga2 Aljazeera