On October 2nd, local self-government elections will be held in Georgia. In theory, these elections will only change the local government and will not lead to changes at the central level. Nevertheless, many describe them as a “referendum” and “decisive” for Georgian national politics because of the political crisis that emerged from the 2020 parliamentary elections and the effects this local election could have on national politics.
The 2020 parliamentary elections and the political crisis that followed
The last elections in Georgia were held a year ago: the parliamentary elections in October 2020. The elections resulted in a win for the ruling party Georgian Dream (GD), giving them 90 of the 150 seats in parliament and extending their eight-year rule. Though the elections were deemed overall fair by international observers from the OSCE, there were reports of some shortcomings leading to lower public confidence in the electoral process, and fraud claims such as pressure put on voters and voter intimidation.
The opposition did not recognize the results of the election. They believed that the elections were rigged and the outcome was unfair. In protest, they refused to enter parliament for months, calling for early elections and encouraging civilians to protest. This has led to mass demonstrations in front of the parliament building, and started a political crisis in the country, with opposition parties continually protesting the ruling government.
In order to resolve the crisis, Western diplomats and European officials stepped forward, primarily the President of the European Council Charles Michel. With his mediation, an agreement was set up to lead the country out of the political crisis.
The role of the self-government elections
The agreement, which was set up to solve the political instability, created a system related to the outcome of the local self-government elections on October 2nd, 2021. If the ruling Georgian Dream party attains less than 43% of the proportional votes in the coming elections, early parliamentary elections will have to be scheduled. It further ensured the release of two jailed opposition figures, including Nika Melia, the chair of the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM). Critics view his arrest on the 23rd of February 2020 as a political manoeuvre to lead Georgia towards Russia, and emphasize that he is innocent.
The Charles Michel agreement was signed by part of the opposition and the GD party in April 2021, though UNM never signed it, and after a few weeks, GD announced that it was withdrawing from the agreement again. According to the party leaders, this means that the agreement does not stand and the local election results will not decide on new elections. Nevertheless, the 43% threshold remains an important factor in this election, becoming a test of legitimacy of the Georgian Dream authorities.
Experts expect public unrest demanding early elections if the 43% threshold is not met by Georgian Dream, and they expect the opposition to demand the support of Western partners due to the involvement of the EU in setting up the agreement. The authorities nevertheless continue to repeat that the 43% threshold is no longer relevant. The local self-government elections have therefore gained national importance and could be decisive for Georgian politics.
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