Protests have flared up in Tbilisi for over a week now. A unified opposition and civil society hit the streets after parliament voted against promised constitutional amendments that would have changed the country’s electoral system. Authorities explained that the vote was the result of internal party democracy within the governing Georgian Dream faction. The opposition insists the bill’s defeat was pre-scripted, with the intention to maintain the advantage of those already in power. Protesters are putting padlocks on government buildings to express their outrage but the authorities show no signs of backing down. Though the end result of the political crisis is still unclear, a major development is that authorities have brought together the whole spectrum of oppositional forces. Pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, the left and the right, even parties without a specific ideology came out into the streets together.
Demonstrations in Georgia started back in June of this year. At the time, protests were triggered after Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov took the Speaker’s seat in parliament during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. Under pressure from mass protests, the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, resigned from his position. The protest on the night of June 20 was dispersed by police forces. According to official figures, 240 people were injured, two people—one an 18-year-old girl—lost an eye and about 30 journalists sustained various injuries. More than 300 people were detained. Later, criminal charges were brought against several politicians for attempting to storm the parliament building. The protests that night came to be known as “Gavrilov’s Night.”
After the protests were dispersed, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, gave a speech. Among other things, he promised that the 2020 parliamentary elections would be held under a fully proportional system; the opposition had been demanding a proportional electoral system for a long time. To that end, the “united opposition” had collected more than 200,000 signatures. The protests died down at the time but did not fully dissolve. Several protesters from the “In the Service of the Country” movement remained in front of the parliament, chanting about “Gavrilov’s Night.” Despite this, Giorgi Gakharia, the Minister of Internal Affairs. whose resignation the protesters were demanding, became the Prime Minister of the country.
The Revolt of the Silent
On November 12, with a vote of 32 in favor and 55 against, the initiative of the opposition, that had the signatures of more than 200,000 citizens, was voted down in parliament. The proposed amendment would have seen the 2020 parliamentary elections be conducted under a fully proportional representation system with a three percent threshold. This did not trigger any serious protests because Ivanishvili had promised proportional elections with no threshold over the summer and had presented such a bill to parliament.
The vote on the ruling party’s bill was scheduled for November 13, but the vote was postponed. MPs from the Georgian Dream party who had been voted in though a majoritarian system broke their silence. In the wake of the June developments, some of them had announced from television screens that proportional representation was the best cure for the political crisis at hand. Now, they started to speak against the proposed amendments. On November 14, with 101 votes in favor and 3 against, the parliament failed to pass the amendments – 113 votes were needed. Protests resumed in front of the parliament that same evening. That day might well go down in Georgian history because that is the evening when around 20 political parties, who previously considered each other archenemies, stood together on Rustaveli Avenue. Politicians like Ekaterine Beselia, who only recently left Georgian Dream, Roman Gotsiridze, from the United National Movement party, and Giga Bokeria, from the European Georgia party, who previously criticized one another, stood together on the street under the slogan “Together Against One.” A photo of them together ended up on the Internet. With this step, the ruling party united the opposition.
The ruling party said that the vote was the result of “internal democracy,” but they did not convince the opposition and civil society. People who had been in parliament for decades and had never voted against the party line or spoken from the podium were now talking about electoral reform. These are mainly MPs who had been elected through the majoritarian system. To understand why the majoritarian system is so cherished by the ruling forces and denounced by the opposition, it would suffice to look at the results of any parliamentary election in Georgia. It should also be mentioned that following the vote some members of the ruling party left their team, including the Deputy Speaker of parliament Tamar Chugoshvili.
The Current Electoral System
Georgia has a parallel mixed electoral system, including both majoritarian and proportional elements: 150 MPs are elected to parliament, 73 from single-member (“majoritarian”) districts and 77 from proportional party lists. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream secured a parliamentary majority with 115 elected MPs (113 are needed for a three-quarters majority, necessary to amend the constitution). The party won 71 of the 73 majoritarian district seats. However, with only 49% of the vote nationwide, they took only 44 of the 77 proportional seats. Those voted in on the majoritarian ticket had a high degree of independence within the party; though, in practice, they upheld the party stance on most issues. The country’s current president, Salome Zurabishvili, was one of those “independent” majoritarian parliamentarians who was elected to parliament and later to the presidency with the help of the ruling party and its founding leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. Another striking example of a majoritarian parliamentarian is Enzel Mkoyan, from the Ninotsminda-Akhalkalaki joint constituency. He has been an MP since 1999, elected from the same constituency and changing his political party affiliation depending on who comes to power. Mkoyan, a parliamentarian for over 20 years, does not have [good] command of the Georgian language. He also has a reputation for scandal, including abducting people, resorting to violence, pressuring voters and political opponents, etc. He was a member of Eduard Shevardnadze’s Union of Citizens party. Later, he joined Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party. In 2012, he again changed his political stripes and became a member of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party. It is noteworthy to mention that Mkoyan, who during his political career has never gone against party line, was one of the three parliamentarians who outright voted against the proposed amendments (instead of abstaining). The other two who voted against the bill were also parliamentarians representing districts. One of them, Kakha Okriashvili, is known for his business- and corruption-related scandals. Companies affiliated with him are known to win large state tenders.
The opposition and civil society that took to the streets call the majoritarian MPs “feudal lords.” Following the vote in parliament, former Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili announced that his Civil Movement group will be touring the regions of the country and revealing the illegal activities of the majoritarian MPs during this tour.
“By eliminating the majoritarian system, we will have lawful elections.” This statement is voiced prominently during the protests and on television. Georgian Dream MPs who speak against this insist that eliminating the majoritarian system will break the connection between their districts and the capital. Majoritarian parliamentarians insist that local municipal governments are weak; however, they also oppose decentralization proposals that would widen municipal jurisdiction.
The Opposition Accuses the Government of Political Repression
On November 17, the protests near parliament were dispersed. Several dozen protesters were detained and later subjected to administrative detention. The following day, on November 18, police forces dismantled the tents on Rustaveli. In the meantime, Giorgi Rurua of the opposition, (founder and shareholder of Mtavari Arkhi TV) was arrested for possession of an illegal firearm. It later was brought to light that, aside from participating in the protests, Rurua had provided financial assistance to young people who had organized protests after Gavrilov’s Night. Rurua denies the allegations. The Ministry of the Interior announced that Rurua had 48 legally-registered firearms; however, the gun he was found to have on his person was allgedly obtained illegally.
The court proceedings of all those being held in administrative detention also got a lot of attention. Anna Dolidze, a member of the Supreme Council of Justice of Georgia, went to court when the hearings of the detained were taking place. Dolidze said that these cases, similar to the arrests of those involved in the June 20 clashes, have nothing to do with justice. Oftentimes, the only evidence in court is police testimony. Based on those testimonies, protesters were being sent to prison for anywhere from 4 to 13 days.
War of the Padlocks
The padlock has become the symbol of the protests in Tbilisi. Thus far, padlocks have been placed on the gates of parliament, the government and State Security Services. A padlock was also symbolically placed on one of the microphones of Tbilisi’s City Council. The opposition insists that they will place padlocks everywhere, including on the doors to the offices of majoritarian parliamentarians. For this reason, there is now a heavy police presence near municipal buildings. Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders of the European Georgia Party, announced last week that, moving forward, they would be placing padlocks on the gates of government every Thursday.
The demonstrators insist that, as long as the authorities do not fulfil their promises, they will continue protesting. Zaza Abashitse, one of the founders of “Gavrilov’s Night” and later the “It’s Shameful” movement said, “because the authorities have radicalized the situation, thereby giving more significance to the street protests,” they will use every legal means to put pressure on them, so that they fulfil their promise and change the Electoral Code. They are also demanding that all those detained be released immediately. The latest protest of the unified opposition and civil society took place on November 25 in front of the parliament building.
The authorities, for their part, are insisting that the decision has already been made and it corresponds to all legal norms. Following the decision in parliament, Bidzina Ivanashvili, considered the real leader of the country announced that he is saddened by the decision, but that what took place was the result of internal democracy. They are now demanding that the proportional system be entirely abolished instead, and the country move to a fully majoritarian system.