Dystopian demands reign in Georgian streets, or is it something worse?

Published 03.12.2019 00:32
Protesters during an anti-government demonstration in front of parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia, Nov. 25, 2019. AFP
Protesters during an anti-government demonstration in front of parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia, Nov. 25, 2019. AFP

The resignation of the government and early elections are what Georgian protestors are openly demanding in the streets; so what has been the state's response to them?

Engulfed until recently in building its pro-Western orientation and economic prosperity, Georgia is preoccupied these days with cooling domestic unrest. Emotions and tension are running high and developments have been hectic, while the country's government continues to try to restore order. Protesters demand it abolish an obsolete electoral system and switch to a new one ensuring a multiparty parliamentarian democracy.

In June, protestors were promised this pivotal change personally by Georgian Dream party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. After that, the ongoing social unrest has largely cooled down though never fully stopped, turning sporadic, decentralized and at times, missing its target.

The fresh upheaval started after the country's Parliament failed on Nov. 14 to approve the constitutional amendments required for the vowed reforming of the electoral system. Enjoying a parliamentary majority, Georgian Dream deputies sabotaged both the proposed amendments carved by their party members and the so-called German model submitted for consideration by the opposition. The latter has generated apparent discontent in the European Council.

On Nov. 30, increasingly concerned with the spiraling chaos, accredited Georgia diplomats initiated a meeting between the ruling party and the opposition to discuss the German election model. The meeting was broadly attended by political parties, movements and high-ranking EU officials to be included in the EU mission to Georgia, but ended in failure.

According to the ruling Georgian Dream party that attended the meeting but refused to discuss it, the referred to German electoral model contradicts the Georgian constitution in force. According to Grigol Vashadze, who represented the National Movement at the meeting, the Georgian Dream "appeared unprepared to compromise and discuss the German election model and had to attend the meeting under strong public pressure from both the people of Georgia and the international community."

Discontent with the power

The original turmoil started in June, provoked by the arrival of a Russian parliamentarian to chair a session of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy at the Georgian Parliament. The unfortunate happening boosted public outcry strongly flavored with an anti-Russian sentiment. More so, it brought to light that Georgian people were not happy with how the country was being governed, and national elections were held. The government turned out to be unable to restore public order for several days and had to succumb to the protestors' demands by pledging to switch to the proportional election system from the out-of-date majority one.

The vowed change was largely taken for a decisive gain of the young Georgian democracy that for years had kept striving for it. It's implied that the 2020 national elections were to be held by the party lists with a zero threshold to ensure a multiparty presence in the Georgian Parliament, where some 10-15 parties are represented and can make coalitions, the de facto multiparty democracy is established, and the coalition government is made.

Nevertheless, during the Nov. 14 parliamentary session, Georgian Dream deputies sabotaged the voting on the constitutional amendments required for the election reform to proceed. They refused to consider the draft law submitted by their very party and declined a proposal of the opposition on the so-called German election model. The latter generated a sharp reaction from the European Parliament that instigated the Georgian Dream party and the opposition to finally meet and come to terms, but their meeting on Nov. 30 produced no results.

The discussion was centered around the so-called German model, which ensures that the Bundestag is elected accordingly, based on the principle of proportional representation and believed to combine many advantages of both the plurality and the proportional voting system. Nevertheless, the model conflicts with certain provisions of the Georgian constitution in force and is unacceptable as such, believes the Georgian Dream party, who has bluntly refused to discuss it.

Lasting for hours but ending with no result, the Nov. 30 meeting has launched a badly needed dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition. "Though our first meeting has borne no result, we would be ready to attend the second one if our mediators and strategic partners would deem it necessary," stated Grigol Vashadze by the end of the meeting.

Who is the opposition?

Georgia's opposition is eclectic and multifarious while adamant in having the constitution changed and the proportional voting with a zero threshold introduced. The Parliament's refusal to approve the reform of the electoral system has boosted anew the protests and disturbances. Twelve parliamentarians left the majority fraction straight after the Nov. 14 parliamentary session out of protest.

In turn, the opposition has blamed authorities and the Georgian Dream party for deliberately derailing the pledged reform process and instigated another outburst of disobedience through massive meetings and rallies. By now its actions are coped with open insults and physical abuse of Georgian Dream deputies and law enforcement authorities. These days, the protestors have continuously blocked the deputies' entrance to Parliament in an attempt to disrupt their daily routine. The police resorted to the assistance of special forces and the use of the water guns on Nov. 18 and 25, while temporarily detaining more than 60 protestors, including some opposition leaders.

Today, the opposition is demanding the government's resignation and early elections to be held by a proportional system that the Georgian Dream faction in Parliament has refused to endorse disregarding the constitutional amendments carved by their party comrades. Proportional elections with a zero threshold are off the agenda, declared Thea Tsulukiani, the serious Georgian minister of justice, while emploring her country's people to start preparing for the 2020 elections with the majority system.

Meanwhile, the ongoing tension continues and has revealed the deeper roots and more serious concerns of the people at large. "It's a conflict between citizens and the ruling power, and it's the citizen who's to gain the victory eventually," said Grigol Vashadze, the Georgian opposition leader and its nominee at the 2018 presidential elections, at the very outburst of the civil disobedience last June.

Currently in power, the Georgian Dream has won the elections on the wave of public discontent with the Saakashvili government. Based on their election promises, the Georgian people associated with them their bright hope for the better future that largely never came true since the Georgian Dream failed to deliver on election promises. Its failure to meet the expectations of the electorate resulted in the power losing popularity, apparent in autumn 2018 when Salome Zhurabishvili, their presidential candidate, nearly lost the first round of elections. Since then, the situation has largely remained the same regardless of the measures taken and the experienced government reshuffle when Georgi Gakharia, the hardcore ex-minister of the interior, became prime minister.

With protesting sentiments on the rise, the oppositional parties are building their electorate base. Nobody restricts the right to protest in Georgia, and the citizens can freely express their opinions, acknowledged Kaha Kaladze, the mayor of Tbilisi and the general secretary of the Georgian Dream party, when commenting on the protests the opposition started in Tbilisi on Nov. 25.

The main parties in the opposition and their supporters and numerous nongovernmental organizations, as well as the newly emerged civil society movements, have joined the protests. Their front runner is the National Movement party, originally founded by Michael Saakashvili, Georgia's ex-president currently in exile.

Discontent with the government is unifying ground for the opposition, and its ranks keep broadening to engulf the new supporters.

Protests continue

The hope associated with the Nov. 30 meeting has failed to see results, and the disobedience will continue, stated Giga Bokeria from the European Georgia party: "They will keep going until Georgian society receives the result promised by Ivanishvili and his team after the 'Gavrilov night' and the bloodshed. As for the dialogue, yes, of course we support it and the assistance of our international partners."

In the atmosphere of turmoil and turbulence, President Zhurabishvili has remained silent, refraining from issuing statements, generating discontent among politicians. Some of them go as far as expressing doubts about her ability to rule the country.

Until the government takes concrete action to resolve the ongoing political crisis, it is useless to talk about the democratic reforms and parliamentary democracy in Georgia, believes the leadership of the European Georgia party, while suggesting that the crisis was borne by the authorities not keeping their promises. The protests will end, it also believes, if the authorities agree to the German election model by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the opposition is planning another mass protest in front of Parliament on Dec. 9 and promises "not to let those who made a circus in Parliament feel comfortable while trying to convince us that they are working on the legislation," according to a civil activist speaking at the Nov. 28 public rally.

* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul

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