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On the pandemic and the electoral system

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Thursday, March 26
The main topics in the Georgian politics are the Coronavirus pandemic and ongoing discussions around the implementation of the March 8th agreement on reforming the electoral system. However, the pandemic might slow down this discussion.

The implementation of the agreement reached between the government and the United Opposition on March 8th depends primarily on the government. The opposition’s trust in the government is low- everyone remembers the failure of the promise to hold proportional elections in 2020.

Some experts and politicians have suggested that the government would benefit from the Coronavirus epidemic, declare a state of emergency, and no constitutional changes would be made under such conditions. They also claim that the elections, scheduled for late October 2020, could even be postponed.

Despite such suspicions, the Georgian Dream seems to be fulfilling the first part of the agreement reached on March 8th. A constitutional commission has already been set up in Parliament and a one-month public-debate under the constitution is underway. Past experience shows that this is a fairly formal process, but it was held in the form of direct meetings with citizens, which is not possible in a pandemic. However, a solution was found; since the constitution does not specify the form of the discussion necessary, the constitutional commission plans to inform the public of the content of the draft law via television and use social networks for further communication.

According to Kobakhidze, Former Speaker of Parliament, April 28th is the closest date when it is possible to vote on the draft constitutional amendments at the first hearing in Parliament.

The opposition attended the parliamentary session, where the constitutional commission was set up, but the opposition claims that if political prisoners aren’t released, they will no longer attend Parliament sessions, including on constitutional amendments.

The opposition and the government do not seem to agree over the second part of the March 8th agreement, which says that “the court should not be used for political reasons.”

The United Opposition says that this point means the release of the detained opposition members and that the government has to fulfill it.

Kote Kemularia, one of the leaders of the political party Victorious Georgia, says that if Gigi Ugulava, Besik Tamliani, Irakli Okruashvili and Giorgi Rurua are not released, the opposition will not support the electoral changes.

The opposition has a plan - Gigi Ugulava should be pardoned by the president and the other three simply released because they are not convicted and have no tangible accusations against them. Gigi Ugulava and his lawyer have already applied to Salome Zourabichvili for pardon. Authorities say the clause does not provide for the release of anyone and there are no political prisoners in the country.

Here's the question: If they agreed to release the political prisoners, why didn't the parties sign it officially? The opposition's response is that foreign diplomats were mediating the negotiations, and they are the guarantee of the fulfillment of the agreement. If such a specific agreement was really in place, its non-compliance would be detrimental to the Georgian Dream.

There is a month left before the parliament votes for the constitutional amendments, and it is unknown if the opposition will participate. However, the above-mentioned prisoners themselves were asking that the opposition does not disrupt the negotiations over the electoral system because of their demand to release the political prisoners.

It is clear that if constitutional amendments fail, this will significantly aggravate the situation before the elections. Breaking the March 8th agreement would be more damaging to the image of the government than to the opposition. Why does the government not release the four named individuals? The answer is simple: it does not want to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners and to not appear ‘weak’ in the eyes of voters. Some experts believe that releasing them would be more beneficial to the government's image.

There are seven months left before the election, and today the government looks much stronger than the opposition. The government has well-structured law enforcement agencies, strong administrative resources, and great financial capabilities.

The unity of the opposition is quite fragile, in terms of reforming the electoral system, and financially poor. The coronavirus epidemic is preventing street rallies. The mass rally announced on April 4th in Tbilisi is canceled.

Part of the opposition, in the critical situation created by the epidemic, is demanding that the leader of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, addresses the public. According to the majority leader Mamuka Mdinaradze, Bidzina Ivanishvili is actively involved in political life, sometimes in the party office and sometimes in active communication with him. Majority MP Nukri Kantaria says that “if Bidzina Ivanishvili decides to go public and address the people, he will do so.”

The Coronavirus pandemic has not reached its peak in Georgia yet, but it already hit the Georgian economy. The social situation is exacerbated, which poses a serious threat to stability and makes radical populist programs attractive to voters.
(Translated by Mariam Mchedlidze)