GD wins Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Zugdidi by narrow margin, loses Tsalenjikha

01 November, 2021

Municipal elections in Georgia are now over. After two rounds of the battle between the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling party and the opposition coalition led by the United National Movement (UNM), GD won in all municipalities, except one in western Georgia - Tsalenjikha. The opposition coalition, however, was not in the mood to acknowledge defeat and vowed to continue with recounts, appeals and demonstrations.

According to the official results GD mayoral candidate in Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze received 55.6% of the vote, United National Movement’s (UNM) leader Nika Melia - 44.3%.

Fierce battles were fought in the largest cities after Tbilisi - Kutaisi and Batumi. In both GD candidates won narrowly. In Kutaisi UNM’s Khatia Dekanoidze received 48.3 % of the votes against GD’s Ioseb Khakhaleishvili’s 51.6%. In Batumi UNM’s Giorgi Kirtadze (49 %) was beaten slightly by GD’s Archil Chikovani (51 %).

The first analysis shows that three factors determined the Government favoured outcome - invalid ballots, special precincts (COVID-19, prisons) and vote-buying. In Kutaisi and Batumi, over 2000 ballots were invalidated, while the difference in the votes was around 1500 in Batumi and 2200 in Kutaisi. Covid precincts and prisons, which unlike other precincts have no, or limited opposition and observers’ representation were heavily in favour of the ruling party. For instance, in two special precincts in Kutaisi, the UNM candidate scored only 14% and 16% (compared to the Kutaisi average of 49%) thus giving GD almost 400 vote advantage. Likewise, in Zugdidi’s Covid precinct voters largely supported GD (85%), with only 14% voting for the opposition candidate (UNM average in the rest of Zugdidi was close to 49%). Either the virus overwhelmingly targeted the Georgian Dream supporters, or the lack of supervision over the ballot box played the trick.

Which ballots to count as invalid was a big issue on Georgian Facebook yesterday. Many precincts streamed live videos of counting. Some heartbreaking bulletins were aired as a result. For instance, one ballot contained writing - “please do not invalidate this ballot… two reasons - my job and my adrift son”. It appears that the pressured author has previously circled the GD candidate, probably took a photo of the bulletin to show “a handler” outside, then scratched out the GD candidate and circled a candidate of his/her choice - Nika Melia. All these scribings and scratches on the ballot were then strengthened with the emotional appeal to the commission members. The ballot was counted.

Many other ballots, however, were not. On many ballots, Georgian Dream candidates were scratched out and UNN candidates circled. While the Georgian law provides that the “clear expression of choice” is what counts, GD led majorities in the commissions often voted to dismiss such ballots, claiming that it was unclear, whether scratching out the GD candidate counted as a for, or against vote (ignoring that by contrast, UNM candidates were circled in the same ballots). This led to fierce emotional discussions and social media indignation, however, quite a few ballots were dismissed.

Elsewhere, in major towns, GD also narrowly won the victories. In Zugdidi, the hottest contested town, that UNM candidate won by over 5% margin in the first round, scales reversed in favor of GD’s Mamuka Tsotseria (51.6%), who slightly surpassed Nika Melia’s father Anzor Melia (48.3%).

In other major urban areas GD also won with a small edge (Rustavi - 53.7 vs. 46.2%, Martvili 51.8% vs. 48.1 %, Senaki - 53% vs. 47%, Rustavi - 53.7% vs. 46.2%). In other places, like Poti, Telavi and Ozurgeti, the difference was larger, but nowhere did GD score more than 60%, save for Baghdati (60.6%).

Opposition United National Movement won only one district - Tsalenjikha. Its mayoral candidate Giorgi Kharchilava (51.1 %) beat former MP Goga Gulordava (48.9%) and will now be likely supported by the local council that also includes an opposition-led majority (11 GD vs 11 UNM, 3 For Georgia, 1 Lelo). However, the final outcome of the local council district runoffs remains to be seen. As it happened previously in Zugdidi, it is likely that Georgian Dream will recount the precincts and will try to reverse the outcome in three districts, where the vote difference is under 10 votes in favour of the opposition candidates. Another trick in the GD’s sleeve is to simply buy or recruit opposition local council members. One of the For Georgia local council members in Tsalenjikha already quit the party and issued a statement, implying that she will start cooperating with the Georgian Dream. A similar statement was made by the For Georgia leader in Batumi. GD might have lost the elections and count in Tsalenjikha, but recount and recruitment are still viable instruments to keep power in this small town.

The run-up to the second round was hot and violent. A number of violations were reported and will likely be described by international and local observers. On October 24, an attack by the GD supporters on one of the UNM offices in Rustavi resulted in the injury of three people. On October 29, Amiran Janashia, a former police officer and member of the opposition, was arrested in Zugdidi. Opposition members claimed that Amiran Janashia was active in the elections and that he contributed to the defeat of the GD by 500 votes in his village, Rukhi. It was no surprise that Janashia was arrested for the illegal possession of firearms, a common practice by the law enforcers. Similar intimidation tactics were employed in almost every major district, where GD feared defeat.

Election day was quite hot too. Nika Melia was slammed in the head by the GD supporter while live on TV, when he visited Isani PEC #62 after the report that a convenient power outage resulted in ballot stuffing. Power outages also occurred in several other precincts throughout the country during the count.

An alarming wave of aggression was directed at the journalists of independent TV stations - Mtavari, Formula and Pirveli. The Coalition for Media Advocacy reported a number of attacks and violations by the alleged GD representatives, who did not allow journalists to perform their professional duties. Journalists were insulted and called “opposition activists, slanderers, and opposition servants”.

Other violations included alleged reports that opposition voters were paid 50-100 GEL (16-33 USD) in exchange for their ID cards, so they would not be able to vote. Two instances of “fake IDs” (similar IDs with different names) emerged on the election day, though it remained unclear, whether these IDs were indeed fake and handed out to vote in carousels, or they were the cases of the innocent name change - an easy endeavour in Georgia.

Contrasting campaigns were selected by the Georgian Dream and opposition for the second round. Georgian Dream chose the negative campaign as its main course, even changing Kaladze’s smiling photo on Tbilisi billboards to a frowning one. The main message - “ do not allow the Nazis and Misha to return” was aimed at further polarizing the public and getting anti-UNM voters to the precincts. The opposition, however, decided to focus on the message of “governing together” and “together we are more”. Several Georgian opposition parties (Lelo, Girchi-more freedom, Droa, European Georgia) and independent politicians teamed up with the United National Movement and pledged to form coalition cabinets in the city councils in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and elsewhere. Tbilisi mayoral candidate Nika Melia coalesced with Mamuka Khazaradze of Lelo, Zurab Japaridze of Girchi – More Freedom, Elene Khoshtaria of Droa, and Irakli Abesadze (formerly with the European Georgia and now independent) to create “a group of five” - himself and deputy mayoral candidates. This campaign seemed to have boosted the opposition's hopes before the second round.

As a result, the period between the two rounds turned out quite tense. On the one hand, the opposition-held large-scale rallies to demand the release of the third President Mikheil Saakashvili. At least 60 thousand strong rallies were held on October 14 in Freedom Square and impressive crowds of around 15 thousand were gathered in Zugdidi and Batumi. On the other hand, Georgian Dream responded with its own rally of 70 thousand, largely GD activists, civil servants and “paid protesters” (rumour ran that 50 GEL-16 USD were handed out to attend the rally).

While the elections are now over and Georgian Dream vowed that no voting will take place until 2024, when the next parliamentary elections are scheduled, the opposition does not plan to give up. Nika Melia will likely announce the course of action soon, with the main focus on fighting the election outcomes, conducting support rallies and demanding Saakashvili’s release. What will come out of this, is anyone’s guess. Whether the opposition coalition will persevere, is also a big question. One thing is clear, however - the methods employed by the ruling party - vote-buying, intimidation, polarization and attacks on opposition and media, have achieved the result - GD won again. At what cost, though, will be seen soon.