Georgian presidential runoff fallout: defeated candidate calls for mass protests, early general election

Georgian presidential runoff fallout: defeated candidate calls for mass protests, early general election
Grigol Vashadze has called for a "mass peaceful demonstration" on December 2 in Tbilisi.
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest and Will Conroy in Prague November 30, 2018

The defeated opposition candidate in November 28’s Georgian presidential election runoff, Grigol Vashadze, has called for mass protests and an early parliamentary election. A Tbilisi rally has been announced for December 2.

Vashadze rejected the results of the poll that saw Salome Zurabishvili—an independent candidate strongly endorsed and financially backed by the Georgian Dream party that leads the government coalition—triumph. However, he said there should be “a mass peaceful demonstration”, striking a different tone to the more aggressive statements issued by ex-president of Georgia and the self-exiled man seen leading the fragmented Georgian opposition, Mikhael Saakashvili. He called for “civil disobedience”.

"We do not recognise the election results, we demand to hold snap parliamentary polls," Vashadze said in televised remarks.

Vashadze, running under the Strength in Unity coalition banner, took just 40.5% of the vote in the election, while Zurabishvili secured 59.5%, with a winning margin of almost 367,500 votes in the country of 3.7m. That was despite some opinion polls putting him ahead prior to election day.

'Buying of votes'
Also in the days before voting, allegations flew over the ‘buying of votes’ as news broke that the Cartu Foundation, controlled by Georgian Dream chairman and billionaire oligarch and ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, was buying a bundle of bad loans worth Georgian lari (GEL) 1.5bn ($560mn, equivalent to 3.5% of Georgia’s GDP) owed by small debtors to banks and microfinance institutions.

In separate news, the leader of the Movement for Freedom-European Georgia party, Giga Bokeria—the candidate of which came third in the first round of the presidential election, prior to the party giving its support to Vashadze for the second ballot—announced that his party would decide on further steps on November 30.

Bokeria said: "We have now seen the conclusion of the international observers. I would like to tell you that I do not remember such critical assessments from our international partners from [the days of ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze]… This is a huge step back for Ivanishvili's leadership under Georgian democracy.

"He dealt a grave blow to Georgia's democracy and during this election campaign. Intimidation, bribery, and the systemic violation of the privacy of these elections—these three factors are a major challenge for these elections and Georgian democracy. I repeat once again that Bidzina Ivanishvili dealt the toughest blow to the future of our country and this further increases our responsibility to develop a strategy for how to get out of this situation."

Significant deviations from democratic principles: OSCE
Evaluating the presidential runoff, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in preliminary findings and conclusions issued on November 29 that it was “competitive” and the elections “were well administered”. However, at the same time its election observers pointed to significant deviations from democratic principles.

Claimed deviations included the misuse of administrative resources, no editorial independence of the public media and the “gathering of voter data and mapping of political preferences” that raised “concerns of potential intimidation”.

Increased misuse of administrative resources “further blurred the line between party and state”, the OSCE concluded.

“What has happened is contrary to the commitment of the Georgian authorities on fair and transparent elections,” Ambassador of the EU Delegation to Georgia Carl Harcelli told journalists after a coordination meeting attended by all the ambassadors of the EU countries and the US ambassador.

“We are worried about abuse of administrative resources and inadequate pressure on voters, which in the second round has become noticeable,” he added.

“One side enjoyed an undue advantage”, OSCE concluded, summing up the list of irregularities.

“The use of negative, harsh and at times violent rhetoric significantly overshadowed the campaign and went unaddressed by authorities. In the campaign there were incidents of the misuse of administrative resources and the announcement of a series of social and financial initiatives, in particular debt relief for 600,000 individuals by a private financial institution linked to the chairperson of the ruling party,” the OSCE stated.

The European Parliament’s delegation also saw the promise to waive the bad debts of the potential voters as an “attempt to buy their votes”.

 “The announcement just a few days before a fiercely contested second round of debt relief benefitting 600,000 citizens and made possible by an entity owned by the head of the ruling party could be considered an attempt at vote-buying. Cases of intimidation and pressure on voters have to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. Further, the practice of mass sending pre-recorded phone calls and text messages is highly questionable,” said Laima Andrikiene, head of the delegation from the European Parliament.

“We note that the choice of the date for the second round was not made in an inclusive manner and was not in the interest of all voters, leading to suspicions that it was politically motivated,” she added.

Zurabishvili ‘not ready for cooperation with Russia’
In comments made to the BBC Russian service after her victory, Georgia’s President-elect Zurabishvili said she is not ready for cooperation with Russia.

Zurabishvili is seen as less hostile to Moscow than defeated opponent Vashadze, but in the comments, translated by TASS, she remarked: "I don’t think that… we can today enter into cooperation mode."

She added: “We are Europe and pro-European. If the West and Europe and our American partners move to any form of discussion with Russia, that’s where we need to be close, informed, in order for our principles, our objectives, our sovereignty and territorial integrity to be respected.

"At the time of the negotiations I had with Russia, I was before and after each session of negotiations referring to the European presidency and the American Embassy. And that was something that was known by my counterpart and accepted." Zurabishvili noted.

She reportedly emphasised that she intended to be a very active president as far as Georgia’s integration with the European Union and Nato was concerned.

Georgia and Russia fought a very brief war in 2008. Russia still has troops stationed in Georgian breakaway territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia.