The ruling party in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is claiming victory following Saturday’s closely contested parliamentary election.
But the opposition alleges the vote was rigged and staged a rally outside parliament on Sunday in protest.
Preliminary results show the ruling Georgian Dream, or GD, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, garnered about 48% of the vote, according to election officials.
The opposition United National Movement, or UNM, of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, was second with 27%. Trailing with roughly 4% was European Georgia, a party that split from the UNM in 2017. Altogether, there are eight opposition parties, including pro-Russia Patriot’s Alliance, which is perceived as an ally to the Georgian Dream.
The ruling party declared victory soon after initial projections were announced. It said the elections were a step forward and that it will single-handedly form a government.
“This is a big win,” said Irakli Kobakhidze, Georgian Dream’s executive secretary. “Free and fair elections are main achievement of Georgian Dream,” he told reporters at a press conference.
With the final votes still being counted, the opposition is discussing the possibility of boycotting parliament. They have argued that Ivanishvili has undermined Georgian democracy through shadow governance, control over the judiciary and pressuring the business sector.
The opposition leaders have pledged unity, maintaining that they won’t recognize Saturday’s elections.
“Ivanishvili destroyed democracy in our country last night,” said UNM member Salome Samadashvili ahead of announcing an opposition rally. “We demand new and legitimate elections,” she added.
“The results that were established through fear tactics, violence, bribery, use of administrative resources, manipulations at voting stations, do not reflect the will of the people,” said Giga Bokeria, leader of European Georgia.
Observers from the OSCE — the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — have said the vote was competitive and that overall, fundamental freedoms were respected. The OSCE, however, said allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between party and state reduced public confidence in parts of the process.
Georgian Dream says the OSCE assessment proves that the elections reflected the popular choice. “The assessment is much more positive than in the case of previous elections,” said Archil Talakvadze, the chairman of parliament.
A statement from the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi echoed the assessment of the OSCE, while calling for transparency in resolving the complaints.
“These efforts to corrupt the electoral process through voter intimidation, vote buying, interfering with ballot secrecy, blurring of party and official activities, and violence against election observers and journalists, while not sufficient to invalidate the results, continue to mar Georgia’s electoral process and are unacceptable,” the statement said.
Elections in the nation of nearly 4 million people were held with a hard-won, new electoral system, a concession the ruling party made after a series of demonstrations last year and continued pressure from the U.S. government and Congress. Of the legislature’s 150 seats, 120 are decided by a proportional system. The remaining seats would be decided through what are called single-mandate. There will be run-offs in 16 out of 30 districts.
The elections also took place amid the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, a struggling economy and increased poverty. Observers note the national currency, the lari, has lost half of its value against the U.S dollar and unemployment remains the main concern of the population.
The pandemic has hit Georgia hard with its economy expected to shrink by 4% this year. Coronavirus cases are sharply rising, straining the health care sector. According to the Johns Hopkins University, the former Soviet republic has close to 39,000 confirmed cases and 307 deaths. The government took steps to curb the outbreak by declaring a state of emergency earlier this year, closing schools and some businesses and restricting travel.
The election followed a highly polarized campaign in which Georgian Dream and the United National Movement traded personal attacks.
Georgian Dream’s chief tactic was to target Saakashvili, who served as president from 2004 through 2013. Saakashvili left the country after a series of criminal charges against him, which he argues are politically motivated. He currently resides in Ukraine and holds an official position in the government.
“If the opposition decides that I should come, I will jump on the next plane,” he said after the election results were announced.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, came to power in 2012, ousting President Saakashvili’s government. He served as a prime minister for a year, before abruptly resigning. He is widely believed to run the government behind the scenes.
Over the years, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream has come under harsh criticism from local and international observers, who have voiced concerns over targeting of media freedoms, and political opponents and the use of excessive force during anti-Russia protests last summer.