The messenger logo

Debate over referendum wording about more than just the language

Wednesday, December 19

While eyes are on the battle for the presidency on January 5, a quiet skirmish is being waged over the scheduling of the next parliamentary elections. Attention should be paid: the outcome—and ferocity—of that engagement may bear ominous signs.

The same day Georgians vote for a president, they will also be asked a question about earlier parliamentary elections. How exactly that question will be worded remains unsettled, less than three weeks from Election Day.

Roughly speaking, the opposition wants the ballot to ask Georgians to vote for or against spring parliamentary elections, and to mention that was the original schedule prior to controversial constitutional amendments last winter.

The ruling party, which itself is split on how best to craft the language, would prefer the plebiscite’s wording to emphasize that the constitution currently schedules the elections for the fall.

Spring parliamentary elections were one of the original demands of the opposition coalition which organized the November 2–7 protest, and polling suggests that most voters would like a chance to vote on their MPs as soon as possible.

But does the opposition still want earlier elections? A smooth Saakashvili victory is likely to give his National Movement party a bump in the polls. In that case, the opposition is better off with parliamentary elections toward the end of the year, when any post-election second honeymoon has worn off.

And the scheduling doesn’t matter at all if an opposition candidate wins the presidency—the victor would probably dissolve parliament to avoid three months of gridlock with a National Movement-dominated legislature. In that case, the most the referendum can do for the opposition is give them a mandate for calling new parliamentary elections immediately.

Another possibility remains: either the government or the opposition—or both—anticipate unpleasant street-level fallout from a Saakashvili win in January, leaving his party extremely vulnerable in parliamentary elections were they held just months later. If that’s true, a pitched fight over the referendum could signify much more than mere partisan stubbornness.