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Covid-19, Saakashvili and elections

By Malkhaz Matsaberidze
Wednesday, September 16
With the October 31st parliamentary elections approaching, the sharp rise in Covid's cases is a sign that the elections will end in the wake of the second wave of the epidemic. The main event of the election campaign so far, judging by the number of comments and the degree of emotion of politicians, is the nomination of Saakashvili as a candidate for Prime Minister by the "National Movement".

In recent days, the number of cases of Covid-19 in the country has reached record levels for Georgia and exceeds 40 cases per day. The situation is especially difficult in the Adjara region, and due to the lack of places in hospitals, the decision was made to place the mildly ill in hotels.

Three hotels in Tbilisi, Batumi and Kutaisi have already been selected. The government has been talking for a long time about the prospect of a ‘second wave’ of the epidemic, and now that this wave may become a reality, many feel that the government is not sufficiently prepared to meet. The opposition and experts in the field spoke directly about this.

The opposition has long claimed that the government is serving the purposes of the election campaign to fight the epidemic. On March 30th, 12 cases of coronavirus were reported, and on March 31st-7. The authorities then declared a state of emergency, introduced a general quarantine and activated the curfew.

Now that the number of new cases of the virus exceeds 40 per day, the government says that the educational process in schools can be resumed. According to Levan Ioseliani, one of the leaders of the Citizens party, the decisions of the Georgian Dream then and now serve the purposes of the pre-election campaign. "In the spring they adopted the image of a caring government, but now that they know the negative attitude of the people, they can no longer dare to impose the same restrictions."

The government is not going to postpone the elections and the existing election schedule will not change. According to Davit Matikashvili, a representative of the Georgian Dream, "we do not have the luxury of discussing the postponement of elections despite the pandemic." The government imposes some restrictions on the epidemic, but it is clarified that this does not apply to campaign events; for example, the ban on gathering more than 200 people does not apply to the election campaign.

In general, the opposition believed that the coronavirus pandemic was "working" in favor of the government, and a successful response to the epidemic boosted the government's rating. If the government finds it difficult to control the ‘second wave’ now, it will cause dissatisfaction in the society before the elections.

The CEC registered 66 parties running in the October 31st parliamentary elections, but most of these parties are unknown to the public and will not be able to campaign actively. Interested voters may even find it difficult to find some of these party pre-election programs. These less known parties are counting on the 1% threshold in proportional elections, which seems relatively easy to overcome.

Mikheil Saakashvili, who was nominated by the United National Movement as his candidate for the post of Prime Minister, remains in the media spotlight. It has already become known about the election plans of the third president of Georgia. Saakashvili said he intends to arrive in Georgia after the elections, after the change of government, but categorically ruled out destabilization of the situation and stressed that he handed over power to the Georgian Dream peacefully in 2012. According to Saakashvili, he is going to be the Prime Minister for a maximum of two years, which will be enough to bring the country out of the crisis. Saakashvili presented a concrete plan for governing the country, which he called ‘9 steps towards justice.’ It envisages the depoliticization of the police and penitentiary system and the achievement of the independence of the judiciary. Saakashvili's pre-election activity has alarmed not only the government but also a large part of the opposition, which does not consider itself a ‘Saakashvili camp’ and some of them have ambitions to become a ‘third force.’ According to them, Saakashvili's appearance in Georgian politics is an attempt to restore ‘bipolarity,’ when voters will have to choose between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili again.Whatever the attitude towards Saakashvili, the fact is that he remains an influential figure in Georgian politics, with the higher international recognition and authority.

By engaging Saakashvili in the election campaign, the United National Movement will fully mobilize its constituency, while other opposition forces will have to approve their ratings in the upcoming elections. Especially those that were created shortly before the elections, such as Lelo or Citizen.

European Georgia, which seceded from the United National Movement after the 2016 parliamentary elections and has not yet run in the elections, is in a similar situation. They have to explain to voters how they differ from the National Movement, apart from the fact that Saakashvili and his leadership style are unacceptable to them.

The 66 parties running in the elections have until September 24th to form electoral blocs and then submit their party lists and majoritarian candidates to the CEC by October 1st.
(Translated from Georgian by Mariam Mchedlidze)