Elections in the Midst of a Pandemic I: Georgia

3 mins read

By Nina Kaufmann

November 3 is approaching. All eyes on the United States. The upcoming American elections are important and intriguing, maybe this year more than ever. The polling stations in the US are however not the only ones hosting (Corona adjusted) queues right now. Within the next weeks, there are several other elections taking place in the world, affecting the lives of millions of people. This article series is going to shed light on three of these, less covered, votes: the general elections in Georgia, Myanmar and Venezuela. First up is Georgia, holding elections in just a few days. 

In this Caucasus state, located at the junction of Europe and Asia, geographically as well as politically, 3 million eligible voters have the possibility to elect a new parliament on the last day of October. On new terms, however, compared to 4 years ago. The country’s electoral system has been considerably transformed ahead of the 2020 elections. In July this year, constitutional amendments were finally accepted on a broad political spectrum to make the political system more proportional, and more representative. 

The new legislation implies that parties now need at least 40% of votes from the electorate in order to be assigned a majority of seats in the parliament, something that wasn’t necessary with the previous system where only half of the members of parliament were elected through proportional party lists, and the other half through single-member constituencies. Further, the party threshold has been lowered from 5% to 1% to enter parliament, enabling the representation of smaller parties in the country’s main decision-making unit, and making the elections more competitive. The new system also introduces a 25% gender quota. Being the first country in the region with a female chief of state, Salome Zourabichvili, who was elected in 2018 to the largely ceremonial post as president, it seems like a natural step to take to also make the parliament more representative. As of now, only 14.8% of the MPs are women. 

Updating the electoral system seems to be crucial for a country like Georgia. While experts argue that the country holds a technical capacity to hold fair and credible elections, the lack of proportionality in the system, and transparency around elections, has made the criticism among Georgians increase in the past years. Georgia ranks 61 out of 179 in the V-Dem score of democracies in the world and is considered one of the more progressive countries in the region when it comes to democratic development. The country has made considerable progress in the last decade, not least when it comes to reducing corruption. But the public demands more. According to Freedom House, Georgia still counts as a transitional or hybrid regime, and only “partly free” when it comes to political rights and civil liberties. The new election reforms are clearly a step towards a more up-to-date democratic process – an update that the public has requested, and that the ruling party and main initiator of the changes, Georgian Dream, hopes to help them win re-election. 

The current government has however recently encountered a small problem when it comes to an easy win: the second Corona outbreak. Up until a few weeks ago, the government was still praised for their handling of the virus, which initially hit Georgia fairly mild compared to many other countries. September-polls suggested that Georgian Dream would win with over 50%, and thereby continue to hold a majority of seats in the parliament after Saturday. But the second wave of the virus has affected the country in a different way, with cases rising rather rapidly. Undoubtedly, this change to the successful image of the government’s response to Covid-19 will have an influence when Georgians cast their ballots. 

Covid has also affected the election in other ways. The restrictions on physical contact have forced parties to find new ways to campaign, and the election administration has implemented strict hygiene guidelines when it comes to the voting process. It is clear that the pandemic has its effects on the upcoming general elections in Georgia, both when it comes to the execution of them, and the issues addressed. 

Still, the virus does not seem to be of major disturbance to the current democratic progress in Georgia. The vote on Saturday constitutes an important milestone when it comes to the political development in the country, and despite the challenges the current situation implies, the prospects for free and fair elections are seemingly more promising than ever. 66 parties have registered to run in the elections. Over 60 organisations are in place to observe them. 

Georgia is still facing a lot of challenges when it comes to democracy and civil rights, and the elections on October 31 will unlikely be fault-free. But one thing is for sure: that the country is about to hold the most representative and competitive parliamentary election in its history, despite being in the midst of a pandemic, is a big step in the right direction.

Image: cottonbro studio

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