A former Soviet republic turned democratic icon, Georgia, now sits on the precipice of a national crisis. Protests have rocked the capital over the past two weeks, following news that electoral reform failed in the Parliament, falling only 12 votes short of the necessary three-fourths majority. The reform, which was pushed and voted on as a constitutional amendment, would have shifted the electoral system from being a mix between “winner takes all” and proportional systems, to a completely proportional system. It is important to note that the transition from one system to another is inevitable, and the amendment in question accelerates the process from being implemented in 2024 to 2020.
The Georgian Dream party introduced the amendment as a response to protests earlier this year, in June, which pressured them into compliance with the public’s demands for proportional representation. The public took the most recent vote’s failure as a broken promise on the part of the Georgian Dream party, which sparked outrage across the country, leading to protests of over 20,000 people in the capital, Tbilisi, according to the Financial Times. It is a rare example of opposition political parties with ideologies that range vastly across the political spectrum coming together to fight against electoral injustice.
Much like those who marched in June, people who have taken to the streets now face police brutality, with police even going so far as to use water cannons against peaceful protestors. Police activities like the use of water cannons violate the right to demonstrate peacefully, which is guaranteed in Article 25 of Georgia’s constitution. Violations of this right have led to police arresting at least 28 protestors and injuring three more, as reported by Georgian officials. However, a conflicting estimate from the BBC indicates that the police arrested 37 people.
Even given these violent, illegal crackdowns, protestors persist, and pressure on the government is unlikely to abate until the ruling party meets the demands of the public. Central to those demands are early elections, ideally using a proportional system. Many see a shift to a proportional system as a way to ensure that every vote counts and every idea and group are represented in a way that accurately reflects its public support. In addition to demands for electoral reforms, some demonstrators are even calling for the resignation of officials within the party.
These calls for the removal of party leaders are indicative of a fundamental mistrust amongst the public regarding the Georgian Dream party’s commitment to democracy. The ruling party’s chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a particularly prominent target for this vein of criticism. On top of being the founder of the Georgian Dream party, Ivanishvili is also the richest man in Georgia, and he made his money from working in banking in Russia. Ivanishvili’s ties to Russia only feed the protestors’ claims that the party is not dedicated to sustaining Georgian democracy. Ever since the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, there has been widespread anti-Russian sentiment amongst the public, TIME reports, and now that the U.S. and EU have endorsed and defended the protests in Georgia, it seems more and more like the protestors are pro-west and pro-democracy, and the ruling party is pro-Russia and pro-autocracy.
Instead of turning towards repressive tactics, the Georgian Dream party should instead move towards a policy of reconciliation. They should affirm their commitment to both democracy and the constitution, specifically Article 25, guaranteeing a right to peaceful assembly. Also, they should move forward with the amendment they promised to implement transitioning the system to a fully-proportional voting system. Given that the shift in systems is inevitable by 2024, all arguments against it that the Georgian Dream party presents are questionable, as there is no reason delaying it could help resolve the issues they claim are inherent in a genuinely proportional system. If the Georgian Dream pivots again towards passing the amendment, they can boost their popularity by reclaiming their status as the party at the helm of the push for true Georgian democracy.