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Tbilisi protests: Why do tens of thousands of Georgians want early elections?

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Opposition supporters take part in a rally to protest against the government and demand an early parliamentary election in Tbilisi, Georgia November 25, 2019.
Opposition supporters take part in a rally to protest against the government and demand an early parliamentary election in Tbilisi, Georgia November 25, 2019. -
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For two weeks, protesters in Georgia have blockaded the country’s parliament building in demonstrations over electoral reform that have brought tens of thousands to the streets.

Activists want to see a reform of the election system scheduled to come into force in 2024 brought forward by four years, allowing the country to shift from a so-called single-mandate constituency to one based on proportional representation.

They say that the current system favours the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is headed by a former prime minister and Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Georgian Dream, who won elections in 2012 to oust the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, have opposed the changes to the law.

What is a single-mandate constituency?

A single-mandate constituency system — which is also called first-past-the-post and in use in the US and UK — is sometimes described as a ‘winner takes all’ system. This is because only one candidate — from each constituency — is elected.

That contrasts with a proportional representation system, which treats an entire country as a single constituency and asks voters to vote nationally for party lists. It means that political parties are appointed seats in parliament depending on their total share of the vote.

The single-mandate constituency system favours incumbent parties and makes it difficult for new political forces to win seats.

Its defenders argue that it guards against extreme parties having undue influence in parliament, by entering coalitions with mainstream parties. But its detractors argue that it is inherently undemocratic because it means millions of votes are effectively useless.

Georgia has a mixed system, with politicians elected via proportional representation but enough single-constituency seats, critics say, to favour the ruling party.

The protests have spread to other cities, including Mtskheta, Zugdidi, Poti, Telavi and Ozurgeti, where protesters have locked the gates of municipalities and government buildings. The actions have been condemned by the country’s prime minister.

The protesters, Georgian politics expert George Mchedlishvili told Euronews, represent "a spectrum of opposition parties and movements, as well as young people without clear political affiliation, but gravitating towards former president Saakashvili and his political party."

"The opposition is very diverse, some of them actively dislike each other, but reneging on the promise of electoral reform united them, albeit for a brief time", he said.

Those among the Georgian population who are informed overwhelmingly support the change, since the status-quo, with its mixed system of 77 proportional and 73 majoritarian MPs, favour the incumbent political party, Mchedlishvili said.

'The pressure of the streets may increase'

“Freedom of expression in the country is fully protected by law, but in case of illegal blocking of the state institutions, the police will act within the law,” Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said on November 22.

Since then, dozens have been arrested and police have used water cannon to disperse protesters outside the parliament building in Tbilisi. On Tuesday, huge steel gates were erected around the parliament building to keep demonstrators away.

The measures, Dionis Cenusa, an analyst and researcher at JLU University in Germany, told Euronews, are unlikely to prevent further demonstrations as the opposition has “very little to lose.”

"The government needs to find solutions to de-escalate the situation. Otherwise, the pressure of the streets may increase. That’s very probable if violent tactics against protesters or legal oppressive measures are envisioned by Georgian Dream."

Not the first protests this year

It isn’t the first time in 2019 that Georgia has been rocked by street protests. Back in June, thousands took to the streets after a lawmaker in the country addressed the parliament in Russian, provoking anger in a country with tense relations with Moscow.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia after two self-proclaimed republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, attempted to secede from the country. Georgia was occupied by Russia from 1921 to 1991, joined NATO in 1992 and has moved closer to the EU over the past decade.

Like other former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Georgian politics is divided between those who want to see the country move closer to Europe and others that look to Russia.

Salome Zourabichvili, who was elected in 2018, is a pro-European president that has prioritised Georgia’s entry to the European Union. She is supported by the current government but heads her own party, the Way of Georgia.

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