Georgian civil society concerned over threats to democracy in election law changes
The Georgian Dream Party obtained an absolute majority (118 of 150 seats) in the parliament after the October 2016 elections. Prior to and during the 2016 electoral campaign, the Georgian Dream Party had signalled its intention to carry out constitutional reforms and modify the electoral system. When the election results came in, civil society and international organisations expressed concern over the future of Georgian democracy, specifically with regard to the new government's proposed constitutional changes.
To minimise public backlash against its proposed changes, the newly-election public officials held several debates and public consultations on constitutional reforms with civil society representatives. According to the CIVICUS Monitor's research partner, interviews with Georgian civil society in November 2016 revealed that the sector viewed the initial dialogue with the new government as constructive, but expressed frustration that not all civil society proposals were accepted and included in the constitutional reforms.
Gianni Buquicchio said he is disappointed by the decisions of Georgian Dream on Constitutional reforms in Georgia. https://t.co/V7GDi7s3kA— GRASS (@GRASSORGGE) June 29, 2017
Changes to the electoral system within the constitutional reforms have caused particular concern among some in Georgian civil society. The government has disregarded the Venice Commission's recommendations by changing the electoral system from mixed majoritarian-proportional to a fully proportional system, giving the current ruling party a potentially advantageous position in future elections.
Head of Venice Commission ‘disappointed’ with Georgia’s constitutional changes https://t.co/UFKHlHuovc— OC Media (@OCMediaorg) June 30, 2017
On 22nd and 23rd July 2017, the ruling party passed the new election law in two hearings during an extraordinary session of the parliament. In response to this change, 30 civil society organisations issued a statement of concern, condemning:
"[the] very damaging actions by the ruling political party in Georgia, which adversely affect the quality of democracy in the country and are a dangerous attempt to consolidate political power”.
Civil society has called on both citizens and Georgia's external partners to take a stand against the ruling party's attempts to harm democracy, pluralism and the right to free and fair elections.
On 23rd July, a pro-European party and supporters organised a large protest in Tbilisi with thousands rallying around the slogan: "No to Russian fascism". The protest was in response to the "March of the Georgians" held on 14th July 2017, with pro-Russian groups' support, and during which Georgian nationalists demanded harsher immigration policies and the expulsion of illegal immigrants from Georgia. Sandro Bregadze, the deputy minister for diaspora issues from 2014 to 2016 and the leader of the Erovnulebi (The Nationals) movement, was behind the protest, as well as the opposition party Alliance of Patriots, known for their anti-European and anti-NATO position. Footage from the 14th July protest can be seen below.
The 23rd July protest ended in violence when anti-Russian protesters clashed with ultra-nationalist counter protesters, throwing eggs and plastic bottles at one another. According to OC Media, two days before the protests the Georgian patriarch had asked the organisers to cancel the protest. The Media Development Foundation monitored the online activities of ultra-nationalist groups before and after the “March of the Georgians”. In response to the harmful and xenophobic speech being promulgated online, the organisers of the 23rd July protest called on people to be united against such harmful speech.
On 8th July, a protest took place in Tbilisi over the Russian border service's installation of a border between Georgia and the self-proclaimed South Ossetia. According to local Georgian press, Russia is creating new borders and pushing the boundaries of Georgian territories under Russian de facto control. The protest was not only against Russian aggression on Georgian territory, but also over the lack of action on the part of the Georgian authorities to address this threat to the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Four Georgian civil society organisations expressed concerns over the the parliament's proposed amendments to the Law on Broadcasting. The organisations perceive the amendments as an attempt by the ruling party to weaken public trust in the public broadcaster and exert greater influence over it. In a statement, the signatory organisations declared that:
"[T]he proposed amendments, envisaging the withdrawal of Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) from a broad sphere of public legislation regulation, worsening the standard of the broadcaster's accountability, weakening the guarantees for the access to information and carrying out transparent state procurements, as well as abolishing the guarantees for the protection of labor rights of GPB employees, do not correspond to the public nature and functions of the public television and weaken the possibilities of conducting public oversight over the broadcaster”.
In a worrisome development, Tamar Mearakishvili, a social media blogger, was detained by the de facto authorities on 16th August in South Ossetia for criticising the ruling party - United Ossetia - in an article published in April on alleged extortion of medical supplies at a local hospital. She was released the same day but still faces defamation charges. Amnesty International issued a statement on her behalf and reported that:
"Tamar Mearakishvili has often been harassed due to her social media activism. Before her recent detention, she had been summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office six times since 2008 and threatened because of her critical comments in social media and news outlets".