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The deep the political polarization of Georgia has had a negative impact on the functioning of the self-government system, and problems that existed even before the current tensions have become more evident. A clear example of this is the pre-election period of 2021, when issues of local importance were fully ignored by both the ruling and opposition parties. Despite the expectation that electing a multi-party representative body would ensure the stabilization of political processes, after the elections, it turned out to be impossible for the municipalities to become fully functional.
At the same time, political polarization was the cause of the institutional and democratic problems that existed before (such as centralized self-government, one-party attempts to determine local priorities, the problem of allocating the authority, and engaging citizens). Taking into consideration these factors, it is important to analyze what the essence of these problems is and the severity of the damage inflicted on self-government by political polarization and the political actors who ignore local challenges.
The ruling party before the new local assemblies: reality check
During the self-government elections, the ambition of the central government to assert a measure of independent control became clear, which presents a problem on the path of the state’s development. The ruling party gains additional leverage to control administrative resources throughout the country, and considering the high level of dependency on the center, these ambitions of the ruling party reduce the possibility of political independence at the local level even further. This constitutes a major challenge for the formation of a strong democratic society.
One of the examples to illustrate the dependency of self-governments at the central level is a statement from Prime Minister Gharibashvili, according to which even if an opposition candidate would have won during the second round, he/she would still have been unable to do anything without the support of the central government. Such rhetoric clarified the attitude of both the Prime Minister himself and the Georgian Dream party toward self-government and the principles of decentralization. It is noteworthy that the role of local governments is especially poor in the budgeting process; they mostly depend on the central government and, as a result, their independent activities to solve local problems are decidedly limited.
Accordingly, the Prime Minister’s statement regarding the opposition being unable to work independently even if it won in regional municipalities was not irrational. However, local assemblies have the right to plan and use the budget through their own income, therefore the victory of opposition parties in some of the cities posed a threat to making a one-party decision about budgeting. The challenge to allocate and manage the municipal budget and projects in a centralized manner was followed by other related problems, such as the attempt of some of the local assemblies to recognize the budget of 2022 in November 2021 with their old composition, which some municipalities successfully managed to do. Such a process causes severe confrontation and further deepens polarization in Tbilisi as well as throughout the region: political polarization, therefore, is a major obstacle on Georgia’s path of democratization, and hinders attempts to solve the internal crises.
At the regional level, polarization was particularly negatively reflected in Batumi and Zugdidi. These are the capitals of the very municipalities where even after the second round of elections the legitimacy of the ruling party’s victory was debatable. According to the official results of the Central Election Commission of Georgia, in Batumi, Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia received 1.41% more votes in the local self-government elections and 2.04% more votes in the mayoral elections in comparison to the United National Movement party. As for the case of Zugdidi, there was a very small difference between support for the mayoral candidates of the largest opposition party and the ruling party, which made some members of the public question the election results. Specifically, the candidate of the ruling faction in Zugdidi, Manuka Tsotseria, received 3.26% more votes than the candidate of the United National Movement party, Anzor Melia. In the local assembly election, the United National Movement took the advantage, receiving 3.08% more votes.
diagram 1. diagram 2.
Source: the official data of the CEC. Last update: 2021-11-13 11:32:5. Available here: https://elections.1tv.ge/
In this situation, the ruling party made strenuous efforts to avoid engaging the newly-elected local assemblies in the budgeting process. They also demanded recognizing the pre-drafted financial plan of 2022, which was finally approved by the former composition of the local assemblies in November 2021; this was something of a pointless process, since the budget could have been drafted and approved by the newly-elected officials in early December.Therefore, it can be stated that the aforementioned decisions amount to disrespect towards the newly-formed local assemblies, as well as an attempt to delegitimize them. Additionally, the local assembly as a state institution is being discredited, which means that this body cannot fully function at the local level; it is prevented from directing social-political processes adequately, and in a helpful way for the population.
Despite the fact that the candidates of the ruling party became mayors in Batumi and Zugdidi, the opposition managed to establish quite a large representation in the local assembly. Therefore, they gained the leverage to formally make important decisions at the local level. However, the opposition, as well as the ruling party, are encouraging the two-party confrontation instead of initiating their activities in a constructive environment out of respect to their voters. It is also clear that the deputies elected within the local assembly are unable to fully utilize their mandates. The reason behind this is that the confronted dominant parties do not direct enough effort to achieve a consensus in order to allocate positions in a timely manner, nor are they able to organize the structure of the local assembly at the normative level so that it can be used to use the authorities of the deputies. Because of this, the work of the local assemblies is mostly hindered, and in some cases the activities of self-governments are fully paralyzed.
The failed local assemblies as a problem
Due to the fundamental disagreements between the ruling party and opposition, local assemblies are not fully staffed; it is especially problematic to elect the chairperson of the local assembly. The deciding vote in almost every local assembly belongs to the representative of Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia party, due to the fact that in the municipal elections of 2021, in comparison with other opposition parties, this party received the most votes after the United National Movement. Therefore, negotiating with Gakharia’s faction became one of the most important tasks for both the opposition and the ruling party. For Georgia clearly uses this situation for its own advantage: in many cities (such as Chkhorotsku, Tsalenjikha, Rustavi, and Zugdidi), their representative was elected as the chairperson of the local assembly as a result of negotiations with the opposition. This might be considered a positive step in terms of making a breakthrough in the two-party paradigm.
One of the main examples to illustrate the mismanagement and utter polarization of Georgian self-government is the local assembly of Batumi. The problem there is reflected on multiple layers: on one hand, the opposition cannot hold a local assembly meeting to elect the chairperson, because a quorum is not achieved. Yet on the other, one of the members of Gakharia’s party who was elected in the local assembly subsequently left the party, and another member left the local assembly (who was replaced shortly afterwards), while the deputy of the United National Movement who, due to the statement of the opposition, was engaged in negotiations with the ruling party, passed away. The opposition linked his death with the fact that the Georgian Dream was allegedly putting pressure on him, which remains the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Until the pre-term elections that will be held on April 2 in order to replace the deputy who prematurely died, a chairperson of the local assembly cannot be elected, which means that in essence the assembly will not function properly for months. Among other multiple cases, this is a clear example that makes it visible that narrow party interests are prioritized over public interest. It should also be emphasized that in those municipalities where the mandates are almost equally allocated between the ruling party and opposition, members of the local assembly find it difficult to properly allocate authority and initiate the working phase of the assemblies. However, this does not mean that wherever the ruling party owns the majority the work process of the local assembly is flawless. In the first case, reaching the consensus is the problem, while the second case is problematic because the decisions are made undemocratically, without any public discussions.
In light of such a tense situation when even elected deputies are unable to work in self-governments, it seems illogical to discuss the possibility of public engagement in local self-governance. In the best case scenario, the activities of the local assemblies and various self-government units should be tailored to the interest of the local population, because juridically local self-governments grant citizens the tools to engage in policy formation and decision-making processes. Instead of this, self-governments have turned into administrative resources and political instruments.
According to the legislation, the population has several tools for participation in self-government, including attending the meetings of the local assembly and listening to the reports, creating petitions, and engaging in local advisory councils, but this is impossible in the circumstances of halted or chaotic work environments of the newly-elected municipalities. At the same time, due to the polling results, it is clear that the population’s trust towards local government is low. In addition, approximately 50% of the population does not agree with the opinion that the ruling and opposition parties elected in parliament and self-government are acting based on the interests of the people and the state.
Such a result might be an indication that nihilism and hopelessness have deepened amongst the public, which is the result of political immaturity. The developments made it clear that the political elite is not focused on seeking ways out of the political crisis. As it appears, at the current stage, political polarization pushed back the self-government system, which diminishes the idea of self-governance. Instead of implementing new tools to provide the engagement of the local people, today the main agenda of the local assemblies is focused on allocating positions. Disrespecting the principles of self-governance and ignoring local needs in such a manner might cause a seismic and irreversible protest among the local population.
Against the backdrop of political polarization, the political elite is paying less attention to the discussions of thematic issues. Political parties did not have any essential connection with locally-important matters during (or after) the 2021 election which diminishes the idea of self-governance as well as the importance of civic engagement in local governance. In the local assemblies, where mandates were allocated between the ruling and opposition parties, the confrontation has deepened, and failed to promote more pluralism; as a result, any self-government activities are heavily impaired. Meanwhile, wherever the ruling party has the majority, local assemblies are managing to be functional at the expense of making one-party decisions and fully ignoring the standpoint of the opposition. The confrontation is engulfing people’s voices which, in the ideal scenario, must be the main motive power of the self-governments. In general, the effectiveness of local self-government is measured based on the quality of the engagement of local people in the process of budgeting, setting the priorities for the municipality, and decision-making. All these aspects represent the biggest weaknesses of the current self-government system. As a result of the political polarization, not only the promotion of civic engagement but also providing the full functionality of the local assembly members with mandates became problematic. This has led public trust towards the political elite to decrease, which in the future might turn into low electoral support. Because of this, parties will have to make a political compromise, although this should not happen at the expense of diminishing the role of the national or local institutes. If inter-party cooperation can be achieved in the local assemblies, it will be a good precedent and encouragement for broader political depolarization.