Problems with local democracy after elections - საერთაშორისო გამჭვირვალობა - საქართველო

Problems with local democracy after elections

24 January, 2022

The processes that are underway in various municipalities after the October 2021 local self-government elections have once again demonstrated that local democracy is undergoing a crisis. Disagreement among political parties, lack of transparency in personnel changes, intimidation, bribery, and using of other forms of violence, first of all, cause damage to the vital interests of the local population and hinder the development of the political process.

Disruption of the activities of city councils   

  • As a result of the local self-government elections, the opposition as a whole has more members of city councils in seven municipalities (Batumi, Rustavi, Zugdidi, Chkhorotsku, Senaki, Tsalenjikha, and Martvili) than the Georgian Dream, although none of the parties enjoys a firm majority. The crisis has been overcome only in the city councils of Chkhorotsku and Martvili (in the Chkhorotsku City Council, a member of the For Georgia party was elected as the chairperson, a member of the United National Movement (UNM) was elected as the first deputy chairperson, and members of Lelo and For Georgia – as deputies chairpersons; a representative of the Georgian Dream was elected as the chairperson of the Martvili City Council after his candidature was supported by European Socialists). The city councils of Batumi, Rustavi, Zugdidi, Senaki and Tsalenjikha have yet to elect chairpersons and deputy chairpersons; accordingly, they have not staffed the standing commissions either. 

Manipulation with the approval of the 2022 budget

  • Tsalenjikha is the only municipality where an opposition candidate has also won the mayoral election. At the same time, Tsalenjikha is the only municipality where the budget of 2022 has not yet been approved, which considerably hinders infrastructure projects, the implementation of social programs, the receipt of capital and targeted transfers, proper management of municipal property, etc. If the activities of the city council are not conducted properly and the budget is not approved until April 1, 2022, the issue of dismissal of the city council and the mayor will be placed on the agenda.
  • It was with the aim of avoiding a similar scenario (repeated elections of the city council and the mayor) that the ruling party got the old city councils elected in 2017 to adopt the budget in an unprecedentedly accelerated manner in those municipalities (Batumi, Rustavi, Zugdidi, Chkhorotsku, Senaki, Martvili) in which the Georgian Dream had not garnered firm majorities as a result of the elections of 2021, but representatives of the party had won the mayoral positions. The Batumi City Council also amended the rules of procedure specially for this purpose. This process was encouraged by a statement of the Prime Minister who noted that the Georgian Dream was in central power and the opposition could not “take a single step” without them at the local level.

Alleged incidents of pressure on opponents

  • Extremely damaging for the newly elected city councils turned out a statement of the Secretary General of the Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, who said that the ruling team would form the majorities in the city councils as a result of “cooperation with individual members” elected from the opposition. It is in the context of this process that we should view the leaving of the ranks of the For Georgia party by Nana Lomonjava in Tsalenjikha and Irakli Tavdgiridze in Batumi.
  • A particular interest of the public is caused by the fact of the death of Nugzar Putkaradze, a member of the Batumi City Council from the UNM, which still remains to be investigated. People close to the deceased and members of the party have stated that Putkaradze’s death is related to the political pressure he was subjected to – in an audio recording disseminated by the party on November 24, one can hear businessmen close to the authorities offering Putkaradze $100,000 in return for his leaving the UNM. In the recording, one can also clearly hear Putkaradze objecting to such an offer. Family members and fellow members of the party have stated that Putkaradze died as a result of deterioration of health following this conversation. 
  • Investigation has been underway without any results in one more case – on December 30, 2021, unidentified persons attacked a member of the Zugdidi City Council and the head of the regional office of the For Georgia party, Malkhaz Toria, and his underage son, threatened them with weapons, assaulted them physically, and damaged their vehicle. Toria relates this attack to his political activities. 
  • According to the UNM, a member of the Dmanisi City Council from their party, Ramiz Ramazanov, was subjected to pressure – he was missing for several days. The Georgian Dream and the UNM obtained an equal number of seats in the Dmanisi City Council as a result of the elections. It only became possible to elect a representative of the Georgian Dream as the chairperson of the City Council after he was also supported by Ramazanov, while Ramazanov himself was elected as the deputy chairperson of the City Council.

Non-transparent reshuffling of office holders

  • The low degree of transparency of the process of appointment of heads of municipal services and N(N)LEs causes problems for local citizens. According to news reports, in Gori, Kareli, Ozurgeti and other municipalities, the public remains uninformed about the criteria and arguments used in the selection of new holders of municipal posts.   
  • The city councils started their activities only a month ago, but already the chairperson of the Abasha City Council, Levan Makalatia, has resigned from office, stating that he has “simply exhausted himself”. Instances of ungrounded resignation of officials were also frequent before the elections. For example, in 2018 the mayors of Zugdidi, Chiatura, and Khulo resigned from office, in 2019 the mayors of Marneuli and Zestaponi left their positions, in 2020 the mayors of Kutaisi, Oni, and Terjola and in 2021 the mayor of Zugdidi and the chairperson of the Terjola City Council resigned from their posts.   

TI Georgia is of the position that the facts and tendencies enumerated above indicate that the local democratic process is undergoing a crisis. This crisis is caused by complex problems that have existed in the local self-government system for years. No Georgian government has taken clear steps towards more decentralization and for strengthening local democracy; moreover, the final goal of all the reforms has been the strengthening of the central government and reinforcement of the political power of the ruling party. One of the proofs of the latter can be regarded the decision of the Parliament on increasing the number of officials in municipal councils, adopted in an accelerated manner in December 2021, which aims to provide active members of the ruling party elected to city councils with posts and to finance them with public funds.

Today it is important that political parties, especially the ruling Georgian Dream party, take effective steps towards reaching an agreement, so that they will conduct the activities of the local self-government properly and will not damage citizens’ interests.