Georgia will on Saturday hold its first parliamentary polls since the introduction of a mixed electoral system, demanded by the opposition through last year’s mass protests.
The country’s fragmented opposition hopes the significantly-modified electoral system will prevent the governing Georgian Dream party from securing a majority in the parliament for the third time since coming to power in 2012.
The most recent poll by IPSOS, released on October 28, shows Georgian Dream in the lead but only with 23 percent support.
Giorgi Mskhalaia, 28, told Al Jazeera he will vote against the government on Saturday mainly because of a violent police crackdown on young people protesting against Russia’s occupation of 20 percent of Georgian land.
At least two people lost an eye and dozens received other injuries last June when police used water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
“Before the crackdown, our only demand was the resignation of the then-speaker of the parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, who allowed [Sergey] Gavrilov – a person who fought against Georgians in [the breakaway region of] Abkhazia and recognises our separatist regions as independent states – to sit in the chairman’s seat in the parliament,” Mskhalaia said.
“The next day, a demand of systemic changes was added, in order for one party to be prevented from securing a constitutional majority with a minimal number of votes.”
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), more than 3.5 million Georgian citizens are eligible to vote in the October 31 elections.
Polling stations will open at 8am local time (04:00 GMT) and close at 8pm (16:00 GMT).
Mskhalaia, who co-founded a “Change” activist movement to help some opposition candidates on their campaign trail, said: “I have high hopes that the current government loses power, because nobody who shoots its own people and disperses an anti-occupation rally deserves to be in government.”
Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream says the fight against violence is one of its key achievements since taking over the government.
The party says it has eradicated system of violence, rights abuses and injustice by the authorities.
On Saturday, the South Caucasian nation will elect 120 deputies in the 150-member parliament through proportional party lists – a significant jump from 77 such seats allocated by its earlier system.
The remaining 30 MPs – instead of 73 – will be picked as majoritarians from single-mandate constituencies.
The new rules also lowered the 5 percent threshold to 1 percent, meaning any party that secures 1 percent of votes will enter the legislature.
The constitutional amendment approved in June also requires 40.6 percent of votes for the formation of a one-party government.
According to Edison Research’s pre-election poll, 70 percent of Georgians prefer a coalition to a one-party government.
Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst, says the public is seeking to change the country’s experience of “one dominant power” being replaced by another at every election since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He said the Saturday’s vote will decide “whether we will keep the existing semi-autocratic dominant-power politics, or switch to a more pluralistic and open system that may [or may not] lead us to a full democracy”.
“Currently in Georgia, most champions of democracy pin their hopes on this institutional innovation,” Nodia said.
However, forming a coalition government in the country’s current political landscape is not going to be easy.
“This is fully possible – but it will not be easy. We never had a coalition government before, so we cannot speak from precedent. We know from the experience of seasoned democracies, however, that forming a coalition may take months – and it may still fail.”
Two electoral blocs and 48 parties are participating in the elections that are expected to see an 88 percent turnout despite an alarming acceleration in COVID-19 infections in the country of 3.7 million people.
The Georgian Dream’s main rivals include – self-exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), former Central Election Commission chief Giorgi Vashadze’s Strategy Agmashenebeli, the European Georgia party created by the former members of the National Movement, and the newly-formed Lelo party led by two bank owners who have butted heads with the governing party founder and chairman, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, over the construction of a strategically-important deep-sea port in Anaklia.
The pre-election campaign period has seen voter intimidation, vote-buying and political violence, according to the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), a local legal watchdog.
Both the governing party and the opposition have been accused of violations, including a violent confrontation between Georgian Dream and UNM supporters in September that occurred in the south of the country, GYLA’s report said on October 12.