Protest rally in front of the Parliament of Georgia over failed electoral reforms.

© 2019 Giorgi Gogia/Human Rights Watch

Spontaneous protests have erupted in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi following the parliament’s failure to adopt a critical electoral reform. Opposition parties and civic activists have called for continuous protests in front of the parliament, with a major demonstration announced for Sunday. 

Earlier this year, following street protests, the ruling Georgian Dream party agreed the country should move to a fully proportional electoral system in 2020 instead of 2024, the date prescribed under the new constitution approved in 2017.  

But on Thursday, many of the party’s MPs changed their minds and the reform bill fell 12 votes short of the required three-fourths majority to pass the constitutional amendments altering the electoral system. While all opposition parties supported the bill, the ruling Georgian Dream’s parliamentarians refused to back the very reform they earlier promised to undertake. (The existing mixed electoral system disproportionately favors the ruling party of the moment).

Feeling deceived, protesters took to the streets following the vote, seeing the move as nothing less than a “power grab” by the ruling party. The failed reform also angered some members of the ruling party, with senior MPs leaving the majority in protest.

A recent poll shows 68 percent of respondents were aware of the ruling party’s commitment to electoral reform and 85 percent supported it. The move was promised in June by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder and chairman of the Georgian Dream party following four days of protests, sparked by a Russian delegation’s presence in the parliament’s plenary chamber.

The political crisis deepened after riot police used excessive force, firing rubber bullets and using teargas against thousands of protesters on June 20. More than 240 people were injured, including 40 journalists. To avoid further political crisis, the then-chairman of the parliament resigned, and the Georgian Dream majority conceded to electoral reforms.

The citizens now packing the streets of Tbilisi are angry that the politicians did not keep their promise to reform the electoral system, and until that broken promise is addressed, the protests will likely persist. What cannot persist is the kind of abuse of force that happened in June. Georgia’s citizens have been guaranteed a right to protest peacefully and the promise – and legal obligation – to respect that right is one promise that cannot be broken again.