An extravagant rally in Tbilisi on December 14 was ostensibly a celebration of Georgia’s debut as the chair of Europe’s top human rights body and the new, continental role it brought the country. But all politics is local, and on closer look the massively attended rally was an effort by the ruling Georgian Dream party to show that it can outman its domestic opposition.
The Georgian authorities sent buses to all corners of Georgia to carry thousands of citizens to glitzy celebrations of Georgia’s latest European integration success-turned-campaign-event. Throughout the day, party officials took turns to make the point that their party drummed up a crowd of supporters – 150,000, they said – that was far larger than the turnout at a recent series of anti-government protests.
“We had to mobilize far more transport to bring all these people from the regions than [the largest opposition party United] National Movement and its 31 satellite parties ever needed to bring their supporters,” said Mamuka Mdinaradze, the parliamentary majority leader, who described the anti-government protests in downtown Tbilisi as series of “20-man rallies.”
“Today marked a conspicuous display of the public support that Georgian Dream enjoys,” chimed in Sozar Zubari, an aide to Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Other government officials lined up to make the same point to the media. The officials did speak of the prestige and opportunity associated with Georgia’s assumption of the presidency at the Council of Europe, the continent’s main watchdog of human rights, but even then they could not help taking pot shots at the opposition.
“It is ironic that the National Movement carries that name. This is the national movement right here,” said Gia Volsky, pointing at the massive throngs milling on Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square and Rustaveli Avenue.
In its coverage of the celebrations, the pro-government news network Imedi TV said that Georgia was united behind Georgian Dream “just as it was seven years ago,” when the party came to power. Independent opinion polls in fact suggest that public support for the Georgian Dream has plummeted since then, with only 23 percent of respondents in a recent survey saying they’d vote for the ruling party. Public support for Georgian Dream, then a coalition of parties, stood at 61 percent in November 2013.
Georgian Dream, however, dismisses independently conducted surveys and focuses instead on crowd sizes. In the previous political era, when Georgia saw many mass protests against the rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the establishment then also would respond with counter-rallies. The rival sides then would engage in the game of comparing crowd sizes, each claiming to have “everyone” gathered at their event.
In keeping with this tradition, Georgian Dream is believed to have shelled out lavishly to bring people from all over the nation to the capital city on December 14 and make sure the rally was a grand, carefully choreographed event. Georgia’s leading democracy watchdogs accused the party of pressuring citizens, especially public employees, to get on government-paid rides to the rally.
“[P]arty coordinators, mayoral representatives in the villages and members of Sakrebulos [town councils], are actively involved in the mobilization process,” a coalition of watchdog groups said in a statement, reporting cases of school and kindergarten teachers being pressured to attend the December 14 event. They called for drawing a line between party interests and the work of public institutions.
Koba Turmanidze, director of the polling group Caucasus Research Resource Centers, believes the crowd-size competition serves the goal of impressing undecided voters – according to polls, Georgia’s largest constituency. “By inflating the size of public support, political sides hope to attract the indifferent vote,” Turmanidze told Eurasianet.
Without much of a track record of fulfilling its past electoral promises, Georgian Dream’s strategy is to pretend it is the most popular political force in the country and convince voters to be on the supposed winning side in the 2020 parliamentary election, Turmanidze said. “Nobody believes their promises anymore, so Georgian Dream’s strategy is to convince voters that they are the biggest and the best option available.”
Georgian Dream party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili made more ambitious promises at the December 14 rally and listed his party’s part achievements. In his address, delivered from a stage and two giant screens on Freedom Square, Ivanishvili described how his party presided over the process of bringing Georgia closer to the European Union through a free-trade agreement, association agreement and finally the presidency at the Council of Europe. “I’m confident the day will come when we will all celebrate right here, on Freedom Square, Georgia’s joining the European Union,” Ivanishvili said.