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For the last year, more than 20 loyal members of the European Georgia (EG) party in the Georgian village of Dashtapa were prepared to vote for their presidential candidate Davit Bakradze in Sunday’s election.
One big problem. They are really supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, currently living in virtual exile in the Netherlands. His United National Movement (UNM) party is running Grigol Vashadze for president.
But until October 1, they didn’t know the European Georgia party was a political group that left UNM back in 2016, and that a vote for Bakradze was a vote against Saakashvili’s party.
Dashtapa, located in the Kvemo Kartli region, is only one of several mostly Azeri-speaking communities where voter awareness is so low they don’t even know which party belongs to Saakashvili, who has been convicted in Georgia of abuse of power.
According to the National Statistics Agency, 233,024 ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Georgia, 176,414 of them in the Kvemo Kartli region (2014 statistics).
CECE press secretary Ana Mikeladze says all election materials were translated into Azerbaijani language and published on the CEC website. She said all CEC members working at the polls in Azeri villages would have translated documents.
But in many villages the older generation doesn’t use internet and social networks.
So even though the campaign began August 29, many ethnic Azeri voters know very little.
Some voters in Arikhli village think the two parties are basically the same and will reunite as soon as this election is over. Pasha Hagverdiyev, 61, says “party agitators come and talk before the election. But we really get our information from each other.”
Sanan Gurbanov lives in Fakhrali village. Since 2016 he has run a Facebook page called “Daily Georgia” to help ethnic Azeris follow local news and learn about Georgian laws and regulations.
He admits it’s hard to educate voters who don’t have internet or don’t use social networks.
When independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili told ethnic Armenians in another Georgian region that Saakashvili as president gave citizenship to Turks and not to Armenians living in Georgia, rumors distorted that statement.
“One of my relatives came to me and said Salome Zurabishvili told people she will banish us to Azerbaijan,” Gurbanov said. “Then I heard the same thing from my mother. I realized that if I didn’t know the Georgian language, I would only hear the same rumor and I would believe it.”
The head of the Georgian-based Azerbaijani Youth Union, Leyla Mamedova, says the reason why people are afraid is because they don’t know their rights, or they don’t know how to protect them.
“Shortage of information is a language problem. They can’t obtain enough information,” she said. “The government showed its power in the 2016 election. They threatened people. After that, people were not active neither in 2017 or now.”
On September 28, a Vashadze election poster translated into Azeri was heavily viewed on the internet:
“Local authorities are going to increase pensions up to 400 lari”
“Local authorities are going to increase salary of teachers up to 1000 Lari”
“Local authorities are going to increase salary of police up to 2000 Lari”
According to Georgian law, the president has no power to increase salaries or pensions. “Even if you are chosen president, you can’t do it,” Gurbanov said. “It’s impossible.”
UNM party Marneuli district chairman Agil Mustafayev says the poster means that after winning this election and then winning parliamentary elections in 2020, a new government will be formed and these promises will be fulfilled.
Four days before the election, Saakashvili did a 10-minute livestream for the “Daily Georgia” website that received 27,000 views and 559 shares.
“I think that in future governments of Georgia, there must be Azerbaijanis,” he said. “Not because they are Azerbaijanis, but because everyone should feel themselves the owner of their country.
“You are not the property of anyone. You are the owners of your country and you must act like it.”
Vashadze and Zurabishvili were the top two vote getters on Sunday and will meet in a second round election in November.
All this confusion probably disappears in future elections because the president will be chosen by an electoral college instead of directly by the voters.