By George Mchedlishvili (International Black Sea University)
For the first time in its post-Soviet history of independence, the second round of presidential election took place in Georgia on November 28. The runoff gave a commanding victory (at 59.5% of the votes) to the former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, a formally independent candidate supported by the ruling “Georgian Dream” (GD) party. Her rival Grigol Vashadze, also the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, from the main opposition party of “United National Movement” (UNM), which was founded and headed by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, received just 40.5%. The result could be assessed as a resounding victory for the incumbents (since Zurabishvili’s independence was only nominal), and a shocking loss of for Vashadze and opposition, particularly given very close – within one percent – outcome of the first round.
Contrary to expectations of most Georgians and Georgia observers and experts, the race for the presidency, which according to new constitution has largely ceremonial powers, turned very vitriolic even by the no-holds-barred standards of contemporary Georgian politics. Judging by the way the campaigns were conducted, one can safely say that Georgian democracy is the biggest loser.
Generally speaking, presidential campaigns in Georgia – along with their parliamentary counterparts – don’t have a history of elaborate and constructive debates on ideas, political agendas and vision. Unfortunately, instead of representing a step forward, the past campaign was most notoriously bereft of any shred of meaningful discourse. It degenerated into bitter mutual accusations, personal attacks and insults and evocation of doomsday scenarios. Even the only televised debate between the three main candidates (the third being David Bakradze representing “European Georgia”, which splintered from the UNM in early 2017) was little more than ad hominem insinuations, without much substantive disputes. The initiator of such a toxic atmosphere seems to have been the opposition, since it had to shake the inauspicious status-quo of recent years (since 2012), which invariably saw them lose with a significant margin.
Another major setback of the election is a number of serious violations, cases of voter bribery and extensive use of administrative resources that constituted a significant rollback in the quality of democratic standards, which was set quite high by a number of previous elections. For instance, the initiative to pardon loans and debts for nearly 600,000 citizens was undoubtedly electorally motivated and is an egregious shortcoming.
Additionally, the ruling party managed to exploit intense fears of many people, genuinely scared of the prospect of UNM and Saakashvili’s return to power, considering massive misdeeds and human rights abuses committed in the latter years of their tenure. This contributed to the significant uptick in the voter turnout compared to the first round, with virtually all “new votes” going in favor of Zurabishvili. The efficiency of this “bogeyman” tactics is undisputed, but the implications are mixed. On the one hand it, makes it extremely difficult for the UNM to shed their past, particularly in the absence of any meaningful repentance or at least remorse on their part over massive abuses of power, but on the other hand it gives the GD a convenient weapon to drum up support sufficient for electoral success. This is a serious hindrance for the incumbents in terms of carrying on with modernizing the country, as they can always rely on negative public sentiments towards the UNM to win elections without trying to improve their own performance.
One important question that many Georgia observers are asking themselves is why it still came to the run-off. The reasons are multiple. Firstly, the Georgian Dream leadership has failed the population on a number of counts. Slow economic growth, conditioned partially by bad governance, thwarted many electoral promises that the party leader and founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, was lavish to provide in 2012 and later in 2016, most notably in such socially sensitive areas as pensions, prices of gasoline or of pharmaceutical products. Although the incumbent leadership has been more socially oriented than their predecessors, the fruits of economic growth were not efficiently trickling down to the majority of population, causing the sense of stagnation and pessimism. The recent opinion polls revealed that majority of population thought Georgia was going in the wrong direction, a steady rise over the past two years.
Also, despite certain achievements, mostly in foreign policy and trade (Association Agreement and free trade with EU, visa-free travel, free trade with China, opening of NATO Center) as well as democracy (Georgia ranks much higher than in 2012 in Freedom of Press and other similar lists), the level of governance leaves a lot to be desired. Nepotism and overall low level of professionalism in many public and municipal organizations and services don’t bode a very bright future of sustained growth. A number of scandalous cases of power abuse and elite corruption exposed by the UNM-friendly Rustavi-2 TV further contributed to the ruling party popularity decline.
Furhtermore, Georgian Dream did not succeed in rebranding itself after 2016 parliamentary election. Originally it was founded as a big tent coalition with the sole purpose of defeating the then omnipotent UNM and Saakashvili, whose domineering and increasingly authoritarian style, compounded with aggressive rhetoric and constant tensions with Russia, had been alienating many Georgians. But since that assortment of political parties and movements was of all stripes, the question of Georgian Dream’s political longevity and formation of distinct ideology and program was pretty topical. This issue became even more serious after two decidedly pro-western parties – “Free Democrats” and “Republicans” – left the coalition by 2016. Several dozens of young (mostly in their thirties), western-educated professionals joined the party in 2016, and their presence together with very efficient lead of then Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili ensured resounding victory in the crucial parliamentary election. But now that Kvirikashvili is gone, these young MPs, despite being truly pro-western and with indisputable democratic credentials, still have not become “the face” of the party. Instead, party veterans with less-than-sterling reputation and rhetorically clumsy Parliamentary Chairman came to be associated with the GD. This is something the leadership has to work hard on in order to restore the image, significantly tarnished over the past several months.
But despite all these deficiencies, the second round was won by the GD-supported candidate. Along with the reasons already described – fear of UNM and extensive use of administrative resource – one can add the third factor: that of Mikheil Saakashvili. The ex-president loomed so large over the entire campaign with his daily social media addresses, which was actually against the law as he is no longer a Georgian citizen. Misha is still extremely popular among the part of electorate, which ensured that it was his candidate, and not David Bakradze from “European Georgia” (which has a bigger representation in the Parliament), who made it into the second round. But between the first round and the runoff Misha’s rhetoric became so aggressive, uncompromising and vindictive that it probably did disservice to his candidate. Worst still, Vashadze had to adjust to Misha’s fiery rhetoric, like pledges to pardon not only Saakashvili, but people like Akhalaia and Merabishvili, who are associated with most unsavory aspects of UNM’s power abuses.
What is even worse, it turned the entire presidential race into a personal battle between Misha and Bidzina Ivanishvili, perennial feature of Georgia’s political life since 2011. It vastly impoverished and polarized political landscape in the country, leading many Georgians who reject UNM and are disappointed with GD to feel politically dispossessed and forced to make a choice between two unpalatable political leaders. Such dynamics underlines the acute necessity for a fresh political force (or forces). Among the “hopefuls” are the “European Georgia” – already in the Parliament – a more moderate and “civilized”, if you will, version of UNM as they distanced themselves from Misha, as well as “Girchi”, led by a Libertarian Zurab Japaridze, or David Usupashvili’s (former “Republican”) with his “Development Movement”. It remains to be seen whether the latter two develop into meaningful opposition and counterpoise to the currently dominant parties.
Photo source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46376344