Georgia: The last “people’s” president

Lasha Tughushi, "Liberal Academy of Tbilisi" Foundation (Georgia, Tbilisi)

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This election is the first time in Georgia’s history that a presidential vote has gone to a second round. Both candidates in the run-off are former ministers of foreign affairs. Both began their diplomatic careers outside the country when they were citizens of other states. Both were brought into the “big game” by ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. Only Grigol Vashadze continues to be an ally of Saakashvili, whereas Salome Zurabishvili is now his main opponent. Vashadze is a member of Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). In the 2018 election, he was nominated by the united opposition, which includes 10 parties. Zurabishvili calls herself an “independent” candidate, but she is supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

What’s in a poll?

In the first round of the vote, both candidates came up with the same share of ballots cast and neither got the 50% necessary to be declared the winner of a presidential election. Vashadze got 37.7% and Zurabishvili got 38.6%. Based on information from their own sources, just a few hours after the polls closed, both candidates accepted the results, although the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) only announced the official results the following morning. Although both camps declared victory in the first round, a celebratory mood was seen only in the opposition camp.

Just two hours before the polls closed, the headquarters of the Georgian Dream campaign showed much-anticipated numbers from exit polls on a huge screen. These were taken by Psycho Project, which was commissioned by Georgian Dream. According to the results, Zurabishvili won the first round with a huge lead over Vashadze—52% to 37%.  Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire, former PM and now chair of the ruling party, confidently confirmed in the press that he was expecting such a result, but nevertheless called for patience. Other officials from Georgian Dream made similar statements. Calm and confident in her victory, Zurabishvili nevertheless followed the rules and waited until the CEC announced the final results.

Optimism filled the statements of the opposition, which was confident a second round was inevitable. However, they admitted to the possibility that “things would be decided” in the first round. Although both parties acknowledged that a second round was looming, the entire night was very strained. Mobile groups of observers kept moving from one electoral district to another, followed closely by the press, which kept providing updates all night long. In the morning, it was officially announced that for the first time, the president would be decided in a run-off. At the same time, this is the last time a Georgian president will be elected by direct vote.

Turnout in the first round of the election was 46.7%, approximately what it was in the previous presidential election in 2013, 46.6%. The highest turnout in recent years, 49.7%, was in 2017 when local government officials were being elected. At the local level, opposition parties won the big cities: Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori, Khashuri, Zugdidi, Telavi, and Rustavi. In Tbilisi, the results were nearly 50-50. Each of the leading candidates won five of the 10 districts in the capital. An interesting picture emerges: in the wealthier districts, where financial and bureaucratic power is concentrated, Zurabishvili is leading, while in the bedroom communities, Vashadze took much of the vote.

International and local observers noted some problems during the election, including inappropriate use of administrative leverages, unbalanced campaign financing, and so on. Still, they concluded that the election was competitive.

Those left in the dust

The race originally had 25 candidates vying for the post. The third place was taken by the leader of European Georgia and former speaker, David Bakradze, with 10.9%. European Georgia currently has the largest opposition faction in the legislature. This party was formed after four months of internecine conflicts that followed UNM’s loss in the last parliamentary election. In January 2017, European Georgia finally broke off from Saakashvili’s party and by July had signed a three-point “non-aggression pact” at the initiative of its European partners, who were worried that there would be mutual election-campaign attacks involving former members of UNM. Basically, this worked. During the campaign, the agreement was mainly violated by Saakashvili himself and his supporters, who attacked European Georgia from time to time with accusations that it was merely a “pseudo” opposition.

Once the second round was announced, however, Bakradze and former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, who managed to be mayor, spend time in jail and return to politics under the Ivanishvili Government, announced that they were supporting Vashadze and called on their voters and supporters to actively continue the battle for their common goal—victory over Ivanishvili. Saakashvili himself congratulated Bakradze, who after Saakashvili’s term as president ended, ran for president himself under the UNM. If simple mathematical logic works and Vashadze picks up all these votes through joint effort, he will be very close to a clear victory. Still, the elections often operate on a different kind of logic.

Three more candidates managed to pick up some votes: 3.7% of voters chose Shalva Natelashvili, head of the Labor Party of Georgia, which stands firmly on the side of a Euroatlantic choice for Georgia. Natelashvili had the top result in local elections back in 2002, winning the election in Tbilisi with 26%. But for unknown reasons, he gave the chair’s seat on the City Council to his rival, Mikheil Saakashvili.

This threesome includes another former speaker, David Usupashvili, who took 2.2% of the vote. Usupashvili belongs to that category of politicians who, as a rule have more allies than voters. After the first round, he announced that he wouldn’t support either of the candidates in the second tour, as he did not see either as a unifying force. It’s possible that Usupashvili will be among those who claim to be a new, third force for the 2020 parliamentary elections.

The final candidate took exactly 2.6% of the vote, another former UMNer, MP Zurab Dzhaparidze. Dzhaparidze appears to be a favorite among some part of the younger generation. A few days before the election, he was detained by the police. His party, Girchi or Spliff, had organized a marijuana festival in Tbilisi where, as a sign of protest against the government’s policies around the legalization of narcotics, he demonstratively pulled some joints out of his pocket near some bystanders. Dzhaparidze was released a few hours after being detained. The politician is clearly a libertarian, supporting a sharp reduction in taxes, red tape and public spending. However, his main campaign message was decriminalizing drugs. Like Usupashvili, he announced after the first round that he did not support either of the two finalists, but told his voters to support the candidate that they felt deserved their vote.

Among politicians who oppose the Euroatlantic course for Georgia, the highest share of the vote went to the leader of the Free Georgia party, Kakha Kukava, 1.3%. The other NATO skeptics, Nino Burdzhanadze and her team, with their Alliance of Patriots faction in the parliament, did not participate in this election.

The powerful like a weak president

This election will be last direct election of a president in Georgia. The decision to end direct elections for the presidency came after debates when some basic amendments were being considered to the Georgian Constitution in 2017. Despite the obvious disgruntlement of the opposition, a large share of civil society and much of the general public, the ruling party decided to curtail the already weak powers of the president. In addition to switching from direct to indirect elections, the Security Council under the president and the president’s right to appoint judges to the Supreme Court were both eliminated.

However, despite these restrictions on specific powers, the presidents continues to carry out important functions in both domestic and foreign policy, including security issues. The main thing is that the president, even if for the last time, has been elected by the people, which gives that person considerable legitimate political clout. It follows that this is an attractive resource for the person’s party, and so no one is prepared to lightly cast the post aside.

North vs West

The Russian question dominated throughout the election campaign. Zurabishvili supporters kept reminding Vashadze that he was a diplomat in soviet times, held a high post in Moscow, and was a Russian citizen. Vashadze, for his part, reminded his opponents that he had sent his Russian passport in the mail to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a sign of protest.

Vashadze himself attacked Zurabishvili for her “traitorous” position and declarations that Saakashvili had bombed Tskhinvali in 2008. Vashadze called this part of “the Russian narrative” with long-term plans of taking over more Georgian territory. He also reminded Zurabishvili of her comment that the greatest diplomat she knew was Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Her opponents also criticize Zurabishvili’s poor mastery of the Georgian language, as she was born and raised in France. The former diplomat is the direct descendant of prominent political and public figures who left Georgia during the soviet occupation of 1921. At different times, she held high posts in the French government.

The rhetoric of the ruling tam is even harsher, saying they will not allow Georgia to return to the “bloody nine-year regime” of Saakashvili. Just two days after the election, Zurabishvili appeared at a press briefing at her election headquarters where she stated that she would not “leave the country to Saakashvili and Russia.”

In the meantime, Kakha Kaladze, a one-time well-known football player but now mayor of Tbilisi and secretary general of the ruling party, commented on the outcome of the first round of the presidential election, saying “We are looking the possibility that one of the reasons why we failed to mobilize our electorate was that the party did not nominate its own candidate”

The polarizing press

The tension of the electoral process has not receded in the least and a major component of this escalation has been the press. After the results of the first round were announced, Nana Lezhava, manager of the news service of Imedi, one of the top television channels, announced openly on air that his team was “going into emergency mode in order not to allow the return of Saakashvili.”

Meanwhile, Nika Gvaramia, general manager of another major channel, Rustavi 2, wrote on in Facebook: “We need to remember al those who finance or in some other fashion support the campaign of independent candidate for president Salome Zurabishvili that these people need to be driven out of every sphere of the community, whether that’s business, the arts or politics. This traitor of our country and her allies need to be punished demonstratively.”

His comment was attacked by a statement from Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze: “That’s the comment of a useless, miserable fascist who had not once managed to succeed in his war against Georgian democracy, Georgian society and the truth in the past six years.”

Despite the fact that it’s hard to judge the press prior to the release of monitoring results, it’s visible to the naked eye that both the traditional media and social nets are key mechanisms contributing to polarization. This especially true of social nets, where debate has turned into a battlefield in a hail of insults and aggressiveness.

The final note will come only in a few weeks. The CEC is looking into complaints that might result in minor adjustments to the results of the first round. In this way, the two candidates are preparing for their final race. One can only hope that the electoral race will not turn into a gladiators’ match, as there will clearly be more than just two fighters in the ring. The prize is not just the one presidential seat, but also 150 seats in the legislature that could go to the victor, along with the Office of the President.