The certainty of uncertainty: Georgia’s presidential election

ZOiS Spotlight 36/2018 by Kornely Kakachia (24 October 2018)

Georgian flags in Tblisi, Georgia. © Andreas Scholz, n-ost

Georgian citizens are set to elect their country’s fifth president on 28 October. So far, this election has been about breaking norms: the incumbent, Giorgi Margvelashvili, has refused to stand for re-election, and the resulting toss-up is shaping up to be the most contentious and unpredictable vote the country has faced since restoring its independence in 1991.

The president wields limited direct influence in Georgia, but this election is an important referendum for the ruling party—and a powerful opportunity for opposition candidates. With just a few days to go, the vote is also still wide open.

Polls show growing dissatisfaction with the country’s economy, environment, and political climate. Although roughly 62 per cent of Georgia’s voters agree that the country is heading in the wrong direction, there appears to be little agreement on what changes voters want to see.

On foreign policy, Tbilisi is still on track towards its goal of ‘irreversible Europeanisation’. Most Georgians continue to strongly support the country’s proposed membership in EU and NATO, which they perceive not only as a guarantee of security but also as a symbol of their belonging to the West. Georgia’s current political course also envisages trade, economic, and humanitarian engagement with Russia, without sacrificing the country’s national interests and stopping short of formal diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Last direct presidential vote

As usual, the presidential election will be a litmus test for Georgian democracy—and for the maturity of both the government and the opposition. Georgia has made extraordinary progress in transforming from a fragile state to one that is successfully reducing petty corruption, modernising state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country. Georgia’s signing of an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Agreement with the EU in 2014 was a welcome step.

However, high-level corruption, the incomplete independence of the judiciary, and the politicisation of media content remain areas of concern. In addition, reforms have fallen short of reducing the high level of poverty in the country. According to UNICEF’s Welfare Monitoring Survey, general poverty rates in Georgia have increased, the likely reasons being a lack of strong and inclusive economic growth, unemployment, and increased consumer prices.

Sources have repeatedly shown that economic hardship feeds public dissatisfaction more than any political issue. That trend was confirmed by findings released in August 2018 by the National Democratic Institute and the Caucasus Research Resource Centers Georgia.

What is more, due to constitutional amendments enacted in 2017, the upcoming election will probably be the last direct presidential vote: the next Georgian president will be elected by the College of Electors, not by popular vote.

The direct vote makes this contest even more important for political parties, which are now vying for control of the only political branch not under the direct control of the ruling party. The existence of a vibrant, pluralist, and involved opposition is essential for Georgia’s political stability and democratic consolidation; but the contentious election campaign has underscored the country’s inability to address the polarisation and confrontational atmosphere that dominate the political and media landscapes.

Who is running for president?

The large number of candidates running for president is a sign of how important—and wide open—this election is for Georgian political parties. Officially there are 25 registered candidates, but despite the large number of presidential hopefuls, there are three main contenders for the post.

The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party decided not to field its own candidate. Instead, it endorsed independent MP Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born former foreign minister. The granddaughter of political refugees who fled Georgia after Soviet occupation in 1921, she worked for many years in the French diplomatic corps. She entered in Georgian politics in 2004 when then president Mikheil Saakashvili invited her to lead the Foreign Ministry of Georgia. Zurabishvili considers her main diplomatic achievement to be her contribution to the negotiation process that led to the closure of Russian military bases on Georgia’s territory.

Support from the GD has been a double-edged sword for Zurabishvili, however. The GD’s leader, former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced electoral mobilisation to support her, increasing her chances of winning over GD’s base. But her close association with the GD has harmed her reputation as an independent. In addition, her controversial position on the 2008 Russia-Georgia War and anticlerical statements have triggered public criticism and the disapproval of the powerful clergy, which could cost her votes.

The two other leading contenders are from the opposition. Saakashvili’s former ruling party, the United National Movement, has put together a coalition of ten smaller opposition parties under the name Strength in Unity, and nominated Grigol Vashadze as its candidate. Vashadze, also a former foreign minister under Saakashvili, is expected to be Zurabishvili’s main challenger.

The third and most prominent candidate is David Bakradze, a former speaker of the parliament during Saakashvili’s presidency and an MP from the European Georgia party. He enjoys a high level of public trust, according to various surveys.

For some politicians, like Davit Usupashvili, another former speaker and the founder of the centrist opposition force The Development Movement, this election is a rehearsal for future contests. He is low in the polls for this race, but a strong enough showing on election day could help his party create a base for the 2020 parliamentary vote.

Conclusion

Georgia’s recent steps towards a consolidated democracy have been ambiguous and often followed by backsliding. Georgian ruling parties in the last two decades have found it difficult to strike a balance between the contradictory goals of advancing democratisation and consolidating power. Although the upcoming presidential election nominally carries less weight than the 2020 parliamentary election, voters and opposition parties alike perceive the vote as a rehearsal and a test of the electorate’s appetite for potential regime change. In addition, the large number of undecided voters is a sign that political tensions are likely to increase in the run-up to the election as parties fight for the upper hand in the polls.


Kornely Kakachia is professor of political science at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Georgia, and director of the Tbilisi-based think tank Georgian Institute of Politics. His current research focuses on Georgian domestic and foreign policy, security issues of the wider Black Sea area, and comparative party politics.