Georgia’s Presidential Campaign Damages Its Democratic Credentials

The country has elected the region’s first female head of state, but the result is not as progressive as it appears.

Expert comment Published 10 December 2018 2 minute READ
An election poster for Salome Zurabishvili as seen through a bus in Tbilisi on 27 November. Photo: Getty Images.

An election poster for Salome Zurabishvili as seen through a bus in Tbilisi on 27 November. Photo: Getty Images.

Georgia’s election on 28 November of former French diplomat and Georgian foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili as the region’s first elected female head of state since independence might appear to be a substantial achievement for a country that has been positively cited in its moves towards a more democratic culture.

But the election was marred by physical violence, vote-buying, misuse of state resources and a substantial imbalance in donations between the parties. And the presidency itself is, after constitutional changes, largely ceremonial. The assumption that Georgia continues to move along a trajectory of democratic governance is far from the reality.

Although mostly free, with voters having a genuine choice between a record number of first round participants, the elections were not fair. After the inconclusive first round, the head of the delegation from NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly highlighted a ‘risk for democracy’ resulting from the misapplication of administrative resources. Following the second round, the OSCE concluded that Zurabishvili, who won with 59.52% of the vote, enjoyed an ‘undue advantage’. Furthermore, it added that ‘the negative character of the campaign on both sides … undermined the process’.

Zurabishvili was nominally independent but was endorsed and strongly supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party. In the first-round vote on 28 October, she beat her nearest competitor, former foreign minister Grigol Vashadze, by a negligible 0.9%, shocking a ruling party that secured a decisive majority in parliamentary elections only two years earlier.

In response, its billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s de facto national leader, deployed considerable resources to ensure a campaign victory. Most notably, in early November, the party controversially announced that a charitable foundation controlled by Ivanishvili would write off the debts of 600,000 people, a pre-election move that all major domestic electoral watchdogs considered vote-buying.

A reset for Georgian Dream

Georgian Dream now faces the challenge of regaining popular trust. That 61.36% of Georgians voted against it in the first round was a vote of significant no-confidence in Ivanishivili’s informal leadership, and a sign the public has lost confidence in ‘his’ government. That the party ultimately secured the presidency says more about how much the party machine mobilized than it does about any endorsement of its agenda for governing.

Georgian Dream’s founding theory was the promise to undo the increasingly autocratic leadership of former president Mikheil Saakashvili – but it has ended up replacing it with Ivanishvili’s opaque style. Scandals including the cover-up of the murders of two teenagers in Tbilisi, in which Georgian Dream officials are alleged to have concealed the involvement of the son of a prosecutor’s office employee, have angered the population, and there remains the perception that many things in government go forward through backroom deals.

The party would be better served by ceasing to demonize everything associated with Saakashvili. That Vashadze, the nominee of the former president’s party, the United National Movement, nearly beat Zurabishvili in the first round indicates that the tactic has run its course. Moreover, polarizing campaigning methods that stoke longstanding political grievances carry the potential to damage Georgia’s international reputation.

The presidential agenda

Georgian Dream can boast many successes including a visa-free agreement and an association agreement with the EU, high rates of economic growth (albeit mainly attributable to Saakashvili-era reforms) and overall improved levels of freedom of speech. But according to a recent UNICEF study, poverty has remained very high across all demographic groups from 2015 to 2017. For Georgia, now one of the fastest growing tourist markets globally, it is important that economic reform, jobs and inflation return as the focus.

The opposition would be well-advised to give Zurabishvili a chance and desist from simplistic mud-slinging. Saakashvili remains a blessing and a curse for his party – he is a main driver of his coalition but arguably overshadowed and undermined Vashadze’s electoral chances. In the parliament, at least, there should be space for others, especially if the electoral system changes from the current hybrid system to a purely proportional one, as is being discussed.

On foreign policy – the presidency’s main function – Zurabishvili will want to make a clean break from Saakashvili and previous Georgian presidents’ conflict-prone leadership. She has a record which indicates she can do this, having negotiated the agreement for the withdrawal of Russian military bases with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when serving as foreign minister in 2005. A pragmatic stance on relations with Russia, given its status as the preeminent challenge to Georgia’s security, would be expedient.

The president-elect is well-placed to continue Georgia’s pro-Western trajectory. But considering the country’s unresolved territorial issues, all must accept that it is unlikely to reach its goal of NATO membership even in the medium term. Furthermore, Zurabishvili lacks the policy agency as a president to develop the type of stable, market-led democracy Georgia needs. This lies with the parties, and their leaders.