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Will an independent mayoral candidate bring political change to Georgia?

On October 21st, Georgia will vote in local elections. According to a recent survey, if Tbilisi mayoral race enters a second round, Aleko Elisashvili, a prominent grassroots activist, is likely to emerge as a winner.

October 18, 2017 - David Sichinava - Analysis

Image by George Kvizhinadze

Image by George Kvizhinadze

A June 2017 survey CRRC-Georgia carried out for the National Democratic Institute suggests that Aleksandre (Aleko) Elisashvili, an independent candidate and prominent grassroots activist, could win the Tbilisi mayoral elections, if they enter a second round. While only the election day will tell the ultimate result, the polling suggests Elisashvili has a good chance to win. If he does, it could be the beginning of a shake-up of Georgia’s political scene.

Local elections, including the election of mayors in several self-governing cities, are set for October 21st. The Tbilisi Mayoral race is considered the main one, given that the city contains roughly one third of the country’s population.

The race has several strong contenders. The former energy minister and vice premier, Kakha Kaladze, is representing the ruling Georgian Dream party. The United National Movement, which following defections consists of loyalists to Mikheil Saakashvili, has nominated Zaal Udumashvili, a former anchor on Rustavi 2, the country’s largest TV station. European Georgia, a party of defectors from the United National Movement has chosen Elene Khostaria, a former official in the UNM government and currently an MP. The race also features Irma Inashvili, the leader of right-wing Alliance of Patriots, and Giorgi Gugava, endorsed by the Labour Party of Georgia.

Besides the party-affiliated candidates, Aleko Elisashvili, an independent who rose to prominence through his engagement with a variety of grassroots movements aimed at preserving Tbilisi’s urban heritage and currently serving on the Tbilisi city council, has thrown his hat into the race.

A June 2017 polling which CRRC carried out for NDI placed Kaladze in the lead with 37 per cent of the vote among likely voters. Elisashvili came in second with 22 per cent, followed by Udumashvili (16 per cent) and Khoshtaria (five per cent). According to the survey, 16 per cent of likely voters in Tbilisi are undecided or refused to answer who they would vote for.

If undecided voters are distributed equally between parties – which is a simple and often accurate way of forecasting election outcomes in the absence of large surveys – Kaladze would garner about 42 per cent of the vote in the first round. If he receives less than 50 per cent, which is the electoral threshold to win outright in the first round, he will face a runoff.

Then, the victory will be hardly a given. Even though Elisashvili is polling 15 points behind Kaladze, he could win the race in a runoff. In a TV interview, both Udumashvili and Khoshtaria expressed their willingness to support any pro-Western opposition candidate against Kaladze in a second round. If that is the case, the polls suggest that Elisashvili could garner about 54 per cent of the vote.

Although Udumashvili is neck-and-neck for the second place in case of runoff, he does not have Elisashvili’s support base. Keeping in mind the relatively small Tbilisi sample and the level of error associated with it, this places Kaladze and Elisashvili in a neck-and-neck race.

Thus, the election campaign is likely to have a decisive impact on the result. While Kaladze has vowed to replace Soviet blocks with modern housing and promises to further invigorate Tbilisi’s lively nightlife, Elisashvili’s campaign has focused on urban policy. He has attacked Tbilisi mayor’s office for corruption and is positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate. Elisashvili’s critical attitude towards large real estate developers and Tbilisi’s investor-induced construction frenzy indeed match the anti-establishment image he’s cultivating.

A closer look at the NDI survey suggests Elisashvili is doing better than Kaladze among those voters who do not identify with any party, which comprises almost 40 per cent of the city’s population. Surprisingly for a grassroots activist, Elisashvili’s supporters are more likely to be older and well-off, which are the two groups that usually turn out to vote. They are also more likely to think that there is corruption, nepotism and incompetence in the Tbilisi mayor’s office. Finally, he has also attracted voters who think that environmental pollution is one of the most important problems faced by Tbilisi, and those opposing  the new construction schemes in residential areas.

Elisashvili’s background suggests that he may be the right man for the existing challenges. He was instrumental in founding Tpilisis Hamkari, an activist group concerned with preservation issues. Since its inception in 2005, Hamkari has led protest rallies to save several landmark buildings across Georgia’s capital from demolition. Started by a handful of activists, the movement climaxed in 2011 and 2012 when it drew hundreds to rallies to save Gudiashvili square, a small pocket of urban green area in old Tbilisi. Apart from his work as an activist, Elisashvili also hosted political talk shows on opposition Kavkasia TV and served as head of the state parole board.

Elisashvili’s activism has contributed to his past political successes. In the 2014 local elections, he ran as an independent, winning a seat in the Tbilisi city council in a narrowly fought race against candidates endorsed by the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement in the affluent Saburtalo district. At the city council, he fiercely criticised legislation the Georgian Dream-dominated city government proposed. Importantly, Elisashvili opposed the Panorama Tbilisi construction project which was endorsed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s former prime minister and the wealthiest man in the country.

Whether or not Elisashvili manages to maintain or increase his support, many care about the causes the independent candidate stands for. Georgians are extremely skeptical towards local government and issues like environmental pollution and urban development have become increasingly salient.

Political scientists still disagree whether such issues matter for party politics in post-communist societies. Nevertheless, the polling and movements in different contexts increasingly suggest that activists have the potential to challenge and shake up city politics through focusing on such issues. The recent success of an anti-establishment social activist, Ada Colau, in Barcelona’s mayoral race is yet another example.

While, it is too early to determine whether Elisashvili will be able to turn his popularity into a successful bid for the mayor’s office, the fact that an independent candidate with a relatively unusual political platform is polling strongly may suggest that the wind of change is afloat on Georgia’s political scene.

David Sichinava is a Senior Policy Analyst at CRRC-Georgia and Assistant Professor at Tbilisi State University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC-Georgia, the National Democratic Institute, Tbilisi State University, or any other affiliated entity.

The data used in this article is available here. The input output model used to distribute voters is available here.

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