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Georgian presidential elections 2018

A few days before the elections, a walk along Tbilisi’s valleys or a trip between the main roads connecting Georgian towns reminds the traveller of what a state ruled by one man looks like. Catching sight of Salome Zurabishvili’s campaign, uninformed passers-by could get the impression that there is only one candidate for the presidential post. Yet despite the campaign pictures, her victory in the approaching elections is not a given.

October 25, 2018 - Bartłomiej Krzysztan - AnalysisHot Topics

Tbilisi. Statue of Georgian King Vakhtang I of Iberia. Photo: Alexxx Malev (cc) flickr.com

On October 28, 2018 Georgian citizens will choose a president who is not going to resemble any other president from the past. According to the constitutional changes announced by the ruling Georgian Dream party, those were to be the last direct elections before its abolition. This is the last stage of a change, introduced by Mikheil Saakashvili, aimed at replacing the presidential political system with a cabinet-parliamentary one. The president will remain only as the guarantor of the rule of law and symbolic head of state. As with other post-Soviet states which are implementing similar changes (such as neighbouring Armenia) these alterations are supposed to prevent abuses of power and the concentration of power in the ruling elites. In the particular case of Georgia, the need is connected with abuses and usurpations during the final stage of Saakashvili’s rule. Unfortunately, the proposed changes lack clarity; this could bring negative consequences. A big hurdle will be lack of interest among voters. Several independent opinion polls estimate that the attendance will probably be the lowest in Georgia’s history. Surveys indicate a very high number of undecided voters – according to some data, such as the surveys prepared by National Democratic Institute, up to 70 per cent. About 40 per cent of registered voters are not willing to participate in elections.  

Preserving a democratic nature

Public opinion opposes the changes. Experts underline the fact that among voters with a consolidated opinion on the electoral system, the view that direct elections should be preserved dominates. More than 60 per cent of Georgians do not actually understand the changes, or even know about the plans to introduce them. Public opinion may be right. A president chosen indirectly will be much more dependent on a parliamentary majority. It can be especially problematic in political systems which from election to elections drift toward a dominant party model. This is precisely the case in Georgia, where voters tend to strongly support one political option and then turning against it after a few years of real or imagined disappointment. A directly chosen president can act as a stabilising factor at uncertain political junctures.

Worse still, the lack of a precise plan as to how the constitution and presidential role within it are to be defined means the result will likely have a larger impact on Georgian politics in the coming years than anticipated. This applies internally and externally. The president will most probably continue to possess significant influence on foreign policy, the ideological base of geopolitical strategy, and the stabilisation of the internal social and political situation. The president, chosen for a six years term, will play the role of arbitrator in internal disputes between cabinet and parliament. He or she will probably be entrusted to choose three judges for the Constitutional Court and one member of the High Council of Justice. Taking into consideration that the constitutional majority and cabinet remain under the influence of only one political faction, the president’s impartiality will be crucial (and perhaps not too easy to ensure) for keeping the balance of power and independence of judicial power.

The candidates

All this leaves Georgian Dream with a difficult choice, especially taking into account the party’s problem with impartiality and the independent political line of president Giorgi Margvelashvili. Despite his origins (Margvelashvili was appointed as a candidate with support of the Georgian Dream coalition), he was able to build a strong enough position to ignore pressure from the internal decision-making circle closed around Bidzina Ivanishvili. Georgia’s richest citizen would do anything to avoid a repeat, due to the above mentioned remaining prerogatives of president. On the other hand, the Georgian Dream postulate to depoliticise the president’s office and the announcement of constitutional changes were priority campaign promises in 2016. In consequence, Ivanishvili decided to take a risk and support former Foreign Affairs minister, the french-born Salome Zurabishvili.

This choice is troubling for several reasons. Firstly, her political past. Zurabishvili was a minister during the rule of Mikheil Saakashvili. Even though later she stood as a one of the harshest critics of his politics, many voters of Georgian Dream found it problematic. Second, Zurabishvili often refers to Georgian mistakes and responsibility for the outbreak of the August War in 2008. This unpopular view met many critical opinions among prominent Georgian Dream politicians. During the campaign Zurabishvili was actively and visibly supported by the most important figures of the party, among them Ivanishvili, Kakha Kaladze and parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, always underlining common views on the role of president and Georgia’s future. However, her real loyalty can be checked only after she is elected president. Her formal independence can be the base for choosing a similar course of action which was preferred by Margvelashvili.

The opposition loyal to Saakashvili supports Grigol Vashadze, who represents the coalition Strength in Unity. It combined remnants of the United National Movement and other small pro-Western conservative parties. Vashadze was never a leading figure in internal political games. He is  an experienced diplomat and former Foreign Affairs minister (2008-2012). For some of the most pro-European voters, Vashadze’s problem lay in his career, closely linked to Russia, and the fact that he possessed a Russian passport until 2012. But the greatest problem of his candidacy is the dispersion of the opposition. European Georgia, party created after dissolution of United National Movement in January 2017, against early arrangements, decided to participate in elections with its own candidate, David Bakhradze, former speaker of parliament. This move can be only seen as a strengthening of Zurabishvili and may lead to a dispersal of anti-government votes.

A real political struggle is being fought between the three above-mentioned candidates. Nevertheless, some observers note that the unclear shape of changes and low turnout may lead to unexpected support for less mainstream candidates. Among them most frequently mentioned are Zurab Japaridze, leader of liberal party Girchi (Pine-Cone), and Shalva Natelashvili, leader of Labour Party of Georgia, who regularly participate in every Georgian election since 2008. David Usupashvili, former leader of Republican Party and speaker of parliament, is mentioned form time to time.

Despite the dispersion of the opposition, surveys suggest that Grigol Vashade has a real chance of winning due to disappointment in the performance of Georgian Dream in recent years. This would be quite a shake up, after the crushing defeat of opposition in parliamentary elections in 2016. The low turnout expected this time will likely benefit opposition candidates. The most probable result is a near draw for Zurabishvili and Vashadze (at around 30 per cent each), necessitating a second round. If that happens much will depend on the behaviour and choices of Japaridze and Bakhradze, who might gather as much as 20 per cent of the votes between them. In case that they both decide to support Vashadze, even a determined mobilisation of the Georgian Dream electorate would not be enough to take Zurabishvili to victory.

Alternative scenario

The main consequence of an opposition victory will be breaking the domination of Georgian Dream after five years in power. Even though the opposition is deeply divided and for now unable to build real political power which could challenge Georgian Dream supremacy, a presidential victory would be a big symbolic gain and provide impetus for a future comeback in parliament. It may even reunite the divided remnants of the United National Movement. This would to a large extent be dependent on Vashadze and the choices he makes. He will be under pressure to remain an impartial arbitrator, while simultaneously needing to support his political base. Vashadze’s victory for Georgian Dream would throw a spanner in the works of the constitutional change process. With current shape of parliament, Vashadze as president would do everything he could to delay the changes.

Thus despite the increasing weakness of the presidential office and a wishy-washy, one-sided campaign, the presidential election might be a critical turning point for the political future of Georgia on the eve of parliamentary elections in 2020 and beyond. Yet when all is said and done, all of the mainstream candidates do represent the same pro-European and pro-Western course. Whatever happens, Georgia is  not going to change its own geopolitical course, except in the event of some totally unpredicted shock to its current trajectory.

Bartłomiej Krzysztan is a research assistant in Institute of Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences. His research interests include cultural memory and identity in the post-Soviet space and politics in the South Caucasus.

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