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Georgia after presidential elections. Old order, new rules.

Temporarily uniting the opposition, an active campaign and intensive negative rhetoric towards his opponent was not enough to bring Grigol Vashadze to victory in the Georgian presidential elections.

December 7, 2018 - Bartłomiej Krzysztan - AnalysisHot Topics

President elect Salome Zurabishvili Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from Copenhagen, Denmark (cc)

On Wednesday, it was Salome Zurabishvili who won the top prize with around 60 per cent of votes, making her the first woman President in the history of this region of the former Soviet Union. The result itself is less important than the political developments it is likely to herald in Georgian politics. The choice of Zurabishvili might be a turning point in the strongly male dominated political culture of the South Caucasus, but whether this result will be a true game changer is not yet certain.

Pre-election political campaigns in Georgia are traditionally fought viciously. Sex tapes, blackmail and personal attacks no longer shock the public. That’s perhaps unsurprising in such a highly polarized political scene in a young democracy. But even given this precedent, the latest election campaign can easily be called heinous. First important issue raised by international observers, from both Council of Europe and OSCE, was that Zurabishvili enjoyed an unfair advantage – in the end elections were deemed ‘competitive’ yet ‘undermined’. State resources were misused to promote Zurabishvili, and it is clear now that the relation between the Georgian Dream party and certain state administrative institutions is murky. The most controversial issue was connected with the government’s promise that 600,000 Georgians would have their debts cancelled – a blatant case of vote buying. There are strong suspicions that Zurabishvili derived much of her campaign funding from businesses or individuals closely related to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the controversial leader of Georgian Dream and Georgia’s richest person. Vashadze and his allies tried to bring this to public attention, going so far as to employ verbal assaults and slanders. Yet this often went unnoticed. 

The brutal campaign is finally over, but the bitter divisions it has inflamed will have an impact on Georgian politics for years to come. The biggest negative outcome of the campaign is an even deeper polarisation of Georgian politics, in which moreover a substantial contingent of voters feel totally unrepresented. Many international agencies noticed that the choice between Zurabishvili and Vashadze went far beyond the election of the new head of state. More visible was the clash between radically opposed visions of Georgia after the Rose Revolution, embodied in two men – Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili. Depending on the broadcaster chosen, Georgian citizens were faced with extremes and biases – bloody, authoritarian Saakashvili and greedy, corrupted oligarch Ivanishvili. The choice between two former foreign affairs ministers turned into zero-sum game between different hegemonic discourses about the last 15 years and visions for the future. The result was that many voters went to the polling boxes with disheartening feeling that once again in the short history of Georgian democracy they had to vote against what they did not want rather than for a positive vision for the future. Eventually both sides might recognize that the result of this polarized struggle is extremely harmful for the democratic achievements that Georgia has accomplished since independence. Both leaders were surely aware of the negative long term consequences of negative campaigning. But locked in a bitter struggle, they seemed unable to abandon the hateful rhetoric.

Who is the new president?

Salome Zurabishvili was born in France to a Georgian family of fugitives from the Soviet regime. She is 66 years old and has an impressive career in French diplomacy. For the short period after the Rose Revolution she held the position of Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. On paper she is undoubtedly qualified to serve as a president. However, there are several issues which trouble Georgians. The first is her long held opinion on who started the war in 2008, which she wisely avoided bringing up during the campaign. To the outside observer her critical approach to Georgia’s foreign policy seems reasonable, yet to claim that Georgia was responsible for what happened in 2008 is political suicide. Secondly, because of her upbringing outside the country, many Georgians criticise her for ‘poor knowledge’ of the language and grammatical errors. In a country which is still in the process of building a national identity that is an issue. She is also criticised as xenophobic, but taking into consideration her experience this seems little more than a cheap trick by her opponents. When announcing her campaign she said she would fight the election as a woman first and as a Georgian patriot second. Also problematic is her unclear relation with Georgian Dream and its leader, making it difficult to predict how impartial she will be during her tenure. Her close relation to GD and failure to build her own human resources base ended badly. On the last stage of the campaign before the runoff her face was replaced by Ivanishvili and his well-recognized colleagues. That provoked numberless jokes and memes, but more seriously damaged Zurabishvili’s credibility as an independent candidate. In the masculine culture of Georgia she was criticized even by women, highlighting the tenacity of negative stereotypes. This all puts the newly elected president in a difficult situation.

If Zurabishvili really wants to write her name into the history of Georgia she should find a more independent approach. Even an attempt to return a semblance of civility and equilibrium to the political scene would be appreciated. She may well be doomed to repeat the failure of Margvelashvili. But what seems now to be a failure of the departing leader, most likely in a few years of further unprecedentedly brutal struggles will be interpreted as his biggest achievement. 

What now?

Right after first exit polls were announced, Vashadze rejected the results, called election a “criminal farce in conditions of criminal terror” and invoked his voters to gather on Sunday, 2 of December to protest the outcome. The UNM candidate called for early parliamentary elections based on a fully proportional system, blaming existing one for allowing GD’s possession of an unfair constitutional majority. The meeting also bore witness to a message from former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s appearance happened during a mass demonstration in front of the parliament building on Rustaveli Avenue on Sunday. Leaders of the opposition, once again talking about morality and rights, rejected the results of the runoff. The main allegations were directed at the man they consider the embodiment of evil, Bidzina Ivanishvili. It is unlikely that Sunday’s demonstration will turn into public unrest and a coherent movement. That’s probably not the opposition’s goal. The unexpected success of Vashadze has already created a new dynamic for the divided opposition, with a new confidence that Georgian Dream’s political hegemony could be shortened. The earliest possible chance will be the 2020 parliamentary elections, so the task for the opposition is to regroup, develop a coherent strategy and, for now, wait. Due to civil fatigue, unceasing rejection would not contribute to victory in 2020.  

What does the choice of Zurabishvili mean for Georgian Dream?

For now Bidzina Ivanishvili has what he wants, a president dependent on his assets and support. Georgian Dream is now on the position of having it all: a constitutional majority, power at the local level and a loyal president who is unlikely, at least for now, to stand against government and parliamentary initiatives. If Ivanishvili wants to consolidate the power of his political enterprise and is ready to carry out necessary reforms, the time is now. Taking into consideration that this victory was not assured until the very last moment, the chance might not come again. Thus, Ivanishvili has to play his game carefully to keep Zurabishvili, an ally who nevertheless does not always toe the party line, on side as long as it possible.

Zurabishvili participated in the elections as an independent candidate. Most probably at the very beginning of her presidency, limited by the constitutional changes of the president’s role,  she will be loyal to political faction which gave her full institutional and financial support, but that was also Margvelashvili’s case. Ivanishvili and his closest circle must do everything possible to keep Zurabishvili on side, not allowing her to build a strong, independent centre of power.

What does Vashadze’s defeat mean for the opposition?

For the first time in many years the opposition has realised that its strength is in unity. It is still far from achieving that unity, but the unconditional support given to Vashadze by his political opponents before the second round could be a perfect asset in developing a culture of collaboration and unification. At this stage rebuilding the broad structure of the United National Movement, which includes Bakradze’s European Georgia, seems unlikely. It will be difficult to unite around one leader. The latest campaign should set a new standard of overcoming difference which could be surpassed next time. The reason is simple – at least for now, there is no potential scenario in which any political opposition party can gather enough resources and support to defeat Georgian Dream on its own.

At least some of the main actors now see that to move forward and finally beat Georgian Dream the necessary first step would be a revaluation of Saakashvili’s legacy. There is no doubt that even now that he is gone, doing politics in Georgia means to refer in some way to his ambiguous period of power. Leaders have to stand in full support or total rejection. Another defeat, finally not by landslide, should be a lesson to the post-Saakashvili opposition that old tactics of standing against just to stand against and recalling the past is no longer a way to victory. Division in the United National Movement last year was first visible sign of this switch. Now another battle is lost, but has left behind a sense of hope. The conclusion that should be drawn is that Georgian Dream can only be defeated when Saakashvili’s influence, even any reference to him, is limited, because there are too many voters in Georgia who remember his failures and would not consider voting for a party with which he is in any way associated. 

A very important task for the opposition is to accept the results. If international observatory organizations and watchdogs, along with the Georgian Election Commission, confirm the proper democratic shape of the election process, then opposition parties should bow down gracefully and admit defeat. This would underline the maturity of Georgian democracy and its uniqueness in Post-Soviet space. It would stand as an important signal for Western partners that Georgia remains a beacon of democracy. Second of all, it would send a message to Georgian citizens: we lost, we are defeated, but we respect democratic institutions and we want our victory to be achieved through free elections. This would hopefully also encourage the public to be more scrutinising of Georgian Dream and its misuses of power. It can also stand as a sign that antidemocratic tendencies from the second period of Saakashvili’s presidency are in the past and the opposition has entered a new, more positive phase.  

What does it mean for Georgia?

The elections have been a success for Georgian Dream and a painful defeat of UNM and other opposition factions. But taking a longer view, one might argue that there is no real winner here. The aggressively negative campaign left Georgian public opinion weary and reluctant to fully support either side. Polarised and clashing narratives have left Georgians, who like all people would most want to see their country confident and united, with a feeling of despair. An indefinite continuation of this black and white struggle, in which calling the opponent a Nazi has come to be seen as normal, would have catastrophic consequences for Georgia’s post-communist transformation. Yet despite these disadvantages, Georgia remains a role model for the region. Politicians from both sides have to look beyond personal rage. Georgia’s important geopolitical location and an increasingly unstable world order means that leaders must be vigilant not to throw away the progress that was patiently built over the last 15 years. There will not be another chance.

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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