Op-ed: What have we learned from Georgia’s presidential election?

Ghia Nodia

Georgian expert Ghia Nodia sums up the election's results

The recent presidential elections in Georgia were the most competitive and dramatic since 2012, when Georgian Dream (GD) ousted the United National Movement (UNM) from power. In the second round, formally independent candidate Salome Zourabichvili, supported by GD, carried almost sixty per cent of the vote, but in the first round she was neck and neck with Grigol Vashadze, the runner up from the Strength in Unity coalition led by the UNM.

This came as a surprise, especially for GD. The latter appeared to panic, while the opposition developed genuine hopes for a possible victory.

Winning at the expense of what?

The voter turnout surged by more than 20 per cent, from 46.7 per cent in the first round to 56.2 per cent in the second. It appears that a large majority of the new voters gave preference to Zourabichvili.

Why? There are two possible reasons. First, GD used the prospect of Grigol Vashadze’s victory as an opportunity for scaremongering: Vashadze’s victory would mean the return of Mikheil Saakashvili and new turmoil. One of GD’s MPs said that Vashadze’s presidency would cause a civil war.

The campaign was extremely vicious from both sides, with parties presenting the possible victory of the other side in apocalyptic terms. It appears that in this, GD was more successful.

On the other hand, facing the threat of defeat, GD did things it refrained from doing before.

While there were violations throughout the campaign, international and Georgian observers reported that standards declined considerably between the two rounds, assessing this as the worst elections on GD watch.

Nine days before the second round, the prime minister announced a plan to write off the debts of 600 thousand people who were unable to pay back their loans to private banks. It was explained that Cartu bank which belonged to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of GD, would ‘buy’ these loans and then annul them (it was not disclosed how much the bank was going to pay for the transaction).

The opposition and observers called the move an especially blatant case of vote-buying, though the government simply shrugged the allegations off.

Observer organizations also reported numerous and repeated incidences of people holding government jobs being pressured. People were reportedly threatened with losing their jobs unless they vote for the governmental candidate.

Outside the precincts, ruling party representatives diligently checked whether such voters indeed showed up, and afterwards invited them to their cars, allegedly in order to repay their loyalty with cash.

Maybe it were these methods that were decisive in bringing victory to the ruling party favorite, but that cannot be proven.

Why the fuss?

The elevated tensions appear paradoxical because, following the 2010 and then 2017 amendments to the Constitution, the presidency has become a purely ceremonial position. These were also the last direct elections of the president. These elections were, however, a window into the parliamentary elections expected in 2020.

The credibility of the GD government had visibly suffered during the year. The sense of crisis was indirectly confirmed in May when Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly decided to return to public politics by taking up the position of the chairman of the ruling party.

He had widely been believed to be the informal ruler of Georgia. However, he denied this and had expressly ruled out the possibility of a comeback unless things went really bad.

Under the circumstances, a defeat in the presidential polls might be seen as the beginning of the end for GD’s rule, creating a momentum for the opposition and deepening divisions within the ruling party.

For the time being, GD forestalled such a scenario. However, the elections exposed a fundamental vulnerability.

By using the methods it did, GD wasted any remaining moral capital it had in comparison to its arch-rival, the UNM. Moreover, in the parliamentary elections, the UNM will not be the only contender, and the “us against Misha” message will be more difficult to sell.

Can the opposition win?

However, one can come to a different conclusion: if GD won this time, it can do the same to win in 2020. This brings us to a great overarching question in Georgia’s politics: With a single party in control of all the levers of power, does the opposition have any realistic chances of winning the elections at all, even if it becomes more popular than the ruling party?

Many people were skeptical of this in the final years of Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule, that’s why GD’s victory in the 2012 elections came as a big surprise.

But those were exceptional circumstances: The administrative resources controlled by the party in power was evened out by the immense personal wealth of the contender, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Everybody agreed that without this, the opposition’s case would be hopeless. But this time, both administrative resources and personal wealth are on the same side, and Georgia has nobody even close to Ivanishvili to balance that.

After the first round, people started to believe that the opposition can win even when the playing field is far from even. Now the doubts have returned.

In a fairly poor country like Georgia, if the things become really dangerous for the incumbent regime, the government and the ruling oligarch can still afford to intimidate and/or bribe several hundred thousand people to clinch the victory.

How much stronger should the opposition be in order not to allow that to happen? The question still hangs in the air.

What about the opposition?

Despite the loss, the election became a victory of sorts for the United Opposition coalition created around the UNM. It disproved a popular assumption that the UNM is unable to extend its support beyond its base of devoted loyalists.

Many people who appeared to have abandoned the UNM for good voted for Vashadze this time.

This was arguably a primarily negative vote against the incumbent power. Nevertheless, people still gave preference to the UNM over other contenders.

Can it develop this success further? As in the past, its supposed leader Mikheil Saakashvili is both an asset and a liability. There may be some tensions within the faction already.

As soon as the exit polls signalled Zourabichvili’s victory, Saakashvili called for the election results not to be recognised, and the start of a civil disobedience campaign.

Grigol Vashadze initially rebuked him by saying that this was just one person’s personal opinion and the coalition has to make a collective decision.

The next day, however, the coalition announced that it considered the elections rigged and on 2 December would convene a protest rally demanding early parliamentary elections. Will this tactic bear any fruit, or will it eventually damage the resurgent coalition itself? At this point, the second assumption looks stronger.

The election result challenged another popular assumption as well. The people calling themselves shuashisti(people in the middle) contend that Saakashvili has become so toxic that its party will never be able to win, so the breakthrough can only be achieved by a third force that is not related to either GD or the UNM.

We have been hearing this for at least five years; in the meantime, a number of claimants to this third force emerged, with none of them inspiring much confidence. European Georgia is the most successful so far – it’s candidate, David Bakradze, gained a respectable though not too impressive 11 per cent in the first round.

But it being a splinter group of the UNM, many shuashisti do not consider them ‘third’ enough. David Usupashvili, the former chairman of parliament, campaigned that GD and the UNM are equally bad: he got little over 2 per cent.

Things are thus quite uncertain on the opposition’s side as well, which may be the best hope for Bidzina Ivanishvili. However, Georgia’s recent history has taught us that a lot can change in the two years leading up to the parliamentary elections. So far, the status quo is preserved, but it has become more precarious.