On November 28th, Georgia is going to elect its fifth president in the second round of presidential elections. These will be the last direct elections for the President of Georgia, but this is not the only factor that makes these elections historic: for the first time in Georgian history, the incumbent president is not seeking re-election. In addition, to harmonize electoral cycles, the new President’s term will be 6 years long, instead of the usual 5-year term. In the first round of elections, no candidate managed to pass the 50% threshold. As a result, for the first time in Georgian history, a second-round election will be held, involving two strongest candidates from the first round – Salome Zurabishvili (supported by the ruling (S&D affiliated) Georgian Dream Party) and Grigol Vashadze (backed by the (EPP-affiliated) opposition ).
Georgian political context
The current nature of Georgian politics is shaped by the historic 2012 parliamentary elections when, for the first time in Georgian history, power was transferred from one political group to another via the electoral process. Since then, political life has revolved around two major political forces – current ruling party Georgian Dream, whose leader is wealthy Georgian businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, and oppositional party United National Movement (UNM (EPP)) whose leader is ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Though neither of these participates directly in the political process, Georgian voters essentially make the decision between these two powerful men as they represent two visions of the political class of Georgia. Despite the nominal nature of the office of the president, both camps perceive these elections as a national vote of confidence.
Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream position themselves as a more social oriented political force that respects human rights, peaceful development and conciliatory policy-making. They often accuse the former ruling party of brutal violation of human rights and adopting reforms that did not benefit the majority of Georgians. In addition, Georgian Dream tries to implement more cautious foreign policy, that does not irritate Russia.
Contrary to the current ruling party, UNM and Saakashvili represent a very different vision of Georgian politics. The declared goals of this political group are for a rapid development and modernization of the country. Often, this process has been associated with the violation of human’s rights and rule of law – often justified as necessary for national well-being. Sometimes populist in its essence, UNM is more right-wing than Georgian Dream. Saakashvili and his team seek a more active foreign policy, suggesting Georgia should try its best to remind the world of the Russian occupation of Georgian territory.
Following 2010 and 2016 constitutional amendments, the role and functions of the president have shrunk with power moving to the Parliament and the Prime Minister. The lack of decision-making power of the President-to-be was perhaps why the ruling party Georgian Dream decided not to put forward their own nominee. Instead, the party endorsed the independent MP and former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili. However, since the first round elections, support from Georgian dream has become more aggressive, and Georgian Dream stated it had become their duty to prevent former ruling UNM party from winning the elections. If Zurabishvili wins the hearts of Georgian voters, she will be the first female president of Georgia. In addition, it will be the first time, when the president will be from an immigrant background, with Zurabishvili having been born in France. During her electoral campaign, Zurabishvili made several controversial statements regarding the legalization of growing marijuana and the Russo-Georgian war. The Georgian Orthodox clergy criticised her for her statements regarding medical marijuana in Georgia, while her equivocation about who started the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict earned her a pro-Russian label from her contestants. Her political platform has been criticised for lacking ideological coherence. During meetings with potential voters, Zurabishvili stresses that she will pursue the “European way” of doing politics in Georgia meaning a more rational rather than emotional politics.
Like his rival, Grigol Vashadze served as the Georgian Foreign Minister and he is supported by the “United Opposition” (a loose union of several small opposition parties) that is led by the United National Movement. Prior joining the Georgian service Vashadze was a Soviet career diplomat, and later a businessman in Moscow and New York. He has close ties with Russian diplomatic and cultural elites, including through his wife, famous Georgian-born ballet dancer Nina Ananiashvili who was prima of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has also stated several times that he perceives himself as part of the Russian cultural sphere, something he is proud of. Despite his Russian background and affiliations, he runs on anti-Russian platform and hints that his elections could lead to snap parliamentary elections and change of the ruling party. Vashadze ran for the Kutaisi mayoralty (the second largest city and parliamentary capital of Georgia) during 2017 local government elections and was defeated only in the second round by the ruling party’s candidate. However, he turned out one of the best results compared to his fellow UNM candidates in these elections. Vashadze keeps repeating the UNM message, stressing the declining efficiency of state institutions, low level of economic growth and rising crime rates in the country. Vashadze argues that in order to improve Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream Government should step down.
Electoral campaign and polling
The entire electoral process has been characterised by the polarisation of Georgian society. The polarisation has increased following the first round after it became clear that Georgians would be forced to choose between two antagonist political camps. Scandalous tapes involving both government and opposition politicians have been leaked on a weekly basis to discredit opponents. Both parties accuse each other of violating the electoral code. Commentators note that negative campaigning has played a bigger role than the electoral visions of candidates, in informing Georgians on who to vote for. In addition, both parties are competing with promises like increases in social assistance and bailout of debts for 600,000 citizens.
According to the current polls, this is a close race. According to pollster.ge‘s deterministic model, the runoff will be a toss-up: both Zurabishvili and Vashadze are supported by 50% of voters. As a result, the outcome of the elections are heavily dependent on election day, and how the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Georgia’s election management could play a major role in the election results, with many watching these elections closely for potential voting irregularities.
Rati Shubladze is a member of the Europe Elects team and leads on our work on Eastern European politics.