Salome Zourabichvili is set to take office as the new President of Georgia on 16 December, following her victory in the second round of the country’s presidential election on 28 November. Max Fras writes that although Zourabichvili eventually pulled through, the fact that she was pushed so close in the first round of voting should set alarm bells ringing for her party, the ruling Georgian Dream, as it looks ahead to the more important parliamentary elections in 2020.
Georgia’s presidential runoff ended with the most predictable outcome – the victory of government-endorsed Salome Zourabichvili. Georgian politics is largely back to business as usual, but the elections exposed significant weaknesses and threats for key political and institutional actors. This includes the president-elect, the ruling party, the opposition and state institutions.
The president-elect: Independence, guaranteed
The president-elect’s key post-election message is that she will be truly independent. A recent quotation in an interview with The Daily Beast is a good illustration of why this is problematic: “I saw Mr. Ivanishvili after the elections. He told me: ‘You have no debt to the ruling party, you can be independent.”
Zourabichvili’s weak performance during the campaign, which saw her almost disappear from the public view after the first round, replaced with billboards portraying Ivanishvili and other Georgian Dream figures, suggests that her voice within the government camp is weak. As both the government and Georgia’s informal ruler, Mr Ivanishvili, invested significant resources in Zourabichvili’s election, her claims of independence need to be verified by independent actions once in office.
The ruling party: How low can we go
After the shock of the first round, where Zourabichvili only just finished ahead of her rival, Grigol Vashadze, the ruling Georgian Dream party has shown that it is willing to transgress both the rules of democracy and their purported liberal values to achieve its political goals. Three issues stand out in particular.
First, there was a marked deterioriation in official discourse, further polarising the political environment. The parliament’s speaker, Irakli Kobakhidze, resorted to calling the opposition Rustavi2 channel ‘hysterical fascists’, while justice minister Tea Tsulukiani attacked the head of Transparency International Georgia, a major anti-corruption NGO, alleging her involvement in Saakashvili-era human rights abuses. Last but not least, Bidzina Ivanishvili himself stated that although civil society has a role to play, they often represent partisan interests and that Kobakhidze’s criticism was justified, if poorly worded.
Presidential palace, Credit: Max Fras
Second, was the constant use of administrative resources by the government at all stages of the campaign and election, including a clear pro-government bias in the public broadcaster, appearance of public figures in campaign meetings as well as pressure on local committees in selecting commission members.
Third, the government and Ivanishvili’s private foundation were engaged in widespread and thinly veiled vote buying. In mid-November, the Prime Minister announced a significant increase in social spending including for soldiers and IDPs. Later on, the government announced a joint initiative with Ivanishvili’s private Cartu Foundation, through which the foundation will purchase and write off debts of private citizens not exceeding 2,000 lari (around 750 US dollars) in December.
The opposition: Extreme or extremist
The opposition showed a lot of resilience in the early stages of the campaign. Two opposition candidates – Vashadze, who was representing the United National Movement (UNM), and European Georgia’s Davit Bakradze – received a larger combined share of the vote than Zourabichvili in the first round. Bakradze, the more moderate candidate, duly endorsed Vashadze in the second round, despite being at odds with his former UNM colleagues. Both the UNM and European Georgia challenged Georgian Dream in areas where the government feels vulnerable: its economic record and law and order.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who founded the UNM, remained active throughout the campaign and has yet again shown that he is one of Georgian Dream’s greatest assets. The ruling party actively played to anti-Saakashvili fears in the second part of the campaign and Saakashvili’s xenophobic and antisemitic statements further reinforced his image as a radical. Saakashvili also called for Georgians to take to the streets against alleged widespread fraud in the presidential runoff.
Vashadze heeded Saakashvili’s calls – he did not concede defeat and challenged the legitimacy of the elections. The UNM further called on the government to hold snap parliamentary elections – but failed to get wide support for their approach, with European Georgia expressing ‘solidarity’ but not joining the protest. A rally in Tbilisi on 4 December showed the opposition can mobilise its supporters in large numbers but not to the degree required to create a long-term challenge for the government. More extreme measures taken since, such as the UNM’s ultimatum to the government to hold elections, are unlikely to have any impact.
Both the UNM and European Georgia remain capable of mounting a strong challenge against Georgian Dream. The presidential runoff suggests that adopting an extreme stance of fundamentally opposing the government can help win support, but citizens are unlikely to embrace extremist positions such as calling for civil disobedience or another revolution.
The state: The weakest link
The performance of state institutions undermines the long-term prospects for Georgia’s democratic transformation. After the first round of elections on 28 October, the Electoral Administration (also referred to as the ‘Central Electoral Commission’, CEC) had 20 days to determine the final results of the election and announce the date of the second round. The CEC did so only on 14 November and in the absence of clear regulation, rumours have circulated about the reasons for such a delay and government meddling in the affair.
Civil society organisations also called for the elections to be held on the weekend, citing challenges for voters in remote locations and those voting abroad. The CEC’s decision to hold elections on a week-day, although lawful, undermined confidence in the organisation, which has also been hit by allegations of declining standards in handling complaints.
The other, far more important state institution exposed to political challenges is Georgia’s judiciary. Confidence in the courts and prosecutor’s office remains very low, and large parts of the judiciary including court management and the High Council of Justice face serious accusations of informal (‘clan’) governance and high-level corruption that remain unaddressed.
As Georgian politics remains in a highly contested space with high levels of polarisation, an independent and transparent justice system is key to stability. Saakashvili’s recent remarks about his possible return to Georgia have resulted in warnings of ‘civil war’ and an equally emotional reaction among his supporters. As things stand, the Georgian judiciary remains highly politicised, and is not ready to impartially address and adjudicate in high-profile cases, notably involving politicians and public figures. If the government wants to strengthen its legacy and assure the long-term viability of democratic reforms, issues of electoral governance and judicial independence need to be urgently addressed.
The future: One step forward, two steps back
The future of Georgia’s democratic consolidation is at risk. The governing party faces poor prospects. A lack of long-term planning and foresight were reflected in Zourabichvili’s poor showing in the first round. This was followed by bitter in-fighting within the ruling party.
Even though Zourabichvili eventually pulled through, the party leadership is in dire straits. For now, Ivanishvili remains a uniting figure as he commands and bankrolls operations but a further fall in the government’s ratings could expose cracks and split the party. Georgian Dream relied heavily on a polarised political environment and administrative resources to win the presidential election, which it deemed of low importance due to the weak role of the president in the political system.
The risks are far higher in the 2020 parliamentary elections, where the stakes are much greater. The performance of state institutions, notably the judiciary and the CEC, needs to be urgently improvement to handle the challenges ahead. It is questionable whether Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili have the will or capacity to achieve this, which could spell a tumultuous period ahead in the run-up to the next parliamentary election.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. The article uses the French spelling of Salome Zourabichvili’s surname, in line with the Presidential Administration and her unofficial Twitter account.
Max Fras – LSE
Max Fras is a Visiting Fellow at LSEE – Research on South Eastern Europe. He tweets @maxfras