Presidential Runoff: Expert Assessments in Tbilisi
On November 28, Georgians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. The ruling party-backed candidate Salome Zurabishvili obtained 59.52% of the votes, while her challenger – Grigol Vashadze of the United Opposition finished with 40.48% of the votes.
International observers assessed the Presidential runoff as competitive, but highlighted a number of shortcomings during the campaign period. The observers said candidates were able to campaign freely, but one side enjoyed an undue advantage.
To reflect on the second round of Presidential elections, we have asked three Tbilisi-based professors – Kornely Kakachia, Ghia Nodia and Tornike Sharashenidze, to assess the runoff results, as well as its possible short- and long-term political consequences.
Kornely Kakachia, professor of political science at Tbilisi State University and director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Politics:
The second round runoff was a classical example of how elections should not be held in a democratic country. As noted by international observers, it was far from the international standards that Georgia strives to establish. The biggest shortcoming was the government’s promise to write off bad debt worth 1.5 billion for 600,000 persons. Use of administrative resources in favor of the government-backed candidate was a serious problem as well. If these two issues are not duly assessed by the public and the international community, this might have negative consequences in the 2020 elections. Overall, we can say that this was a step backwards in the history of Georgian elections.
The most alarming issue was the extreme polarization of media which has endangered its independence as the fourth branch of government. Unfortunately, the main media outlets have essentially become instruments of political parties, which has seriously harmed their reputation and has raised questions on impartiality of their coverage. Unfortunately, neither of the political forces managed to reject aggressive and negative campaigns that has alienated voters from the electoral process. The election campaign has again demonstrated that we do not have parties that are tailored to the interests of voters and that oftentimes they do not reflect divergent public opinions.
Overall, we can say that this was a step backwards in the history of Georgian elections.
While the authorities managed to consolidate their voters by mobilizing their enormous resources, opposition forces failed to attract moderate undecided voters that influenced the election results. It is important that Georgian voters conveyed to the authorities that they are unsatisfied with their performance and warned them by bringing the elections to the second round. If Georgian Dream fails to address the grave socio-economic situation before the parliamentary elections, there might be a regime change in 2020.
Despite their loss, the results increased the opposition expectations that they have a serious chance in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But it is crucial that the elections are held by proportional system so that every party has a chance to succeed. The best solution would be to have a multi-party parliament, where main parties would form a coalition government and be able to balance each other’s radical instincts. This would contribute to sustainable and relatively more democratic political system in Georgia.
Ghia Nodia, director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia Chavchavadze State University and head of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development:
The turnout in the second round was more than twenty percent higher than in the first one, and apparently, large majority of new voters gave preference to Salome Zurabishvili. There were two main reasons why this happened. First, the Georgian Dream galvanized fears of people genuinely scared of the prospect of the United National Movement and Mikheil Saakashvili’s comeback: many of them had not bothered to show up in the first round.
But the Georgian Dream also used less legitimate methods to mobilize support for its candidate. Both Georgian and international observers agreed that democratic standards declined sharply after the first round, making this by far the worst elections during the last years. Intimidation of voters (especially those having government jobs), vote-buying, and violations of secrecy of vote became wide-spread across the country.
Both Georgian and international observers agreed that democratic standards declined sharply after the first round, making this by far the worst elections during the last years.
Which of the two factors had a decisive impact for the final result? Could the government candidate achieve victory without using illegal methods? We will never know for sure. The opposition campaign not to recognize election results is not based on a convincing case, but the legitimacy of the process was compromised.
This, in conjunction with an extremely vicious, purely negative and populist campaign on both sides left an unpleasant aftertaste. The status quo will be preserved for now, but vulnerability of the Georgian Dream position was exposed and it may have even harder time in the parliamentary elections in October 2020. The Strength in Unity coalition created around the UNM, and Grigol Vashadze, its candidate, proved to be stronger players than initially expected, but highly negative ratings of Mikheil Saakashvili, its effective leader, continues to be an important handicap. A lot will depend on the development of third parties of which only European Georgia’s candidate, Davit Bakradze, showed a respectable result in the first round.
Tornike Sharashenidze, head of the MA program in International Affairs at Georgian Institute for Public Affairs:
It was a Pyrrhic Victory for the ruling party. They paid a very high price for an office of no significance. Now, they are facing a difficult future with their reputation worsened (because of the presidential campaign that hardly met democratic standards), with a problematic president and even more promises they will have to keep.
It was a Pyrrhic Victory for the ruling party.
At the same time, Grigol Vashadze has distinguished himself as an independent leader able to unite political forces and at the same time demonstrated that he is no puppet of Mikheil Saakashvili. He has chances to build up on his success and pose even bigger challenge to the Georgian Dream in 2020.
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