This week, Georgians chose a new president in a controversial election. Now, they have to live up to their promises
Georgia’s recent presidential election involved two important achievements. Despite being a still-immature democracy, the country held a run-off vote and elected a woman president – both for the first time. Georgia has the first woman president in any former Soviet country, excluding the Baltic states. But the good news ends there.
Georgia’s peaceful transfer of power in 2012 seemed to indicate its readiness to embrace democratic practices. Indeed, the country held its 2013 presidential election in a quiet and normal atmosphere. However, its 2016 parliamentary election raised questions about the falsification of votes and the authorities’ use of administrative resources. The 2018 election has created far more acute concerns: there have been numerous reports of voter intimidation and bribery, as well as the misallocation of such resources. This may not be enough to cast serious doubt on the outcome of the vote, but it appears to be a worrying measure of the ruling Georgian Dream’s willingness to concede electoral defeat when the time comes.
It is now clear that the 2013 election went well simply because a Georgian Dream candidate was the clear favourite. As soon as an opposition leader mounted a credible challenge, the party seems to have used all means at its disposal to achieve victory. As the presidency is only a ceremonial position, losing the office would have few practical implications for a Georgian Dream that has total control of both the legislative and executive branches of government – and that faces no resistance from the judiciary, which always favours the ruling party in cases that have a political dimension. One can only speculate about how the authorities will behave in the 2020 parliamentary election, when the stakes will be much higher.
Interestingly, the new president (and former foreign minister), Salome Zourabishvili, formally ran as an independent candidate backed by the ruling party. From the start, it was clear that she would be an extremely problematic choice, due to her condescending attitude towards most voters and the fact that she had publicly blamed the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia on the Georgian government. Bidzina Ivanishvili – the billionaire chair of Georgian Dream and Georgia’s de facto ruler – most likely backed Zourabishvili to oppose Mikhail Saakashvili, a former president who Georgian courts have convicted of abuse of power.
After failing to win the first round of the presidential election, Zourabishvili faced off against Saakashvili-backed candidate Grigol Vashadze, a one-time foreign minister who represented former ruling party United National Movement and some smaller groupings. Vashadze also had the support of Davit Bakradze – a candidate from a United National Movement splinter party who won 10 percent of the vote in the first round – as well as the Republican Party, one of Georgia’s oldest political forces. Thus, Georgian Dream feared that Saakashvili would use the presidential election to regain influence.
From the start, it was clear that she would be an extremely problematic choice
Then the electoral irregularities began to mount up. The authorities scheduled the run-off vote for a Wednesday instead of a weekend, making voting more difficult for both Georgians living abroad and those who work in the capital but reside in small towns. (Remarkably, Zourabishvili even failed to win a majority among Georgians living in France, the country she was born and grew up in.)
In familiar post-Soviet style, the government appeared to task officials and most law enforcement agencies with achieving victory for Zourabishvili. They accused Saakashvili of attempting to start a civil war while labelling non-governmental organisations that criticised the authorities as stooges of United National Movement and even fascists. Ten days before the run-off, the authorities announced that they would write off bank loans for 600,000 people (or more than 15 percent of the population). After the EU described the move as bribery, the Georgian foreign minister retorted that a private bank had covered the loans. He neglected to mention that Ivanishvili owns the bank in question. As a result, Zourabishvili won 60 percent of the vote in the run-off.
Saakashvili’s subsequent call for civil disobedience fell on deaf years. Having lost their taste for revolution, Georgians appear to have gained a political maturity lacking in both former and current ruling elites. Moreover, United Opposition prefers to bide its time. During the presidential campaign, Vashadze distinguished himself as an independent leader who could unite people. He received almost 800,000 votes, or 300,000 more than United National Movement won in 2016 – in a result the party viewed as a success. He can build on this achievement if he rallies support from influential political figures with the themes he emphasised during the campaign, including the need to end one-party rule and to allow for the formation of coalition governments.
It is crucial that Georgia takes these steps, given how badly it has suffered from political polarisation in the past 15 years. But will the ruling party accept this? Hopefully, it will have no choice. Georgian Dream won a pyrrhic victory in the presidential election, gaining a controversial president at the expense of its reputation – and in return for a lot of new promises it will now have to keep.
Tornike Sharashenidze is a professor and head of School of International Relations at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), as well as former foreign policy assistant to the Prime Minister of Georgia, and director of NATO Information Center in Georgia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.