Written by Marren Haneberg
On October 28, 2018, the Republic of Georgia held the first round of its final presidential election with a direct vote before transitioning to a parliamentary system. The election turned into a run-off between Salome Zurabishvili, ruling Georgian Dream party candidate, and Grigol Vashadze, candidate of former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s party United National movement, each garnering 38.6 percent and 37.7 percent of the vote (De Waal). French-born Zurabishvili served as Saakashvili’s foreign minister in 2004 before joining an opposing party. She has driven away voters by making comments intolerant of ethnic minorities. Most likely, opposition candidate Vashadze will win as he gathers votes from smaller parties dissenting the Georgian Dream party. These dissent votes suggest “opposition consolidation for the 2020 parliamentary elections” will reshape the future political landscape (“Presidentials: Expert Assessments in Tbilisi”).
Whatever the election outcome, the victor will have limited power. In 2012 Georgia’s constitution reduced the president’s power in relation to the prime minister’s, due to Saakashvili-era reforms which transition Georgia from a presidential political to a cabinet-parliamentary system. This new system will leaves the president a mere “symbolic head of state” who mediates “internal disputes between cabinet and parliament” (Krzysztan). The reform will deter “abuses of power and the concentration of power in the ruling elites” (Krzysztan). In spite of these positive consequences, Georgian voters, however, are not enthused by these constitutional changes. The National Democratic Institute reported that 40 percent of registered voters were unwilling to vote in the election (Krzysztan).
Issues Georgian voters face include GDP growth, which has stagnated under Georgian Dream. Unemployment is at the forefront of voters’ minds, with 62 percent reporting unemployment as a major issue. Also shortlisted were unfulfilled promises from Georgian Dream and economic deterioration (Saakashvili). The election takes place where citizens have low levels of trust with authorities. In April 2018, International Republican Institute reported only 50 percent of Georgians holding favorable views of the police, a 38 percent decrease from 2013 (“Public Opinion Survey…” 9, Saakashvili).
Inequality is another rising issue in Georgia. Some estimates hold that Bidzina Ivanishvili, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has wealth rivaling half of Georgia’s GDP. Ivanishvili has been accused of “extortion, racketeering, and money laundering” (Menabde). In the weeks leading up to the October 28 election, Rustavi 2 TV, Georgia’s most popular television station, released audio recordings “that appear to feature high-ranking officials engaging in corruption and massive extortion” and a station representative hinted that there was audio implicating Ivanishvili in these crimes (Menabde).
These concerns with corruption carry over to the election, as Georgian non-governmental groups said ruling authorities used “administrative resources” to improve Georgian Dream’s chance at winning. These abuses of power include using government officials to support Zurabishvili and using lists of likely voters, compiled by state employees, “to secure Zurabishvili’s victory in the first round” (Menabde). Further compromising her chances, Zurabishvili has financed her campaign in part suspiciously with “several larger donations from the medical staff and administration” of Georgian maternity clinics (Menabde).
Pictured left to right: Grigol Vashadze (leading opposition candidate), Salome Zurabishvili (Georgian Dream candidate), and Davit Bakradze (who was eliminated in October 28 election round). Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/sex-lies-and-audiotape-presidential-election-campaign/29561804.html.
De Waal, Thomas. 2018. “When Georgians Go Low, Other Georgians Go Lower.” Foreign Policy. November 5. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/05/when-georgians-go-low-other-georgians-go-lower-election/
Krzysztan, Bartłomiej. 2018. “Georgian presidential elections 2018.” New Eastern Europe. October 25. http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/10/25/georgian-presidential-elections-2018/.
“Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Georgia.” 2018. International Republican Institute. April 10. http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2018-5-29_georgia_poll_presentation.pdf.
“Presidentials: Expert Assessments in Tbilisi.” 2018. Civil.ge. November 2. https://civil.ge/archives/263280.
Saakashvili, Mikheil. 2018. “Make Georgia Great Again.” Foreign Policy. November 8. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/08/make-georgia-great-again/.