Presidential Elections: Anger and Frustration in Georgia

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In a month or so, Georgia will have a new president, though elected through the direct popular vote for the last time. A brief but heated campaign revealed the corruptness and deceitfulness of Georgia’s political elites.

Since no presidential candidate received more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in the election of October 28, 2018, the two leading candidates are headed for a runoff. The two front-runners, who have come neck-and-neck and secured 38.64 and 37.74 per cent of the votes, are the ruling Georgian Dream-backed Salome Zourabichvili and the opposition United National Movement’s (UNM) nominee Grigol Vashadze. Zourabichvili is a French-born diplomat who served as a foreign minister in the UNM-led cabinet of 2004-2005 but moved to the opposition after her resignation. In 2016, with the support from the Georgian Dream, she became an independent MP. Her supporters consider the withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Georgia to be her flagship achievement. Grigol Vashadze served as a foreign minister in that same UNM government from 2008 to 2012. Earlier, he ran his own business and worked for the Foreign Ministry of the Soviet Union. His supporters describe him as having the demeanor and judgement of a statesman. David Bakradze, nominated by the European Georgia party, which branched off the UNM a year ago, secured 10.97 per cent of the votes. During the run-up to the vote, he was considered to represent a third, alternative force. However, differences between this new outfit and its parent-party aren’t always clear.

Presidential election triggers the enforcement of a constitutional reform, according to which Georgia is to transition to parliamentary rule. Under this new setup, the president will be a symbolic leader with non-executive power. Nevertheless, Georgian political parties presented the seemingly insignificant election as a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary elections due in two years. The election has turned into a poll on the six-year rule of the incumbent Georgian Dream party and its leader and the wealthiest Georgian - Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In this presidential election, people voted not so much for the individual candidates but instead for or against the political parties that nominated them. In an absence of other mechanisms for popular political participation, elections remain the only instrument for people to make their voices heard. Low turnout - more than half of the voters did not vote - indicates distrust towards the political elite.

Despite observed irregularities, international watchdog organizations often praise Georgia for holding democratic elections - and this is a collective achievement of the Georgian people. And yet, elections in Georgia fail in a major way: they do not provide an opportunity for voters to make a choice between alternative visions of development. Instead, they represent a plebiscite of sorts to assess the accomplishments of the government. Elections help replace politicians in elected offices, but they keep the everyday life of Georgians unchanged.


A Competition in Relative Criminality

On December 1, 2017, two underage school students were stabbed in a brawl in Tbilisi. One of them died in the hospital, the other on the way. The office of the Prosecutor-General launched an investigation, questioned witnesses and arrested alleged perpetrators. At a glance, nothing indicated that the incident that painted a grave picture of hostility and bullying in Georgian public schools, would also expose appalling practices in the law enforcement system. The case became the main issue of the presidential race.

The story developed as follows: Zaza Saralidze, the father of one of the murdered teenagers, alleged that the investigative agencies were not acting in a proper manner and that the investigation was affected by the influential parents of other participants of the incident. Eventually, these allegations were nearly confirmed in the court. In May 2018, people took to the streets in Tbilisi. Protests were followed by the resignation of the chief prosecutor and the setting up of an ad hoc fact-finding parliamentary commission. The Commission report published in the very midst of the election campaign concurred the allegation that the investigation had hushed up the circumstances of the case and covered up the alleged perpetrator. The murdered teenager’s father, despite being in poor health, continues his protest on the main square of the capital city, serving as an example of bravery and tenacity to many.

The revelation of fraudulent behavior on the part of the investigative agencies caused the Georgian people to relive the old trauma. It is a common belief in Georgia that the Georgian Dream was elected for its commitment to dismantle the corrupt judiciary and penitentiary systems inherited from the previous government, and to restore justice. Six years on, the public has reached a virtual consensus that the idea of restoring the promised - and now ridiculed - justice has not materialized. The Georgian Dream has not set up a commission that would establish the truth regarding the crimes perpetrated during the rule of its predecessors and render help to its victims. In the meantime, however, it has exploited the image of UNM to build a narrative of its own moral superiority.

The disclosure of grave violations in the investigation of the teenagers’ case did something that other cases - even ones with perhaps graver investigatory violations – could not: it has stripped the Georgian Dream of its moral superiority to speak confidently about the violations committed by UNM, and this may well turn out to be a watershed in its political trajectory. Until now, the majority of Georgian Dream supporters have been united in their negation – in their fear and loathing towards UNM’s rule. Despite implementing flickering reforms in healthcare and welfare policy, the ruling party has failed to attract supporters by addressing the most pressing problems, such as unemployment. In other words, the Georgian Dream, which has now been deprived of moral superiority, possesses nothing singular that would help maintain supporters. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the government had to base its claim of superiority on the higher degree of criminality of its opponent. During the presidential campaign, one of the leaders of the ruling party and speaker of parliament Irakli Kobakhide said more than once that although there were certain problems, the present government - unlike its predecessor - had not committed a systemic crime against the Georgian nation.

The opposition made similar use of relative criminality when speaking about the government-backed candidate. They repeatedly referred to the statement by Salome Zourabichvili that in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war Georgia had bombed its own population and accused her of treason. The criticism of Salome Zourabichvili by the opposition was at all times underpinned by the premise that there is nothing more criminal than treason.

The paradigm of relative criminality has shown that exposing each other’s crimes is the chief source of symbolic capital of Georgia’s political parties. The political parties and their selected candidates spent almost no resources on presenting their policy platforms to the Georgian people. The aftertaste of the campaign has created the impression that elections in Georgia do not provide a vehicle for voters to express a political choice.

Anti-corruption Instead of Politics

It is most deplorable that Georgia’s main export commodity is its own population, the Norwegian economist Erik S. Reinert said during his visit to Georgia a few years ago. This may well be the best indicator of the failure of post-Soviet development: since the bloody separation from Russia, Georgian men and women have been returning to Russia as desperate illegal workers. Those who know of Georgia’s successful anti-corruption reforms will find it shocking to learn that Georgia’s citizens who have remained in the country work only to survive. Their work resembles a struggle for survival and many die in the process. Over the past 10 years, more than 1,200 people have been killed or heavily injured due to the violations of the safety provisions of the labor code.  

In the run-up to the election, the local trade union Solidarity Network appealed to the presidential candidates to present their vision of labour protection and workers’ rights. The challenge was taken up only by the candidate of the right-wing populist political union Girchi who believes that working conditions are a matter of a private negotiations between the employer and the employee and who calls for the abrogation of the Labour Code altogether. All other presidential hopefuls chose to stay silent. What does their reticence mean?

Since Georgia gained its independence, its political elites have been referring to free market reforms as a model for development and accumulation of wealth. Not only do these reforms imply protecting free markets from people’s demands but also envisage building a state which serves the interests of business. The formula goes as follows: a limited government with respect to labour and a nanny state for capital. The foundation for this approach is the Georgian Constitution, which limits the parliament’s powers to increase taxes and introduce progressive taxation. Despite the promises made by more than one Georgian government, the country’s poverty index has not changed much and the inequality of income distribution has remained among the highest in the region. Wealth has not trickled down. 

What can the presidential candidates say about this unfair system? Almost nothing. In fact, maybe it is their loyalty to the neoliberal model of development that unites them and makes them alike. During the campaign, the billionaire leader of the ruling party Bidzina Ivanishvili said that deprivation and poverty is an individual’s responsibility. In Georgia - a country where tax rates are among the lowest in the world - the candidates of the main opposition parties have backed the further reduction of taxes. David Bakradze, the presidential candidate supported by the opposition European Georgia, who never takes interest in the workers’ rights, made a promise to the Georgian voters to secure their legal employment abroad. The impression was that the political elites had come to an agreement that degrading labour had no alternative in Georgia, and accordingly, a goal was set to create better employment for Georgians abroad, far from Georgia.

If the overall picture is so gloomy, how did the political parties and their candidates manage to speak about the most important problems with the population? They invoked the notion of anticorruption. Corruption, which was referred to as the source of poverty by the opposition parties, became a buzzword during the campaign. The impression was that everything would be fine if there was no corruption among the high-ranking officials. In this corruption-focused campaign, the media provided a constant information flow about dubious incomes of certain politicians, their huge villas and the nepotistic practice in the public sector. The national anticorruption mantra reached its culmination when UNM made a promise to the voters to set up an independent anticorruption agency, whose chief would be selected by foreign experts instead of the corrupt politicians elected by the people.

Undoubtedly, corruption is a deadly vice which afflicts Georgia too but when fighting corruption is declared as the solution to all societal problems, it becomes a substitute for policy while it is policy that provides rights and opportunities for caring about, organizing, and assuming responsibilities for the common good. The Georgian anticorruption mantra in the meantime is corrupt in itself, falsifying the source of the problem and taking the place of policy.

Constitutional Reform: Progressive Utopia of Europeanization

Few would imagine that the election of a president whose powers have been curtailed by the constitutional amendments, would turn into the most heated political event of the recent years. Fundamental changes to the constitution will come into force immediately after the new president is elected. According to the ruling party, the constitutional reform is to transform the country into a European-type parliamentary republic. The changes include the abolition of the direct presidential election - one of the most controversial issues in this reform. It is commonly believed in Georgia that the main goal of the constitutional reform was to diminish the president’s power. The belief was shared by the current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who refused to take part in the reform process.

Under the constitutional changes, the future president of Georgia will be elected by a special collegium instead of the population. The president will no longer have the right to reject the prime ministerial candidate nominated by the parliament. Nor will s/he have the right to select Supreme Court judges. The changes include the abolition of the Security Council, a constitutional body headed by the president and responsible for military development and defence management. The president will nominally remain head of state and will have powers to veto the laws passed in parliament, pardon convicts and resolve citizenship issues.

The main question that remains unanswered in the debate about the method of election and the presidential powers is why were the changes to the president’s institution considered necessary, especially as the large majority of Georgia’s population backed the popular election of the president. The ruling party cited European experience as a justification, saying that European parliamentary democracy entailed indirect elections of a president with few powers. In response to this, critics of the reform - instead of speaking about Georgia’s needs - referred to certain European parliamentary states where presidents are elected through direct popular vote. In this relatively legalistic debate, there appeared no desire or energy to identify local needs and the main question remained unanswered. Continual references to European practice and basing one’s arguments on European experience when resolving important matters is hardly a novelty in Georgia. After all, it all too common in a country that aspires to be part of Europe to consider imitating Europe as the only path to progress. Those who talk of modernization and progress have a simple message to deliver: do what Europe does.

Debates in the Constitutional Commission on the method of the president’s election have revealed one thing that is not visible at first glance in Georgia’s Europeanization discourse: in order to justify a desired, and at times vicious, legislative initiative the government often invokes a precedent from European legislation and, by doing so, tries to Europeanize – and, therefore, normalize - the controversial initiative.  

On the other hand, when certain nascent groups working on social justice issues appealed to the Constitutional Commission to set up European-type institutions of welfare and care, the response was that Georgia was not ready for European-type redistribution of wealth. What is a norm in Europe is a deviation from the norm outside of Europe, the political class said in unison. This is how progressive utopia of Europeanization works in Georgia.


The fear of UNM’s return to power has found new life with the announcement of the second round of the election. Many Georgians fear that the authorities which years ago were exposed to have committed the gravest violations of rights - including torture and degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees - will continue governing in the same spirit. Meanwhile, justifiably accumulated discontent with the ruling party is seeking an outlet. The university-educated middle class, which dominates the public sphere, has been voicing a paradoxical and even cynical call: if you do not want the Georgian Dream to turn into UNM, you should vote for the latter. Forecasters and political commentators cannot say much about possible results of the second round. Anything can happen in a political field which has been stripped of trust and fairness.

What can one hope for? Anger, solidarity and democracy go together, says David Ost, a researcher on post-Soviet politics and social movements. According to Ost, democracy is born where those who are angry and excluded from power and wealth find solidarity with each other and are able to demand what is theirs by right. One thing that the Georgian political machine - which turns a deaf ear to people’s fair demands - produces is tons of anger. The anger is up for grabs.

It appears that the end of the presidential election, regardless of its outcome, will mark only the beginning of a heated political process. Who will be able to harness this anger is a question of critical importance. Of crucial importance is also another question: will the Georgian people be able to organize this anger for the benefit of democratic solidarity? The answers to these questions will define Georgia’s nearest future. We should remember that the frustration of Georgia’s population and the fraudulent nature of the political class as well as fragmented social movements and weak trade unions, leave space for all kinds of scenarios, including the most frightful ones.

This much we should remember; for a more desirable scenario - we should fight.