Georgia is less than a week away from testing the rigidity of its democratic institutions by casting vote in the presidential elections. A year ago, the outcome of the Parliamentary elections dispelled the decade-old trend of encroached dominance of one-party politics, marking a historic transition of power through the ballot box. As a milestone in the troubled South Caucasus region, the peaceful change of government prompted optimistic expectations for the emergence of a culture of sustainable multi-party dynamics.
This has not been the case.
Instead, Georgia has demonstrated that post-electoral slip-ups may overshadow the accomplishments of fair and transparent elections. The follow-up to the handover of power has been shredded in controversy. International and domestic actors alike have emphasized the heavy-handiness of the new government, pointing to several controversial detainments of former officials. Moreover, the cohabitation has been nothing short of volatile between the new governing coalition, the Georgian Dream, and the parliamentary opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), and their respective leaders.
Within this tense relationship, the UNM has repeatedly complained that the new government was engaging in a campaign of political retribution. These accusations have been routinely downplayed by the Georgian Dream officials who insisted that the new regime has been merely seeking to restore justice. Regardless where the truth rests, it is undeniable that the political base of UNM has incurred losses in the follow-up to the parliamentary elections. This is where the upcoming presidential elections becomes significant. It is set not only to elect a President but as well to outline the survivability of the UNM, shedding light on just how much political weight the party will have in the years to come.
Who’s in the game?
23 candidates are officially registered for the October 27 presidential elections. Public opinion polls and common sense allow for the exclusion of all candidates other than Giorgi Margvelashvili (Georgian Dream), David Bakradze (UNM) and Nino Burjanadze (Democratic Front).
Giorgi Margvelashvili is known to the Georgian public as the former Minister for Education under Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s first cabinet. Margvelashvili’s electoral platform – much like the Georgian Dream in the 2012 parliamentary election – is centered on populistic precepts with which few Georgians would disagree – more investment into the agricultural sector, creation of jobs, pragmatic approach to Russia and the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. With limited exposure to political office and few achievements to boost about, Margvelashvili’s recipe for electoral success is Ivanishvili’s endorsement. Confident in the win, Margvelashvili has declared he would withdraw from the race in case of a runoff.
David Bakradze, an old-time Saakashvili ally from the times of the Rose Revolution, is the ex-speaker of the parliament with extensive professional experience at both domestic and international settings. Most of his political tenure may be summarized as careful and discreet, with self-restrain from sensitive political rhetorics. In a sense, Bakradze’s trademark soft-spoken and self-restrained communication style has enabled him to enjoy a relatively high level of public confidence. As a staunch Saakashvili ally who is largely immune from the plummeting ratings of other senior UNM officials, Bakradze’s candidacy comes off as a natural choice in a period of UNM decay.
Nino Burjanadze is the dark horse of the race. She is a former high-ranking UNM member, having served as the parliamentary speaker until 2008. Following her dramatic exit from UNM, she has raised a few eyebrows by certain actions that her critics have dubbed as overly pro-Kremlin and anti-Georgian. Such has been the case in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war when she visited Moscow and held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Responding to critics, Burjanadze justified the appropriateness of her visit by pointing to the dominant role of Russia in the region. As the leader of a standalone opposition party, Burjanadze is critical of both the UNM and the Georgian Dream’s pro-Western policies and their efficacy in ensuring security for Georgia. While she has not nearly enough electoral support to secure a win, her ratings have seen a huge spike in the weeks to the presidential elections – a signal, perhaps, that all political parties in the spectrum should find alarming.
What’s at stake?
The Parliamentary elections of 2012 have already determined the overall distribution of power within the executive and legislative branch of the government. With a landslide victory over the UNM, the oppositional parties, united under the Georgian Dream coalition, secured just enough seats to keep their parliamentary counterparts sidelined. Public polls paint a similar scenario for the Presidential elections, with a victory guaranteed for the candidate from the Georgian Dream.
In spite of clear indicators in favor of the Georgian Dream candidate, the election outcomes should not regarded in black and white, or in a win-loss scenario. Each party enters the election game with their own understanding of what constitutes a win. Hence, one should look beyond which party’s candidate secures the seat in order to understand the impact of the elections.
For the Georgian Dream coalition, victory in the elections symbolizes the ouster of Saakashvili from his seat of power, one of the last remnants from the UNM to hold a top-level position. This is embodied in symbolism – as the last nail in the coffin of the UNM party. Moreover for several political parties comprising the Georgian Dream coalition it is a long-sought achievement – a sort of ‘we toppled you after all’ call.
Power-wise, upon securing the President’s seat the Georgian Dream will dominate the executive power as well as representation of the state on the international arena. This is crucial as outgoing President Saakashvili has not been reluctant to use his office to publicly reprimand the Georgian Dream coalition for pursuing policies of political persecution and being overly lenient to confront Russian advances. Needless to say, this policy would continue under UNM presidential candidate Davit Bakradze. With the UNM no longer holding the President’s office, this channel is cut off; the Georgian Dream will have their man as head of state, effectively downgrading UNM to the status of a minority group in the Parliament.
For the UNM, the successful outcome of the elections is avoiding a landslide defeat. With a guaranteed loss, the UNM needs all the votes it can get to portray them as a force to be reckoned with in the elections to come. Good performance in the elections is also a signal that their electoral base appreciated the refocus on David Barkadze as the new UNM leader. Hence, the UNM can mark the beginning of a new era by securing just enough votes to seem politically viable (and dangerous to the Georgian Dream in the long run).
The soaring ratings of Nino Burjanadze, however, complicate matters for the UNM. As the only viable political force that may outbid the UNM for a second place in the elections, Burjanadze is in the capacity to deliver an embarrassing blow, if she were to secure more votes than Bakradze. This would ultimately be the worst-case scenario for the UNM with a huge stain on the party’s reputation.
Ultimately, regardless of which scenario unfolds, it is the gap between percentages of the competing parties that will determine the true winner of the race. With it, the fate and legacy of the UNM.