Georgian politics

The Presidential Race Has Begun

Salome Ugulava

The presidential candidate from the Georgian Dream coalition has been named months ahead of the presidential elections. He is the prime minister's favorite, the current Minister of Education Giorgi Margvelashvili. In selecting the candidate, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to have encountered no resistance from his party. According to the prime minister, the discussion was only focused around one, ideal candidate who was unanimously approved.

Despite the conspicuous sympathies towards Margvelashvili, the decision still took some by surprise. In addition to the fact that Margvelashvili is inexperienced in politics, he is less popular than some other members of Ivanishvili's team. According to the results of a public opinion survey commissioned by the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) conducted in March, the performance of Margvelashvili as education minister was positively rated by 29% of respondents – way lower than the ratings of a number of other ministers, including Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who has never hidden his desire to stand for the presidential election, who had an approval rating of 42%.

Nino Burjanadze
For this very desire, and for discussing this desire in his close circle, Alasania was punished. The defense minister, who simultaneously held the position of vice premier, had, as he put it, "quite a tough discussion" with the prime minister. Soon thereafter he was demoted from the vice premiership, which was subsequently taken by Giorgi Margvelashvili. Recalling the Alasania case, critics noted that Ivanishvili deliberately chose a weak presidential candidate in order not to share power with anyone. In dealing with Alasania, Ivanishvili showed everyone what will happen to anyone who tries to act independently, even within his close circle.

Regardless of Margvelashvili's lower popularity as compared to many of his colleagues, Ivanishvili and other representatives of the Georgian Dream are confident that their candidate will win the presidential election and easily defeat any rival, be they from the United National Movement (UNM) or any other party.

This confidence is supported by the results of the NDI public opinion poll conducted in March. According to the poll, to the question as to what party's candidate they would most like to see as the next president of Georgia, 58% of respondents named the Georgian Dream as their first choice, whilst 8% named the UNM. Some 17% of respondents said they did not know. As their second choice, the Georgian Dream was named by 2% of respondents and the UNM by 1%. However, the picture may change before October. At the time of the survey, the candidate from the Georgian Dream had not yet been named. The UNM candidate remains unknown as of yet. To identify its presidential candidate the UNM intends to conduct primaries, which will probably happen in late June. It is worth noting that one of the UNM's possible candidates, the UNM Secretary General Vano Merabishvili is now in pretrial detention.

Salome Zourabichvili
On the other hand, the interim parliamentary elections held in late April 2013, revealed some noteworthy tendencies. The results of those elections made some start discussing the possibility of a runoff in the presidential elections if no candidate clears the 50% hurdle. Apart from the Georgian Dream and UNM candidates, the presidential election will be challenged by the leader of the Labor Party, Shalva Natelashvili, and the president of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Ossetian European Movement, Nestan Kirtadze. Nino Burjanadze and Salome Zourabichvili, two former high officials now leading the political parties of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia and Georgia's Way, respectively, will probably also run in the election. Nor has the Christian-Democratic Movement, represented in the previous parliament, ruled out nominating its own candidate. However, according to the ratings, their chances of winning are equal to almost zero. According to the NDI survey, 3% of respondents named the leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze, as a desired presidential candidate whilst 2% named Natelashvili as such. However, judging by the results of the recent interim parliamentary elections, where Kakha Kukava, the leader of Conservative Party, ranked second after the Georgian Dream candidate, other presidential candidates may also garner certain support. The victor in Tbilisi's Nadzaladevi district in the interim parliamentary elections, Tamar Kordzaia of the Georgian Dream coalition, received less than 40% of votes whereas in the October parliamentary elections the coalition's support was over 70%. These very results may have made a runoff at the forthcoming presidential elections a topic of discussion. In Nadzaladevi, Kakha Kukava received 17.25% of the votes whilst the UNM candidate got just 15.11%.

All in all, the interim parliamentary elections showed that, after the October parliamentary election, support of the Georgian Dream in Tbilisi almost halved, whereas outside Tbilisi it increased by almost one-third. For its part, UNM support halved outside the capital city, whilst in Tbilisi it decreased by almost one-third.

Shalva Natelashvili
Those results pose serious challenges to the Georgian Dream and the UNM alike. An important aspect will be the capacity of both political forces to mobilize their supporters because the turnout for the interim elections was very low. Supporters of the Georgian Dream may think their favorite candidate will win in any case or that the UNM supporters may lose the hope of victory. The objective of the UNM, in the event of defeat, is to lag behind the victor by as small a margin as possible. The goal of the Georgian Dream, along with winning the election without the need for a runoff, is to marginalize the UNM. A desirable outcome for the Georgian Dream would be if the UNM candidate does not come in at second place, as happened in the case of Nadzaladevi.

Compared to the other presidential candidates that have already been nominated, significant attention is focused on Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has been no stranger to publicity over recent months. Since his appointment as education minister he has faced several challenges. One such challenge was his revocation of the authorization of the Agrarian University, which many assessed as being a politically motivated decision. Yet another controversial decision taken by Margvelashvili was an initiative to distribute textbooks to schoolchildren for free; something which many hailed. However, this decision may lead to bankruptcy for the majority of publishers in the textbook market because the state prints the textbooks to distribute for free, bypassing the copyright holders.

The 43-year-old presidential candidate, who was the rector of the Georgian Institute for Public Administration (GIPA) before becoming the education minister, also attracted the attention of voters with a number of his statements. For example, shortly after his appointment as vice premier he told the media that the prime minister treats him well, not overloading him with much work. One can gauge his attitude towards his job and the changes to it from this statement. Just recently he said that he is like "plasticine" and is able to adapt to new environments easily.

One of more recent and most memorable statements from Margvelashvili related to the draft amendment to the Labor Code. During a meeting with GIPA's students he said that the Labor Code will be a nightmare for businessmen and will increase unemployment – the number one problem of the country. He even dubbed the draft law as the dream of Rosa Luxembourg. Later, he expressed concern that this statement became public because publicly discussing opinions that run counter to those of his political team is not characteristic of him.

Critics have also reminded Margvelashvili of the statements he made after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Whilst on air on the Maestro TV channel in 2010, Margvelashvili declared "we were part of that political system which a year and a half ago decided to seize territories from Russia by force," which he assessed as insanity. Opponents also reminded Margvelashvili of his alliance with Nino Burjanadze, who visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow several times. Margvelashvili was a member of the advisors' council of the foundation established by Burjanadze in 2008, shortly after she stepped down as parliamentary speaker.

Yet another interesting episode from Margvelashvili's biography is a letter he published in Liberali magazine soon after Bidzina Ivanishvili entered Georgian politics. In that letter, Margvelashvili viewed Ivanishvili's entry as Russia's involvement in Georgian politics – as a form of a political force that would be acceptable for Russia. "His emergence in Georgian politics can be followed by a somewhat positive process. This is the case when Russia proposes to us, or to be more precise, proposes to the developed world and not necessarily to us, the so called soft power solution, or in other words, offers to be represented in Georgian politics not by means of violence, by means of tanks, but by means of a political force acceptable for it," Margvelashvili wrote.

After being nominated as the presidential candidate, Margvelashvili has opted to remain low key. In addition to the fact that he has not yet launched an active presidential campaign, he has not even proactively commented on the important events unfolding in the country, such as the violence against the defenders of LGBT rights on 17 May. Days after that violence, and only after been asked about the incident by journalists, he said that every offender must be punished in accordance with the law and that it does not matter for the law enforcers who the offenders were.

Naturally, this presidential campaign will differ from previous ones as, according to the new articles of the Constitution of Georgia, the functions of the president have been dramatically curbed. However, this does not diminish the political significance of the elections. The president still remains head of state, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the head representative in foreign relations. However, the president no longer runs politics.

Despite functional changes, it will be important how the presidential candidates will manage to respond to the key concerns of voters during the election campaign. According to the NDI survey conducted in March, the top priority for 61% of the population is employment. This is followed by the issues of territorial integrity and affordable health care. As for changes, the majority of the population would like to see changes in the areas of health care, agriculture and pensions. The Georgian Dream has started reforms and programs in these areas, but how sufficient these changes are or how they meet the expectations of the population is questionable.

According to the NDI survey, the core of the population – 81%, thinks that six months after the elections their living conditions have not changed and they still name economic issues as the key national problems. This attitude may degrade into frustration by autumn. In parallel with that, political opponents will have the possibility of presenting renewed political manifestos.

The president's functions after the presidential elections of October 2013

The president is the Head of State, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the representative of Georgia in foreign relations, however, he/she does not conduct domestic and foreign policy and has to agree with the government over the appointment and dismissal of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Georgia and other commanders. The president will no longer be involved in the process of the approval of the budget and will not have the right to abolish or suspend legislative acts. The president will retain the right to declare war, a state of emergency and to sign a truce. These decisions must be approved by parliament.

Moreover, according to the amended constitution, a large part of the legislative acts of the president will require the countersignature of the prime minister, however, not all acts will require this; which naturally makes it significant which political force the president represents.

The president has the right to call elections, pardon inmates, award prizes and titles, make decisions regarding granting citizenship and shelter, and sign constitutional agreements with the Georgian Orthodox Christian Church on behalf of the state.


Voter turnout in the interim parliamentary elections of April 2013

Tbilisi's Nadzaladevi district includes a total of 140,892 registered voters. Some 89% of the total voters did not cast their ballots for Tamar Kordzaia of the Georgian Dream coalition (she received 15,487 votes). Some 95% of the total voters did not vote for Kakha Kukava (he received 6,772 votes) whilst almost 96% of the total voters did not vote for the UNM candidate Mirza Davitaia (he received 5,926 votes).

The number of registered voters in the Bagdadi election district stands at 23,351. Some 70% of the total voters did not vote in favor of the Georgian Dream candidate Paata Kiknavelidze (he received 6,975 votes). Some 90% of the total voters did not cast their ballots for the UNM candidate Vladimir Tsikoridze (he received 2,383 votes).

The Samtredia election district has 48,455 registered voters, of which 64% did not vote for the Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Kakhiani (he received 17,163 votes). Almost 92% of the total voters did not cast their ballots for the UNM candidate Emzar Shubladze (he received 3,963 votes).


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