Luis Navarro

Luis Navarro: People favor the government less, but do not see an alternative

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I n early May, the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia released the results of its regular public opinion survey. The first part of the poll, showing public attitudes towards various issues, was released on 5 May, whilst the second part, reflecting the ratings of politicians, was released three days later. On 8 May, Tabula interviewed the NDI's Senior Resident Country Director in Georgia, Luis Navarro, to discuss the results of the recent poll and the changes shown in public attitudes.

Thank you Mr. Navarro for finding time in your busy schedule to answer our questions. What are your general observations about the political ratings of political actors?

Generally speaking, the Georgian Dream remains the strongest political force nationwide. The United National Movement (UNM) remains the strongest opposition party. There are several cities – Tbilisi, Gori, Kutaisi, Zugdidi – where the potential for a run-off election [in the forthcoming local elections] is greater than in others. Overall, most people have seen their favorability ratings decline since our last poll.

We see that the positive evaluation of the performance of the ruling coalition has dropped by 25%. It is half what it was six months ago. At the same time, this decrease is not reflected in the election ratings of the Georgian Dream. How would you explain that?

The ratings for [Defense Minister] Irakli Alasania, for example, and for [Prime Minister] Irakli Garibashvili really dropped less than 10 points each, as is also the case with [Parliamentary] Speaker Davit Usupashvili. So, among the top officials within the government the drop in overall ratings has been relatively small.
But the difference relative to the electoral contest can, I think, be seen in the earlier release of our issues poll on Monday [5 May]. To the question "do you think the current government is making changes that matter to you," you still have a solid majority of people expressing that to be the case and much lower numbers, less than 25%, for either the parliamentary opposition or for the non-parliamentary opposition.
So, at the end of the day, what we can conclude from this is that while people may be unsatisfied about things that matter, and while some government officials may have experienced significant drops in their popularity, people overall do not see an alternative – a viable alternative – to address the issues that they are most concerned about.

But positive answers to the question "do you think the current government is making changes that matter to you" have dropped significantly – by around 20%. As I remember, it was more than 70% six months ago.

But there is still a solid majority - I think it is at 55% in the recent poll.

Especially striking is the dramatic drop in former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's ratings. How would you explain a 20% decrease in positive attitudes towards Ivanishvili? In my observation, this is the first time there has been major disapproval of Bidzina Ivanishvili's actions by the Georgian population since he came to power.

Well, I cannot say that I have any definite idea as to what precipitated that drop. As was demonstrated in the polling released earlier this week, people were disapproving of his criticism of President [Giorgi] Margvelashvili. People acknowledged Ivanishvili as a decision maker within the government and expressed disapproval of that. So, perhaps these factors have been playing towards a drop in his popularity, but it is impossible for me to definitively say.

Let us talk about the UNM candidate for the position of Tbilisi Mayor. The poll was conducted from 26 March to 18 April, that is at the time when Nika Melia was presented to the public as the UNM candidate. There are more than 20% of undecided voters. Do you think that Melia has the potential to gain those votes, given the fact that he was not well known to the Georgian public when the poll was conducted?

I think there are three factors to consider in terms of the UNM in Tbilisi.

First, if you look at their strength in terms of the Sakrebulo [city council] vote, clearly their strength lies outside of Tbilisi. So that is one challenge for Mr. Melia.

Second, he is not very well known, as we showed in our comparison of the favorability ratings between him, [Georgian Dream candidate Davit] Narmania, [non-parliamentary opposition candidate Kakha] Kukava and [Green Party candidate, MP Giorgi] Gachechiladze – we were not able to include [candidate from the Democratic Movement-United Georgia Dimitri] Lortkipanidze because we were unaware that he would be put forward. But his [Melia's] support right now is, I think, largely a function of people's support for the UNM and his challenge is different. He has to become better known and he has to expand the amount of support the UNM is currently receiving in the capital.

And finally, the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, [Nino] Burjanadze's coalition, is in a statistical tie with the UNM at this point in Tbilisi. So, based upon this poll, they can challenge the UNM, at least in Tbilisi, for second place.

Narmania's challenge is somewhat different – right now he lags behind the number of people who identified the Georgian Dream as the party closest to them. So he has to consolidate his support within the Georgian Dream and, of course, pick up another 11% in order to avoid a run-off.

Let's speak about the attitudes of the population. How would you evaluate the general mood in comparison with the previous survey? What are the new trends?

Clearly people have a more negative attitude about the direction of the country and [the level of] democracy now – both of these numbers have declined since our last poll. People are ambivalent because it relates to their economic situation and pertains to how they assess their households since the 2012 election.
But again, why this level of dissatisfaction has not found its way into the ratings, at least in terms of the electoral ratings, is because they do not currently see either the parliamentary opposition or the non-parliamentary opposition as being able to make the changes that matter to them at this point.
I would point out that if you look at the slide in which we talk about "which party would you trust most on issues," on the vast majority of issues people have greater trust, 50% or more, in the Georgian Dream. Some of the areas in which ratings fall below 50% concern issues like rising prices, inflation, NATO membership and poverty.

As you have said, frustration with the government increased to a greater degree than the support for the opposition – whether parliamentary or non-parliamentary. Let's talk about the UNM: what is the UNM doing wrong? Why are they not able to capitalize on the frustration of the population?

Obviously there is a big gap between the ratings of the person who is the head of the UNM on paper – Misha Saakashvili – and the ratings of the minority leader in parliament Davit Bakradze. It is a two to one differentiation. I think that the extent to which people see the UNM as the party of Misha Saakashvili, versus the party of Davit Bakradze, has some role to play in the differentiation between the UNM's electoral potential.

Do you think that if people associated the UNM with Bakradze the UNM would have more chances of capitalizing on the frustration of the population?

If we are going strictly on the numbers, I mean, clearly as the most popular opposition leader it stands to reason that whatever qualities they associate with Bakradze would be of benefit to the UNM.
I cannot say how Georgians interpret Bakradze's qualities, but I think most observers would say that there are certainly, at a minimum, stylistic differences between Davit Bakradze and Misha Saakashvili.

The most important priorities of the population have remained the same for years. People care most about unemployment, territorial integrity, and poverty. The government often points to public demand to justify its incrimination of UNM members. In these polls I do not see the so-called "restoration of justice" to be among the priorities of the population. This is not even among the top ten priorities. Is it the case that the government's claims do not match the mood of the people?

When you look at how people view their priorities, they are always going to choose things that are closest to them and affect them most. That does not necessarily mean that they do not have a positive opinion about the things that are lower down in terms of their priorities. Take NATO and EU membership, neither of which are very high in terms of the importance people place on those issues. But support for those positions are well over 70%. So, something might not be a priority, but it can still be something that people are in favor of.

We asked people a question concerning justice and gave them two separate options [for their answers]; they could say that the prosecution of former government officials was either based on the principle of holding the government accountable or that it served the function of political retribution. The majority of people answered that these prosecutions are based on accountability.

And I think that this idea of accountability finds its way into other questions asked in this poll. This issue is seen concerning the "That Affects You" campaign about the alleged illegal surveillance of the government. While awareness about this campaign was fairly evenly split, people overwhelmingly supported the objectives of the campaign. Again, this is, I think, a reflection of the desire for public accountability.

The same is true with regards to questions about Bidzina Ivanishvili. People clearly acknowledge him as a decision maker, but at the same time disapprove of his criticism of his candidate for president who is now holding office. People thus expressed disapproval of his [Bidzina Ivanishvili] being a decision maker. I think what all these things have in common is the desire of the public to see greater public accountability.

Can we say that there is no public urge for the restoration of justice, regardless of the fact that the majority may perceive that positively?

We have not asked a question about the restoration of justice. It is my understanding that other polls have and the numbers for these questions are never greater than one to three percent. From our perspective, in all the focus groups that we do, and we do quite a bit, the restoration of justice never comes up as an issue, which is why it has never been on our list of priorities.

As you have just mentioned, most people see it as a norm that government members and politicians, in general, should be held accountable before the law. Do you think that one of the reasons why the UNM cannot capitalize on the population's frustration with the government is that they also speak too much about the political persecution of their team members and allocate less time to discussing the issues that the population sees as its priorities: like unemployment, territorial integrity, poverty, pensions, health care reform and so on and so forth.

That is possible. However, based on our polling, I cannot say definitively whether or not that is true. I think that is a possibility for others to speculate on.

Turing to local issues, we know that agriculture is the area where Bidzina Ivanishvili, after coming to power, invested his own money. One of the major topics of the Georgian Dream's campaigning is that they believe that they did a good job with agriculture. Nevertheless, the number of people who think that the biggest problem is falling agricultural production has increased almost five times. This figure was at 4% six months ago and now it is at 19%.

Well, you can also look at another section of the polling that we released on Monday, which shows that while agricultural reform is among the top three issues that people place importance upon, their expectations of that have fallen dramatically. Clearly, while people place importance on agricultural reform, they do not have high expectations of seeing much of that coming to fruition. Clearly there is a gap between what people want and what they see as having been achieved.

The number of people who think that crime is on the rise has increased by 14%. It was 21% six months ago and now it is 35%. The interior ministry, however, claims that the crime rate decreased and has published statistics in support of that. Political opponents accuse the ministry of falsifying those statistics. Can we conclude from that that one-third of the population does not trust the government's claims that the crime level has decreased?

Actually, despite the fact that the government has claimed the decrease, we can say that the perception among Georgians, at least since we have been asking this question from the middle of last year, is that crime has increased or stayed the same since the parliamentary elections. Clearly the public perception shows a strong difference from the pronouncements of the government on this issue.

The survey shows that a vast majority of the population, more than 80%, see the necessity for a strong political opposition existing in the country. More than half of the population perceives the UNM as such. It is also noteworthy that more people disapprove than approve of Garibashvili's claim that the UNM has no moral right to criticize the government. What does such attitude of the population mean for the UNM or the government?

I think it means two things. Obviously, a larger number of people identify the UNM as a strong opposition force than those who are willing to either claim the UNM as the party that is closest to them or even to necessarily vote for them.

The second thing I would say is that, with regards to the prime minister's comments, which we tested, awareness of this was not particularly high and the number of those disapproving, versus approving, was narrow, but clearly a plurality of people disapproved of his comments.

I think that, if I may, when NDI did its pre-election observation report last week, one of the things that was pointed out as a problem was this issue of polarization and the bitterness that exists between the two organizations, and the fact that much of this functions as unsubstantiated allegations and prejudicial statements and so on and so forth. I think this is a reflection about how people would like to see the government move on from that.

Some 21% disapprove of the fact that the Georgian Orthodox Church is getting 25 million GEL from the budget. More than 70% said they were not aware of that funding. It was a surprise for me that so many people did not know that.

Clearly people do not know that the Church receives this money. We did ask everyone surveyed whether they approve of it. Given the fact that the survey was run on a sample which we believe is representative, this number reflects those people who, having heard that information, expressed their approval or disapproval.

Our polling shows that people say that religion plays an important role in their daily lives, so it is not surprising to us that there is support for state funding of the Church.

What is interesting to us is that disapproval of funding for other denominations – Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Armenian Apostolic – really depends upon where you live. Western Georgia is much more tolerant of this than Georgia as a whole. Cities like Kutaisi, Zugdidi and Akhaltsikhe were particularly willing to support this.

As regards foreign policy – support for EU and NATO integration is very high – above 70%. I think NATO and the EU do not even have such high support in some of their own member states.

Georgia's support for NATO, which is at 72%, has stayed steady, despite the fact that the number of people who say that Georgia will never join NATO increased from 12% to 21% since our last poll.

While support for the EU did drop since our last poll, it was 82% before and is now at 72%, when you look at the comparison of the EU versus the Eurasian Union, of EU and NATO membership versus abandoning those in favor of better relations with Russia, Georgians consistently say that they prefer the Western orientation.

People have a much more negative attitude about the relationship between Russia and Georgia since our last poll. Clearly, part of that is a result of what has happened in Ukraine and Crimea, which Georgians really disapprove of, and as well as the fencing off of the administrative boundaries between South Ossetia and Georgia.

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