By Nino Japaridze, originally published at Edison Research
In three weeks, voters will have an opportunity to elect the Republic of Georgia’s next President. Edison Research took a detailed look at the voter’s pre-election sentiment by surveying 3,000 eligible voters nationwide in September 2018. The survey was commissioned by Georgia’s leading independent national broadcaster, Rustavi 2.
There is no shortage of Presidential candidates to choose from: The names of twenty five registered candidates will appear on the ballot on October 28th. There were twenty-one additional presidential hopefuls whose registration was denied by Georgia’s Central Electoral Commission.
Several clear themes emerged:
The vast majority of interviewed voters tell us they plan to perform their civic duty and turn out to vote: We discovered 64 percent of eligible voters “definitely” plan to vote during the upcoming Presidential election, with 23 percent who think they will “probably vote,” 9 percent report being less likely to vote, and 4 percent did not answer the question. Should this be surprising? If we look at the long-term trends, voter turnout during Georgia’s Presidential elections has significantly declined over time, with only 46.6 percent of registered voters voting during Georgia’s 2013 Presidential election. Some analysts predict this trend will continue and expect a low turn-out this fall, in part because the weakened institution of the Presidency — a result of Constitutional amendments passed by the Parliament of Georgia on September 26, 2017. Edison’s poll, however, reveals 41 percent of eligible voters are unaware these amendments also annul Georgian voters’ ability to directly elect their president. When we asked them about this, we discovered 40 percent of eligible voters “completely disapprove” and 31 percent “somewhat disapprove” of this change, which will take effect in six years.
Only three Presidential hopefuls lead: When asked “if the election was held tomorrow, which candidate would you vote for,” 22 percent of eligible voters expressed support for Grigol Vashadze (a candidate from the Power is in Unity alliance of opposition parties), 18 percent for David Bakradze (a candidate from the European Georgia Party, which broke away from the United National Movement), and 15 percent for Salome Zurabishvili (an independent candidate backed by Georgia’s ruling party– Georgia Dream). Nearly seven out of ten supporters of these top-ranking candidates told us they were certain of their choice.
Shalva Natelashvili (a candidate from the Labor Party) and David Usupashvili (a candidate from the Independent Democrats Party) garnered 8 and 3 percent support, respectively. Other candidates had less than 2 percentage points of support. A quarter of the interviewed eligible voters told us they are undecided or they refused to answer this question.
Salome Zurabishvili has a strong negative image among eligible voters. When asked which Presidential candidate they would never consider voting for, 41 percent named Salome Zurabishvili, 29 percent named Zurab Japaridze and 16 percent named Shalva Natelashvili, while 13 percent of the surveyed respondents would never vote for Grigol Vashadze and 11 percent said they would never vote for David Bakradze and David Usupashvili, respectively.
A run-off election is likely. A run-off election between the top two candidates will occur if no candidate reaches 50% of the vote. With three candidates garnering significant support in our survey, and several others bringing in smaller numbers, a run-off election seems likely to occur. And voters in our poll agree, with 44 percent of surveyed voters expecting a run-off election, while 22 percent don’t expect this outcome and 32 percent “don’t know” or “refuse to answer” the question.
If all remains equal, the government party endorsed candidate Zurabishvili will likely be defeated by an opposition candidate during a run-off. Edison’s pre-election survey shows that if during a run-off election Grigol Vashadze and Salome Zurabishvili are on the ballot, 50 percent would vote for Vashadze, while 24 percent would vote for Zurabishvili, with 26 percent undecided or refusing to answer this question. Similarly, Zurabishvili appears to trail David Bakradze during a run-off election scenario: 53 percent would vote for Bakradze and 23 percent would vote for Zurabishvili during the run-off election, with 24 percent being undecided or refusing to answer the question.
Georgian voters are deeply dissatisfied with Georgia’s developments, creating an environment favorable for an opposition candidate to take the helm of Georgia’s Presidency this fall. 79 percent of the surveyed respondents feel the Republic of Georgia is going in the wrong direction. Six out of 10 respondents told us they “strongly disagree” with the legislative initiative led by Georgia Dream to legalize production of marijuana for export, while 26 percent “somewhat disagreed.” Immediately after the Edison poll was released, Salome Zurabishvili stated that, if elected President, the dialogue with Georgia’s population on this issue will continue. She also invited two leading opposition candidates to participate in pre-election debates. Georgian voters are known to radically shift their political preferences in a short time-span. With 24 days left before Georgia’s Presidential election, presidential candidates still have some time to earn the voters’ trust.
Commentary: WHO WILL BE GEORGIA’S NEW PRESIDENT?
By Irakli Kakabadze, Chair, Gandhi Foundation Georgia
New presidential elections are fast approaching in Georgia. They are scheduled for October 28, 2018. It is very interesting that this time the ruling “Georgian Dream'” party which holds an absolute parliamentary majority and has unilaterally formed four governments over the last six years decided not to nominate a presidential candidate for this election cycle. Leaders of the majority party declared that they will support one of the independent candidates for president. Georgia’s current president, Giorgi T. Margvelashvili has not announced his plans about running for re-election. Many experts think that Mr. Margvelashvili will not run this time and will retire. His candidacy was actively promoted by the Georgian Dream party in 2013 and once he was elected president, he chose to distance himself from the ruling party. This won him a reputation as a moderately independent president, with pro-Western and pro-democracy values.
There are indications that the sole independent female candidate for presidency, Mrs. Salome Zourabishvili will get the support of the ruling party and along with it, its administrative resources, which will give her a big advantage in the presidential race. Mrs. Zourabishvili was born and raised in France, the daughter of immigrants from the first independent social-democratic republic of Georgia (1918-1921). She was educated in France and the United States and served as a French diplomat at different missions throughout her career. In 2004, former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili tapped her as his Foreign Minister and she presided over the Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia in 2005. After a disagreement with Saakashvili on a number of issues, she left her post as Foreign Minister and joined the opposition, becoming actively involved in protests from 2006 to 2009. She continued her career as a UN diplomat in New York City overseeing the problems of disarmament. After her service at the UN, she returned to Georgia and ran as an independent candidate for parliament in 2016 and beat the former Minister of Culture in the Saakashvili government, Nickoloz Rurua. Since then she has been a member of the Georgian parliament, was moderately independent and conservative. If elected, she will become the first female elected president of Georgia. Her political views are close to those of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, she proclaimed that she will be ‘first of all a women’s president’, which caused a lot of debates in the social media. Her good relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili, head of the ruling party and Georgia’s prime billionaire, will be key in this upcoming presidential struggle.
However, experts are not completely sure that Mrs. Zourabishvili will have the unconditional support of Ivanishvili’s crew. There are a number of strong opponents within the voting electorate. Mr. Grigiol Vashadze is representing the United National Movement of Georgia, the former ruling party of Mr. Saakashvili. Mr. Vashadze is also a moderate figure, who also has a long and distinguished diplomatic record – first in the Soviet and Russian Foreign Services and then as Saakashvili’s Foreign Minister. Unlike many of Saakashvili’s party members, Mr. Vashadze is not known as a hothead and even among his opponents he commands some respect as a distinguished statesman. This gives him some chance at winning. Some experts state that Mr. Vashadze also has a good personal relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is Georgia’s strongest power-broker. This relationship between current and former ruling regimes is called ‘co-habitation’ by the Georgian populace. If you ask a regular cab driver or construction worker in Tbilisi, they will express their resentment at this ‘cohabitative’ state of events; they see it as an elitist plot against ordinary blue-collar inhabitants.
One additional moderate candidate is the former speaker of the Georgian Parliament during the Saakashvili period, Mr. David Bakradze. Mr. Bakradze belongs to the group that split from Saaakshvili’s UNM and calls itself “European Georgia”. This is the group led by Mr. Giga Bokeria, liberal former deputy foreign minister, who is well regarded as one of the smartest politicians in Georgia. There have been talks in Georgian media that ‘European Georgia” was also paid by Georgia’s leading oligarch and now their financial situation is the best amongst all parties. One group of experts is betting on Mr. Bakradze as next president of Georgia. They note that even though he is from the formal opposition party, he will be a very convenient opposition president for Bidzina Ivanishvili and he will help to consolidate the image of contemporary Georgia ‘as a democratic state’ with divided powers.
Another former speaker of the Parliament, Mr. David Usupashvili, is also running for the Presidency. He is respected for his honesty and high professionalism as a constitutionalist and human rights defender. It should be noted that during Mr. Usupashvili’s chairmanship of the Parliament of Georgia (2012-2016) Georgia had its best human rights record. A number of experts indicate that the current parliamentary leadership is not up to his standard. Mr. Usupashvili is also considered a good dealmaker, although lacks charisma to attract large masses of electors. He also enjoys a good relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili and it is possible that Georgia’s leading figure would bet on him. But, here again, there are many questions unanswered.
There are number of other less significant candidates. There is still time to apply for this job. However, popular perception in Georgia says that the next president of Georgia will be chosen not by the Georgian people, but by Mr. Ivanishvili. The one most pleasing to him, will get the job.
The Georgian-American community and nation of Georgia are deeply grateful to late Senator John McCain for his long-standing and unconditional support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic development of the Republic of Georgia. We mourn the passing of this great American, one of Georgia’s truest friends.
2018 marks two important dates for the country of Georgia. In May, all Georgians, including many Georgian-Americans, commemorated Georgia’s 100th birthday. The modern state of Georgia began its life in 1918 and survived three years (1918-1921) before falling to a Communist invasion and almost seventy years of Soviet oppression. 2018 also marks the 10-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Georgia. On August 8, 2008, Russian forces, some 80,000 strong, swept into Georgia once more. The pretext was that Russia was responding to a Georgian attack on the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. This ignores the context of almost weekly provocations by Russia leading up to August 2008. Today, in violation of the cease-fire agreement agreed upon in 2008, Georgia remains occupied by Russian troops. They are visible from the main highway which connects East and West Georgia, and are located just 40 miles from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. “Temporary” housing built to house Georgians displaced by the war are also visible from the highway. The cease-fire line continues to advance into Georgian territory, as Ossetian irregulars and their Russian backers arbitrarily shift the border further onto Georgian land. This creeping “borderization” deprives Georgian farmers of access to their lands and homes, and leads to provocations, arrests and the murder of Georgian citizens by Russian border guards.
Georgians worldwide are extraordinarily proud of the longevity of their culture and traditions. They have a unique language, are Orthodox Christians, and are dedicated to the preservation of their culture, and their historical connections to the West.
Georgia (Sakartvelo to Georgians) is an ancient land that predated the formation of Rus or Russia. Georgia has survived despite the many invasions and foreign interlopers who have sought to control the strategically placed land which Georgians inhabit. Georgia’s orientation was always westward, and it remains so today. But Georgia is occupied, Russia continues to meddle in its internal affairs, and Georgia’s Western friends are preoccupied. Georgia was the first Ukraine. There should be no concessions to Russia until it observes the conditions of the peace agreement of 2008, which Russia itself signed.
The Georgian Association in the USA believes that Western silence in the face of the ongoing Russian occupation of Georgia will encourage Russia to continue its meddling in the sovereignty of other countries. The United States Congress and European Union should all make plain their opposition to such Russian behavior, which is a threat not only to Georgia and the region, but to global peace.