A Unique Choice
The 2018 presidential election in Georgia was unique and special for several reasons. First, the Georgian public elected their latest (fifth) president through the direct vote for the last time; after the inauguration, a new constitution will enter into force under which the president will be elected by an electoral college. Second, in order to synchronise the presidential term with the parliamentary electoral cycle, the fifth president was elected for a six-year term instead of the previous five. Furthermore, Georgia elected its first woman president through (also for the first time) a run-off. But most important, these elections were special because the race between the frontrunners was so tight that, for the first time, even insiders couldn’t predict the result. Until the very last moment, any outcome was possible.
The Mystery of Numbers
According to the final count, Salome Zurabishvili, an independent candidate backed by the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), became the fifth president of Georgia by gaining 1,147,701 votes (59%) in the second round.1 Her rival in that round, the United National Movement (UNM) candidate Grigol Vashadze, ended up receiving 780,680 votes (40%) on behalf of the united opposition coalition. Notably, in a neck-to-neck race in the first round, Ms Zurabishvili received 615,572 votes (38.6%) against Mr Vashadze’s 601,224 (37.7%). In the first round, total turnout was 1,637,956 voters (47%), while in the second the number increased to 1,921,260. This means that 283,304 more voters showed up for the second round. For some reason, Ms Zurabishvili received 532,129 more votes, almost doubling her vote in the first round. What was the reason for this unprecedented boost?
Obviously, it is hard to identify the pattern of how exactly the votes that went to other candidates in the first round were distributed between Ms Zurabishvili and Mr Vashadze in the second. However, it is notable that other presidential candidates who together received around 20% of the vote represented the opposition and none of these supported Ms Zurabishvili. This includes David Bakradze, the candidate who gained 11% of the vote and openly called upon his supporters to vote for Mr Vashadze. Thus, it is less likely that these voters would have supported Ms Zurabishvili. So, what happened between the first and second rounds?
A Fight with No Rules
After the unfavourable outcome of the first round, the ruling party, chaired by Bidzina Ivanishvili, launched an uncompromising election campaign for the second, adopting a “do all it takes” approach. Images of the GD leaders, among them Mr Ivanishvili and the speaker of the parliament, appeared on billboards all over Georgia next to Ms Zurabishvili’s name.
These developments unfolded in a context in which GD claimed, from the outset, that the party would not nominate its presidential candidate because it was convinced that the government candidate would be unopposed. GD claimed that this would avoid the further concentration of power under the same party, which already controlled all levers of power in the country. In contrast to this narrative, Georgia ended up with an independent presidential candidate with the full political, financial and administrative support of the ruling party. As if to prove this oxymoron, the election of the country’s first female president was announced by five male leaders of the GD, with no sign of Madam President herself, who was also noticeably absent from much of the campaign for the second round.
Another game-changer between the rounds was GD’s announcement that it intended to write off the debts of 600,000 people who had been blacklisted by various commercial banks. The total amount of the loans, to be handled by Ivanishvili’s Cartu Foundation by the end of 2018, amounted to 1.5 billion lari (about 560 million US dollars). Many internal and external observers and political commentators considered calling out this promise—coming as it did between the two election rounds—as attempted vote- buying and election rigging.
The pre-election environment was so tense that everyone in Georgia was feeling the pressure. The political polarisation reached its peak just before the second round. The campaigns of both candidates were mostly free of substance and were mainly constructed on discrimination against and delegitimisation of their adversary. Personal insults were common practice on both sides, who called each other names, brought up “past sins” and accused each other of such things as being a Russian agent. Openly attacking the media and civil society also became standard practice. The statement by the speaker of parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, referring to the opposition and NGOs as fascists is one of the most memorable examples of the aggressive rhetoric adopted as part of the campaign.2 Such stances contributed to the societal crisis and resulted in most people voting against a given candidate rather than for one.
A constant flow of information about various types of voter intimidation and abuse of administrative resources further contributed to the unprecedented polarisation in every domain of the country’s life. The media were competing to discredit the candidates based on their broadcasting policies and political leanings. The two largest media stations—the pro-opposition Rustavi 2 and the pro-government Imedi—regularly leaked secret recordings containing allegations by both sides of corruption, violation of human rights, shady deals and clan rule.3
Besides many concerns reflected in the reports of international observer organisations, the overall assessment highlighted an unfortunate step back in Georgia’s own standards of conducting elections.4 On the one hand, the US Department of State shared the assessment by the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission that the run-off was competitive and that candidates were able to campaign freely. On the other, it was clearly stated that shortcomings registered by the watchdogs were not consistent with Georgia’s commitment to completely fair and transparent elections.5
A Representative, Ceremonial and Controversial President
The duties and responsibilities of the president of Georgia have been gradually transferred to other branches of government over recent years. Georgia moved from a strong presidential model to a mixed government model in 2012. The new constitution entering into force following the inauguration of the fifth president will further peel functions away from the president and will establish fully fledged parliamentary rule.
In addition to the diminished role, the president’s resources have also been significantly reduced after the elections. The presidential reserve fund has been abolished altogether and the presidential administration’s budget has been cut almost in half to six million lari. The number of staff working for the presidential administration has plunged from 140 to 60.
In the current context, one of the main functions of the president will be to balance power, especially during a political crisis. In wartime, the president will still perform the duties of supreme commander of the armed forces. However, the National Security Council—which among other roles was meant to prepare the president for this duty—has been removed under the new constitution.
The key function of the president will be to represent the country on the foreign stage, which sounds logical given Ms Zurabishvili’s background as a French diplomat and former Georgian foreign minister. It is hard to judge what will be the president’s foreign- and security-policy priorities based on her election campaign, but her programme clearly supports Georgia’s integration into the EU and NATO.6 In support of the country’s existing Western course, the president-elect announced that her first visit would be to Europe, primarily in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and the Baltic states.7
A declared goal of the president-elect is to unite the polarised society and be “everyone’s president”. However, so far her statements blaming the previous Georgian government for starting the war in August 2008 have instead only widened the gap in Georgia’s divided society. As for indications of her possible stance on Russia, Ms Zurabishvili pointed out in a recent interview with the BBC that, given Moscow’s current behaviour towards Ukraine, she didn’t think it would currently be possible to move to co-operation with Russia.8
There are clearly more questions than answers surrounding the election of Georgia’s fifth president, whose inauguration is scheduled for 16 December (although the venue of the ceremony has still to be decided). Given the level of enthusiasm, political capital and financial resources that the GD invested in Ms Zurabishvili’s victory, we must just wait and see how much autonomy she will be able to maintain over the six years of her term.