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Presidentials: Expert Assessments in Washington D.C.

On October 28, Georgian citizens will head to polls to elect their fifth president for a six-year term. This will be the last time that the head of state will be elected through direct ballot.

Voice of America’s Ani Chkhikvadze has asked Donald Jensen, Kenneth Yalowitz and William Courtney to comment on the upcoming polls, asking them to assess the pre-election environment and the potential impact of elections on the state of Georgian democracy.

Donald Jensen, Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis

Firstly, let me note that this election will be the last one where the president is elected by the voters directly. With the new constitution, there will be a new model: the president will be elected by 300 people, not directly by popular vote. Thus, in terms of strengthening the people’s trust this is an important election. It can be said that it is also a very significant one because voters will be picking someone – for the last time – who has the legitimacy of having been directly supported by the people. That ruling party is considering supporting an independent candidate rather than one of their own members is not a particularly healthy thing. The ruling party has a responsibility toward its voters and many people would not understand why they are doing this. At the moment, the Georgian Dream is divided on the subject and there are discussions that the party leader can still change his mind and nominate a candidate from GD.

In general, the statements of the Georgian Dream leaders on this issue have weakened the institution of president. There is a big gap between the population’s expectations and political party ability to satisfy them, as shown by recent NDI and IRI public opinion polls. This is a problem that is very important to overcome by the next parliamentary elections. Of course, the presidential election is also a good test. The level of popular frustration is very high, according to the polls. That is a threat to the future of democracy as well. Current changes in the cabinet, and the return of Bidzina ivanishvili as GD party chairman suggest there is a crisis. Lastly, I think Georgia needs a president who can observe and strengthen the checks and balances in the constitution, promote democracy and western values and eventual membership in NATO and the EU. Elections should be fair and free and people should trust in institutions. Weak institutions create vulnerabilities which outside forces can use against the country.

Kenneth Yalowitz, Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The constitution has been changed, the president no longer has the same powers as the current president does. The next president will still be the head of the Armed Forces, but cannot declare war without the permission of the parliament. You are moving towards parliamentary system more and more. In countries like this, like Germany and Israel, presidents are above party politics and this is what I would like to see. Current president, who is a friend, President Giorgi Margvelashvili, is obviously from a party, but in his term in office he has reasoned above party politics.

I am less concerned about the party than I am to have a person who has a prestige and standing as a wise person, who is above partisan politics, who can speak for Georgia as a whole and who can talk about morals, principles and higher parts of Georgian life and not get mired in the partisan conflict. Yes, the president has diminished powers, but it is what we call a bully pulpit, it is a strong place to articulate ideas, principles and proposals. It is an important job. The presidents might not always agree with the head of the government and they rise above the partisan politics, which is what I would like to see.

William Courtney, Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and a Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation

This election is unusual. Constitutional changes have diminished the presidency, even though the incumbent has earned wide respect. Not long ago, the well-regarded prime minister unexpectedly resigned. A shadowy wealthy donor continues to exercise disproportionate political influence. Another concern is that political parties are still built around personalities rather than ideas and interests, as in advanced democracies. As a result, consolidation of parties into a smaller number is impeded. Consolidation would clarify choices for voters and increase parties’ resilience and lifespan.

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