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Foreign Experts on Georgia’s Presidential Runoff

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To reflect on the second round of Georgia’s Presidential elections, we continue asking:

How do you assess the runoff results and what do you think will be its political consequences in the short and long-term perspectives?

This time, our respondents are six Georgia-watchers – Lincoln Mitchell, Luis Navarro, Donald Jensen, David Kramer, William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz.

Lincoln Mitchell, Political Analyst:

This was a clear, if somewhat unenthusiastic, victory for the Georgian Dream. Zurabishvili’s disappointing showing in the first round raised alarm bells in the Georgian Dream leadership that were met with a much more visible and active second round campaign. Additionally, the government used the time to leverage resources and promises to increase support for the Georgian Dream candidate. Interestingly, after running a very disciplined and smart first round campaign, in the second round Vashadze and the UNM seemed to fall back onto the generic criticism of the Georgian Dream that has helped them lose every election since 2012.

There is a lesson here for both sides. The Georgian Dream must now recognize that their support has weakened. They dodged a political bullet this time, but are still vulnerable to political defeat from a strong opposition force. It should also be said that reports and rumors of election fraud and shenanigans on the part of the Georgian Dream are particularly troubling. The Georgian government must work to make every election more free and fair. That did not seem to be the case this time. For the opposition the lesson is more complicated. The UNM is, for now at least, still the second largest political force in Georgia. That is because there is still a large enough group of Georgians who support the previous government. However, as long as the UNM is so tied to Saakashvili and his government’s misdeeds, they will not win in Georgia. That is a real conundrum. For the UNM, walking away from the former President means very likely ceding their position as the number two force to somebody else, but staying close to Saakashvili means they can never win. Saakashvili himself is a big part of this problem as his need to be the center of attention and his pipe dream of returning to power in Georgia has again sabotaged coordinated opposition efforts. For the Georgian Dream, Saakashvili is the gift that just keeps on giving.

In the longer term, this was a vote for regime stability more than for a particular party or movement.

In the longer term, this was a vote for regime stability more than for a particular party or movement. By electing Zurabishvili, the Georgian people decided that despite their dissatisfaction with the Georgian Dream in many respects, they did not want to upend the political system. Talk of revolution, street actions and the return of Saakashvili did not help Vashadze’s chances. This shows that there is still an opening for a force that is anti-government, but not anti-regime.

I am intrigued by what the Zurabishvili presidency will look like. She will have to again redefine the position and make it an impactful and useful one. However, Zurabishvili is, like many women in politics, often underestimated. She is the kind of President who will work well with western leaders, be an excellent representative for Georgia internationally and has a breadth of experience both inside and outside Georgia.

Lastly, as a Jew I must mention that I was pleased by statements by then candidate Zurabishvili and several Georgian NGOs regarding Saakashvili’s “Jewish swindler” remarks. I only wish that a broader consensus had emerged both inside and outside of Georgia that terms like that have no place in the political life of Georgia-or any country.

Luis Navarro, former Resident Director for NDI Georgia, Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute:

The election of Salome Zurabishvili serves as a landmark in Georgian history by electing a woman President. Her acknowledgement of the need to reach out to those who didn’t vote for her is a positive step towards what Parliament has said is the role of the President, to transcend party politics and represent the nation as a whole.

However, just as Grigol Vashadze’s performance in the first round was in no way a reflection of anything other than a message of discontent directed at Bidzina Ivanishvili, Salome’s victory should in no way be seen as a validation of his continued shadowy rule, which fundamentally undermines Georgian democratic progress, but rather as another and hopefully definitive rejection of Misha Saakashvili. The disgraceful and dangerous attacks by Ivanishvili’s minions upon civil society don’t augur well for Georgia’s future, either in terms of media freedom or judicial independence.

Salome’s victory should in no way be seen as a validation of his continued shadowy rule, which fundamentally undermines Georgian democratic progress, but rather as another and hopefully definitive rejection of Misha Saakashvili.

Bidzina’s Georgian Dream equates any and all criticism outside of Bidzina’s own disingenuous self-commentary as the equivalent of supporting Saakashvili’s United National Movement. By their formulation, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream signals emphatically that they do not accept the legitimacy of the most popular opposition and pro-Western alternatives to their societal vision, which undergirds the systemic highly politicized culture of law enforcement and implicitly empowers an ultra-nationalist strain both within and outside of their government that will impede their avowed goals of joining the European Union and NATO.

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

The second round runoff in the presidential elections was quite negative campaign, marked by hate speech and the high polarization of the media and the electorate. Despite the fact that elections were free, it fell below Georgia’s previous democratic standards. International observers noted the use of “administrative resources” in favor of independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili, undue pressure on voters and intimidation. Moreover, the Government’s promise during the campaign about pardoning the bank loans for 600 000 citizens, in total would worth 1.5 billion Gel, was not in line with democratic standards. For the future it is very important for the government to take into consideration the findings of international observers and in order to fully meet the high democratic standard for the 2020 elections.

Despite the fact that elections were free, it fell below Georgia’s previous democratic standards.

This election campaign also may have negative influence on 2020 parliamentary elections. First, it was mostly oriented on the past and not on future of Georgia; second, there were no political debates between the two candidates. Thus, voters were choosing in favor of a certain candidate but against one they did not support. This polarization and society’s divisions are not in the interest of the state. Political parties should seek to unite the nation and reconsolidate in order to consolidate democracy and counter security threats.

In a democracy it is important to have political pluralism in the parliament and not to have a concentration of power in the hands of one political party. The first round of elections showed that possibility for the future. All the oppositional political parties after the presidential elections agree that it is important to hold the 2020 parliamentary elections with a fully proportional system which ensures that none of the political parties will have the constitutional majority. In this, as in other ways, it is very important after the election for the political parties to reach the agreement about conducting future campaigns within a more democratic framework.

David Kramer, Senior Fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs:

I base my assessment of the runoff elections on the conclusions of the OSCE observation mission. The title of the OSCE statement captured the mixed view: “Candidates campaigned freely in competitive Georgia run-off, though one side enjoyed undue advantage and negative character of campaign undermined process.” Grigol Vashadze, the opposition candidate, has not recognized the results in which Salome Zurabishvili is said to have secured 59.5 percent of the vote compared to his 40.5 percent. He led a protest Sunday in Tbilisi against the election, with former President Mikheil Saakashvili making an appearance via video.

Georgia cannot afford backsliding on democracy or on its Euro-atlantic orientation because it would then be seen as yet another failing state, no different than others.

To be fair, it’s harder these days for an American to criticize the tone and rhetoric in the Georgian election given our own election campaigns that feature very polarized and ugly rhetoric. That said, President-elect Zurabishvili needs to stress the importance of unity and a continued Western orientation for Georgia. The irony is that the election was for a position that has less power than it used to due to constitutional changes; this is also the last time there will be direct election of the president. Still, every election is important, and the president can still set the tone for the country and lead by example. The protestors have every right to demonstrate but must keep their movement peaceful.

Georgia stands out in the region as the lone democratic country amid a sea of authoritarianism and corruption (hopefully Armenia is moving in the more democratic direction after the revolution there). It cannot afford backsliding on democracy or on its Euro-atlantic orientation because it would then be seen as yet another failing state, no different than others.

William Courtney, former US Ambassador to Georgia, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation:

Two worthy candidates competed in the second round of the presidential election. The wide margin of victory, the validation of this margin by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy in an independent parallel count, and the large number of voters, taken together, help explain why the West has seen the election as reflecting the views of a majority of Georgian voters.

One hopes that Georgia will now turn more attention to improving the rule of law and deepening economic reform. Improvements in both areas will help Georgia mobilize more investment, raise standards of living, and further its integration into the West. No economic reform is more important than developing an efficient market for privately-owned agricultural land. Georgia has wisely improved economic ties with Russia and other neighbors, helping to ease political tensions and improve economic conditions. Greater prosperity will make Georgia more resilient to regional and global economic pressures, and open new opportunity for innovation and a more productive economy.

One hopes that Georgia will now turn more attention to improving the rule of law and deepening economic reform.

The development of political parties based on interests rather than personalities will build confidence in the West that Georgia is a strong democracy. In parts of Europe, for example, Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties reflect the interests of broad swaths of the electorate and are not excessively dependent on personalities.

Georgia has made remarkable progress over the last quarter-century of independence. Democratic elections in 1995, the Rose revolution, and more recent competitive elections have been important democratic milestones. These gains lie at the heart of why the West so strongly supports Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders.

Kenneth Yalowitz, former US Ambassador to Georgia, Global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

I was a member of the NDI Leadership Team monitoring the first round of the presidential elections in October and carefully followed the campaign and final vote on November 28. The elections had both positive and negative elements. On both election days, Georgian citizens approached their civic duty with seriousness, knowledge and respect for voting procedures. Electoral officials for the most part were professional and conducted the elections according to CEC regulations. And the official results were mirrored by independent parallel vote tabulations meaning that the will of the people was accurately recorded.

Overall the election can be seen as a step forward but also a strong reminder of the obstacles to be overcome on Georgia’s road to democracy building.

The first round pre-electoral period, however, was marred by the unprecedented, aggressive and personalized attacks by senior officials against the most respected civil society organizations. There were also generalized concerns about judicial independence, threats to media independence and financial well-being, the lack of transparency in government decision-making, and the concentration of power in the ruling party and the role of its leader. The runoff period, unfortunately, was marked by incidents of violence, reports of intimidation and other worrisome practices. Campaign rhetoric grew even more aggressive and hostile with messages of fear and threats of instability. Overall the election can be seen as a step forward but also a strong reminder of the obstacles to be overcome on Georgia’s road to democracy building.

This election reflected the deep polarization and antagonisms between the two main political forces. The large demonstrations being mounted in support of the losing candidate show that feelings are raw and a great deal of work must be done by the new president to bring the country together. Outgoing President Margvelashvili used the office to be a voice for a free, democratic and inclusive Georgia and to rise above partisan bickering. The President-elect needs to do the same thing. The Georgian public is apathetic and unhappy with the country’s direction according to opinion polls and the new team must take steps that give them hope. National unity and resolve behind Georgia’s foreign policy vector aiming at integration with the Euro-Atlantic community will be all the more needed as Russia again demonstrates the willingness to use force in Ukraine.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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