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Georgians Feel “Politically Homeless, Economically Insecure” – Interview with Laura Thornton

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Earlier in September, National Democratic Institute (NDI) – Georgia released the results of its public opinion survey, which, among others, focused on revealing Georgians’ attitudes towards the state of economy and healthcare. The second part of the poll explored Georgians’ attitudes towards political parties, trust towards various institutions and assessments of government performance.

According to the poll, Georgians feel economically insecure and “politically homeless”, yet are hopeful about their country’s healthcare system. Civil Georgia‘s Otto Kobakhidze sat down with National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) Resident Director Laura Thornton to discuss.

Otto Kobakhidze: Starting with the main takeaways: what are the main findings of the recent NDI Poll?

Laura Thornton: For each of our polls – we conduct four a year – we address different thematic issues. In April, we examined public opinion on foreign policy, for example. For this poll, we noted that there is so little publicly-available opinion research about the economy and healthcare, though these are critical issues for Georgians. So we decided to address these two areas.

The main finding is that Georgians do not evaluate the state of economy as good, both for the nation or for their own financial situation. Like in many countries, they hold the government responsible, even if in many cases there are multiple factors driving economic health — global trends, resources, oil prices, etc. People report a strong sense of personal economic insecurity and believe that costs have gone up, they are unable to afford what they could five years ago, and their parents’ generation was better off than they are. And, again, this is felt elsewhere around the globe, and is tapping into something deeper.

Opinion on Georgia’s healthcare is extremely positive. Georgians believe healthcare is accessible, with 90% of people reporting that there is a clinic a short distance from where they live. They believe the quality of healthcare is good, they trust doctors, they are treated with respect and dignity, and have faith in diagnosis and treatment.  Georgians are happy with the country’s universal healthcare system. The only significant complaint — and it is a big one — is the cost of medicine. It is one of the top three costs for households, in fact. That is something that can be addressed and we work closely with the Parliamentary Committee on Healthcare, which is committed to the issue.

On the political side of this poll, we asked about support for political parties and it is not new that Georgians remain “politically homeless.” They do not like their political options and are entering an election year committed to voting but undecided about for whom. This poll also examined public opinion about the events of June 20, because there was a lot of speculation in the public sphere about responsibility for what occurred.

Government related bodies were held responsible by 55% of Georgians for June 20 events. July 2019 NDI Poll.

Highest number of people in decade believe Georgia is going in a wrong direction. Why is that?

I’m presuming it’s about the economy. When we did further analysis testing correlation between the value of Lari and the country’s direction, we found a strong correlation. It isn’t particularly surprising that when the economy is bad, people assess the country as going in the wrong direction, and because people hold the government responsible, ergo, people feel the government is performing badly. They are linked.

And it is likely there are other factors at play as well. As countries develop as democracies, citizens do indeed become more critical and have higher expectations. Countries that are just transitioning to democracy, have just had their first democratic elections, are usually more optimistic. So some Georgians have argued that this “wrong direction” figure is a part of the democratic-aging process. Perhaps the June 20 events also contributed to this gloomy outlook, as conflict does not help people feel particularly secure.

NDI polls show for a decade now that top national issues are economy-related, along with a territorial integrity problem. These issues of unemployment, jobs, wages, inflation have not changed for a decade. Yet, we hardly ever see them discussed in Georgian media and public, we barely see politicians addressing those issues. What is your take on that?

 I have been saying this repeatedly, as we work closely with politicians and parties. With all these undecided voters, the party that gets out there, meets with citizens, saying “this is my plan to improve the pension system, this is my plan to work on unemployment, lower drug costs,” etc. – would be successful. It is frustrating to parties and politicians as well, however. Even if they are trying to talk about those issues, it can get drowned out in the media. It is hard for politicians to break through with a positive message and policies because it is often not covered. So it is a vicious cycle.  I have personally experienced this – even as I am trying to talk about economy and healthcare findings from our polling, some journalists are not interested in this. Folks want controversy, drama, and conflicts. This is not true for citizens, who just really what to hear what you will do to make their lives better, to improve their households, and provide a better future for their children. This is true most everywhere.

Top national issues for Georgians remain the same since 2009.

Politicians need to get out more to the field and describe their positive message, and it will pay off. Take the 2018 congressional elections in the United States. Democrats won back the House, not by talking about the impeachment of President Trump, which is a political controversy and a legitimate concern, but about talking about providing affordable healthcare. Positive messages, policies, plans are winning tickets, even if there are temptations to go negative.

You have just coined a term of “politically homeless”.  I would argue that there are lots of opportunities in Georgia for new political forces. How do you think, would recently emerged new forces change political scene and affect future of Georgian political landscape?

This is more of a question that I ask Georgians myself. Georgians are politically homeless, they pretty much do not like the main political parties – Georgian Dream and United National Movement – according to our research. In our focus groups, respondents all have said they want something different, new faces, alternatives. But actually there are alternatives. There are many political parties in Georgia. I disagree with my colleagues who say that parties do not have ideologies [in Georgia]. That is not true. You have democratic socialists, you have got populist options, you have got more libertarian options like “Girchi,” you have got [Grigol] Gegelia’s group which leans socialist democrat, you have populists like Labor, or some might argue Aleko [Elisashvili], you have now a movement of businesspeople and technocrats. There are all these options. So, why people never vote for them? Maybe it is strategic decision making? Maybe they fear that if they vote one of the smaller parties it means they are throwing their vote away or inadvertently causing the party they like least to win? I am not sure.

So, yes, there is a huge opportunity, but it appears difficult for new parties to break that two party stranglehold we have. The two leading parties have successfully sucked up all the oxygen and media coverage, shaping any campaign into a two-way contest. The playing field also isn’t exactly even in Georgia, with GD having the lion’s share of resources, which makes it hard for other parties to get their voices heard. However, 2020 [Parliamentary Elections] will be fully proportional with a zero threshold. Likely we are going to see more parties.

Why do you think did Georgian Dream decide having zero threshold for 2020 polls? How do you see this decision affecting and changing Georgian political landscape, its parliament and democracy?

I would like to be positive about the possibility of all these new players. Of course, critics would say some of the parties will be satellite, and that could be true. With more parties in parliament, there will be more politics and I do not think it is a bad thing. You will see parties coming together and forming factions, you will see more deal-making, a little bit more politicking, consolidation, and compromises. Parties will have to come together because in 2024 they will face threshold again. It will change politics and be very interesting.

We see in NDI polls that Georgians’ trust towards certain institutions is declining. Institution that enjoys highest trust is the Orthodox Church, which is not a state one. Is mistrust (distrust) becoming a characteristic to Georgian democracy and Georgian politics? Why are Georgians so overly suspicious of their institutions?

There are some institutions that are positively assessed, not just the [Georgian Orthodox] Church, but the army and public service halls. You see a slight decline in trust towards police. Others are more pronounced, like decreasing approval for parliament and courts. There are things you can do to improve trust in both, courts and justice, and also the performance of parliament.

It might be again going back to cynicism overall. Not just in Georgia, but all over the world democracy is seen as not delivering. People do not feel they are economically well off, they don’t feel like their government represents them, they do not feel legislators are passing laws that benefit their families, they are getting frustrated with the whole experiment of democracy, and that’s the most dangerous thing we need to think about.

When people start to distrust government and believe it is not helping them in their lives, then a vacuum has been created and Georgia becomes vulnerable to other forces.

What would be your recommendations to the government? What would you recommend to the opposition parties?

In a way it is the same for government or opposition. I would not say they are not doing this already, but there needs to be, as I’ve said already, more outreach to citizens, communicating with them, listening to them, travelling around the country, holding meetings and talking about things they care about. It is not rocket science, but it’s difficult to do. A lot of politicians are indeed doing this but it needs to be multiplied by a million. People need to feel they are heard. They need solutions, constructive politics, debates on policies, contrasting ideas, they need to hear about distinctions and nuances between solutions. Messages should be solution-focused. That does not mean empty promises, like “I am going to wipe out poverty.” But realistic proposals. Georgian citizens are smart and they know that these problems are not solved overnight. You don’t need to insult their intelligence. You can say this is a tough problem and tell them about steps you will take, present them a modest program that you would accomplish. People would appreciate honesty. That would be my advice to everyone.

On the government side with June 20 events – it is important in all cases that Georgians are confident that justice is delivered. And it is important and encouraging that the government is investigating the violence on June 20. This also applies to other cases, and NDI has made recommendations about election violence, for example.

I hope the next parliament – because we are moving to a fully national proportional system –is not distanced even further from the people. NDI does not promote a majoritarian system, or any particular electoral system, but it is important that geographical regions, minority regions feel that they are not cut out of the legislative body. The majoritarian system perhaps has flaws, but at least there is someone representing geographical areas and concerns. Right now, mostly it is majoritarian MPs and their bureaus that are doing that critical constituent work, casework, public meetings.  I hope the next parliament takes proactive steps to ensure that the representative function of parliament is not lost.

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