The Georgian Public Broadcaster has hosted a two and a half hours long debate between the 16 Tbilisi mayoral hopefuls running for the October 2 local elections, the very first in this years’ campaign period.
The slow-paced debate was divided up in four parts, with the candidates delivering their introductions, asking one question to one of their competitors, then elaborating on their own plans if elected, followed by a final address to their voters.
Only fifteen of the candidates debated, however, as Nika Melia of the United National Movement quit after delivering his introductory statement, slamming the debate format and refusing to share the stage with “endlessly corrupted” incumbent Mayor Kakha Kaladze.
Below are some of the key highlights from the debates:
Incumbent Mayor Kakha Kaladze highlighted that he has a vision for the city, and listed his 6-point campaign plan for the city, which includes urban, environment, transport, healthcare, education, culture, sports and youth and infrastructure policies.
Nika Melia, the candidate of the largest opposition party United National Movement, slammed the GPB’s format. He accused Mayor Kaladze and the Georgian Dream leaders of being “immoral” and “corrupted,” and quit, noting he cannot share the stage with “corrupted” Kaladze.
Ex-Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, now For Georgia’s mayoral hopeful, also voiced dissatisfaction over the debate format. Albeit criticizing what he called the lack of fair and free pre-election environment, Gakharia voiced his optimism that electing the Tbilisi Mayor will mark the beginning of change throughout the country.
Giorgi Lomia, of the Kremlin-friendly Alliance of Patriots was another candidate that slammed the pre-election environment as unfair.
Meanwhile, some of the opposition candidates criticized both the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, arch rivals, in their addresses. Ana Bibilashvili of Lelo alluded to the two parties forgetting the needs of the people. “I am the only candidate whose profession is the city and its needs,” said meanwhile Bibilashvili, architect and an urbanist by profession.
Third Force mayoral hopeful Tamar Kekenadze also stressed the need to end the polarization between the GD and the UNM. Besides she named jobs, increasing the average salary and assisting small and medium enterprises as her key priorities.
Anna Dolidze, For People party leader meanwhile cited revered Georgian writer Vazha-Pshavela’s work, called on the candidates to respect their opponents. Noting she was born and raised in the capital, Dolidze argued Tbilisi has seen both better and worse days. But now, according to Dolidze, Tbilisi has no identity, something that could change with her election.
The candidates’ questions towards one another largely aimed at Kakha Kaladze, incumbent Mayor, and Giorgi Gakharia, a longtime GD official up until February when he quit as the Prime Minister.
Labor party candidate Mikheil Kumsishvili, who spoke against “elitism” throughout the debate, argued the incumbent Kaladze is not in touch with the lives of ordinary Tbilisites. Kumsishvili argued that 40 thousand socially vulnerable people are being fed with food portions worth GEL 1.18, bringing out a jar half-filled with food, supposedly brought from one of the state-funded free-meal restaurants.
He tried to put the jar on the incumbent mayor’s podium, but after resistance from Mayor Kaladze, the jar fell down. “This is how Mr Kakha Kaladze treats Tbilisi’s population,” Kumsishvili reacted. In response to Kumsishvili, Kaladze stressed that the necessary portions are calculated precisely by experts, but acknowledged improvements are needed.
Lelo candidate Ana Bibilashvili’s question spurred cheerful remarks and laughs among the candidates, as she asked Mayor Kaladze to pinpoint the difference between him and Gakharia, his former teammate. The incumbent Mayor pointed out in response that Gakharia is thinner than him, dismissing the question.
Gakharia also addressed a question to Kaladze, wondering if he shares the Georgian Dream leaders’ allegations about the ex-PM being a “traitor,” a drug addict and of having ties with ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The GD candidate retorted that “nobody accused Giorgi Gakharia of being a drug addict.” But he refused to go into details about his former teammate. “I always try my best to be reserved when the question arises regarding Giorgi Gakharia,” Kaladze went on, adding: “In the first place, I am a man, then a politician.”
Giorgi Kutateladze of Sakartvelo (Georgia) party asked ex-PM Gakharia a question about the solution for the controversial Namakhvani HPP project, claiming “Turkish red flag is flying in a picturesque Rioni River ravine,” and that “Mr Gakharia and his team handed over these lands to Turkey.” In response, Gakharia called “handover of lands to Turkey” an ordinary lie, noting the lands are on lease and that he served as Interior Minister, not as PM, when the terms with the investor were agreed.
Dolidze opted not to ask a question but instead brought out a paper she said showed that Gakharia, during his premiership, had signed a decree on “transferring” state-owned lands to the Namakhvani HPP project investor in November 2019. “It would be good if the voters could find out who is right and who is in the wrong,” she said, alluding to Gakharia’s earlier remarks.
Plans, Summary Statements
In the second half of the debate, the candidates were allowed to elaborate on their visions for Tbilisi if elected mayor, and then address their voters. The mayoral candidates reiterated much of the same promises and talking points discussed earlier through the debates, most of which concerned development priorities for the capital and overcoming polarization in Georgian politics.
Incumbent Mayor Kaladze promised he will be “everyone’s mayor” if elected. “No differing political views will exist for us,” Kaladze said, adding he considers Tbilisi should be developed in a way that “will allow everyone to live together in our city.”
Gakharia said Tbilisi budget must be allocated equally between its districts. He argued Tbilisi City hall should beware of carrying out wide-scale and innovative projects in certain districts, until needs for the basic infrastructure and services are met in all of Tbilisi’s neighborhoods.
Labor party’s candidate vowed to overhaul the system for providing free meals to those in poverty. He said he would instead introduce food talons. Kumsishvili said he also has innovative plans on introducing solar panels to generate electricity for Tbilisi.
In their summary statements, candidates of the relatively bigger and better-known opposition parties stressed the need for electing new figures and candidates of neither the GD nor the UNM. Third Force’s candidate Kekenadze said the development of the country and overcoming bipolarity between the two arch rivals – GD and UNM – is only possible through voting for fresh faces.
Dolidze said Georgians stand a chance to achieve change with the upcoming October 2 local polls if they vote in new powers, to “demolish the system” of alleged corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency in governance.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)