Chasing Two Hares: Tbilisi Runoff Turns Social

Election banners that appeared in Tbilisi streets on October 18 took capital city residents by surprise.

“Free meals in Tbilisi’s public schools,” reads the banner of Nika Melia, chairman and Tbilisi mayoral candidate of the United National Movement, the major opposition party. The party also placed other similar ads speaking to different age groups such as the elderly or university students.

Throughout the 2021 municipal election campaign, Georgians grew accustomed to polarizing political messages instead of parties focusing on local issues. This was particularly true for the UNM, which faced criticism for sidelining the local campaign for a so-called “referendum” – an attempt to force fresh general elections by mobilizing voters to cast their ballots against the Georgian Dream, so that it failed to cross a (rather arbitrary) 43% threshold, foreseen by the April 19 agreement. There is no surprise that the ruling Georgian Dream was among the fiercest critics of this tactic.

A sudden change of tack by UNM by focusing on a specific local issue seemed unexpected for the ruling party candidate as well. The incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladze tried to dismiss it out of hand.

He called the promise “a very big lie”: “Mister Melia has not even figured out that schools are not under the municipal control,” he said, arguing that the matter of free meals is “the business of the Ministry of Education.”

But UNM message did mark a turning point. In the first round campaign, it was the Georgian Dream taking pride in offering “specific visions” for the capital city development, and UNM betting on national mobilization. But as Mr. Melia turned to specific issues – undoubtedly buoyed by the massive rally of UNM supporters in Tbilisi – the ruling party, sensing its weakness, tries to mobilize its core supporters with promises of “finishing off” the UNM, talking about its past sins. Smiling and debonaire Mr. Kaladze of the first-round election posters was replaced by trim and stern image for the second.

Yet, the opposition challenge could not be left without a response. Two days later, on October 20, Kaladze unveiled a “new program” offering the socially vulnerable pensioners living in Tbilisi GEL 500 vouchers to buy necessary medications, with an estimated total cost of GEL 20 mln. Pricey medications – over-the-counter and prescription drugs in Georgia that cost significantly more than in neighboring countries – have been hitting Georgians on the wallet for quite some time. Despite the authorities’ promises to deal with it, the problem persists.

Mind the gap: do policies mature?

Melia’s banner may have brought the children’s nutrition issue to the forefront of the debate and to primetime TV, but the concern has been brewing in the research and activist community for quite some time.

A study published this year by Consultation and Training Center, a local think tank, cited “significant discrepancies” in school performance across children from families with different socio-economic statuses. It also referred to local and international research, saying that pupils coming to school undernourished has “a direct impact in terms of low literacy performance among students.”

Data: “Students Arrive at School Feeling Tired or Hungry” in Georgia from studies of Progress In International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2016) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2019), International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)

In a September article published on under the Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, Tata Burduli, Senior Researcher at GeoWel Research, wrote that despite “tremendous improvements in recent years” in the Georgian school system, schoolchildren’s nutrition remained the one area “where reforms have been seriously lacking.”

“Almost three-quarters of Georgian schools do not have cafeterias, forcing children to either bring food from home or purchase often low-quality food in shops. For children from poor families, this can often mean going hungry,” the article reads.

The activists from Khma (Voice), a movement advocating for social issues in Georgia, brought the matter to a wider public by starting the campaign “My schoolmate is hungry” on October 14, calling for free meals in schools. As this article was being written, up to two thousand parents had joined a Facebook group created for this purpose.

Georgian politics has long been accused of being high on ego and thin on policies. The election programs – if they exist – are superficial and based on wishful thinking, rather than evidence-based and budgeted. Perhaps, the UNM’s new proposal represents a turning point, where research and activism start to feed into politics?

At least Khma activists are skeptical, pointing to UNM’s own past policies of privatization in education – including at the level of schools and kindergartens – creating a parallel universe for better-off children while leaving their worse-off mates behind. They say this is “an upside-down state” when political forces suddenly start to promote policies that are the opposite of what they have been pursuing in the past. Yet, there is some reluctant optimism: Khma noted that “major, day-to-day problems appearing in the discourse and promises of the political class tells us that our joint efforts are productive.”

There’s a will, there’s a way?

From the first day the ads were placed in Tbilisi streets, the issue has been subjected to political, ideological, and technical debate, but – a rare feat in Georgian politics – this debate has been about policy approaches and budgets.

The ruling party chair Irakli Kobakhidze questioned the prospects of allocating necessary funds in the amount of hundreds of millions from the city budget so that other crucial programs do not suffer.

Tbilisi’s draft 2021 budget foresees GEL 922 mln. (USD 300 mln.) in expenses. Out of this, about GEL 160 mln. is slated for social programs, GEL 337 mln. has been allocated for “subsidies” and about GEL 200 mln. is intended for “other expenses.”

From a legal perspective, experts note that despite schools being Ministry’s business, nothing prevents the municipality from rolling out the targeted social support initiative: through meal vouchers and the like, which could meet its promise. The two real problems are where to find the money, and whether the GD would vote to allocate the budget for it in the municipal assembly, where it would hold a comfortable majority.

Presenting his shadow coalition cabinet late on October 20, Nika Melia said he was conflicted about “starting to build roads, while knowing so many children are hungry and failing to extend them helping hands, at least during a transitional phase.”

He estimated the cost of feeding “180,000” Tbilisi pupils at GEL 80 mln., arguing the implementation will be possible through “eliminating corruption schemes and general and political optimization.” However, other expensive promises such as offering GEL 100 pension subsidies to retirees will make the mission more challenging.

Melia admitted the decision came after heated discussions with coalition partners holding more economically libertarian ideas, such as Girchi – More Freedom. This party, along with its splinter New Political Center – Girchi, has always been a fierce opponent of state spending on social issues.

Others question whether the initiative is discriminatory if it is launched only in the capital city. The relevant studies also point to stark geographical discrepancies in student performance.

Still, many, including those not necessarily favoring the UNM ideas, are happy the issue has landed on the campaign agenda, and suggest legal and financial means can be found once there is a will to address the problem.

Willingly or not, the ruling party’s campaign now faces the pressure to jump on the bandwagon.

But it is unclear whether they will be able to catch either of the two hares. Following the arrest of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, UNMs founder and leader, the ruling party’s strategy has re-centered around an aggressive negative campaign to “end the UNM.”

As Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili noted, his intention was “to calm the country down,” which has been tired by “too many elections.” Garibashvili promises that only after UNM is dead as the political force, GD could get on with tackling real issues. After nine years in government, that promise rings hollow. Dragging Tbilisi incumbent Mayor Kaladze into this campaign – perhaps against his own best instincts – may yet backfire.

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