(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.After presidental elections on 28 November, Salome Zurabishvili became the fifth president of Georgia. The independent candidate, who was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, received the support of nearly 60% of the electorate in the second round of voting.
This high a margin of victory for Zurabishvili was no doubt a surprise for Georgia’s opposition. Grigol Vashadze, the opposition candidate in the second round, has declared that he doesn’t accept the election results. He stated that the election results had been falsified, with the Georgian government bribing a huge portion of the voters.
Salome the winner
According to Georgia’s Central Election Commission, 59.52% of the Georgian electorate voted for Salome Zurabishvili, and 40.48% for Grigol Vashadze. Turnout in the second round was close to 10% higher than in the first round of voting, and came to 56,23 %.
After voting finished, the two main television stations — Imedi (pro-government) and Rustavi 2 (pro-opposition) — issued their exit polls, which indicated victory for Salome Zurabishvili. Commenting on them, Vashadze said that he would wait for the official voting results. However, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains a driving force in Georgia’s United National Movement despite living outside of the country for the past five years, called on Georgians to come out onto the streets in protest against electoral falsifications. Saakashvili claimed that the government had bought voters, and had permitted beatings and persecution of opposition activists. Initially, Grigol Vashadze distanced himself from Saakashvili’s words, stating that he would make a decision concerning his next steps the following day, after consultations with his supporters.
It might have seemed as if Vashaze, the candidate of the United Opposition - United National Movement, would concede his loss and choose the so-called “opposition long march” scenario, i.e. peaceful preparations for parliamentary elections in 2020. Yet the next day, Vashadze announced that he didn’t recognise the results of the presidential election, which, in his assessment, had been subject to falsifications. Additionally, Vashadze demanded that early parliamentary elections be called, and declared that a huge demonstration would take place in Tbilisi on Sunday against election falsification.
Meanwhile, Georgian Dream’s leader Bidzina Ivanishvili thanked his supporters for backing Zurabishvili. The winner herself addressed her opponents with a conciliatory message, emphasising that Georgia is a small country whose society must be united. Zurabishvili was congratulated by the outgoing president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who at the same time expressed his concern with what he saw as a considerable lowering of democratic standards during the presidential elections. Margvelashvili stressed that this is a bad direction on Georgia’s democratic path.
Similar tones were struck by the OSCE international observation mission to the elections in Georgia, which wrote in its initial published report that candidates were able to conduct a campaign in a competitive and unrestricted manner, yet underscored that it was also incredibly polarised, full of aggression and attacks on opponents, as well as uneven — the government deployed “administrative resources” in its support of Zurabishvili.
Saakashvili must go
The reasons for such an unexpectedly high margin of victory for Salome Zurabishvili over Grigol Vashadze are several.
What won, first of all, was that a large portion of Georgian citizens still fear a UNM return to power. This anxiety was effectively fueled by Georgian Dream, who reminded the public of the persecution of the opposition, violations of human rights and other abuses under Mikheil Saakashvili’s governments. Secondly, the ruling party tried to force public sector workers to vote for Zurabishvili, threatening them with the loss of their jobs if they didn’t. Moreover, cases of voters being paid off were noted. It was reported that around 20-30 lari was paid for a vote for Zurabishvili. Finally, the government administration was utilised in support of the favored candidate. Such practices also took place under the United National Movement.
Additionally, before the second round of voting, Georgian Dream promised to annul debts of up 2,000 lari for roughly 600,000 Georgians, who were unable to pay off their bank loans. In Georgia, many people live in punishing debt. These are often loans for food, clothing and other products of primary need. The necessity of taking them is the result of many Georgians’ low incomes, or lack thereof. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s billionaire backer, announced that he would finance this gift out of his own assets, through the Cartu foundation.
Former president Saakashvili also contributed to his party’s defeat. Instead of laying low and ceding the stage to his candidate, Saakashvili displayed excessive activity in the media several days before the second round of voting, threatening to bring his supporters onto the streets in the case of a loss for Vashadze. This may have aroused concerns in his opponents that a Vashadze victory would lead to a “destabilisation of the situation” in the country, and raise the threat of a new revolution — a repeat of the scenario from 2003. Indeed, this concern was amplified by the message of Georgian Dream, whose leaders warned against the opposition’s political disorderliness.
However, Salome Zurabishvili’s victory isn’t a stunning success for Georgian Dream. The true barometer of social moods were the results of the firsts round of voting, in which Zurabishvili received only one percent more votes than Vashadze. Many Georgian citizens are tired of Georgian Dream governments and their failure to fulfill campaign promises concerning economic and social issues. The ruling party is going to have to fundamentally reshape their politics, if it wants to remain at the nation’s helm after 2020.
If the opposition wants to achieve success two years from now, it will have to get rid of Mikheil Saakashvili. Misha’s negative political legacy is incredibly repellent to a vast majority of Georgians. The single reason that some of them voted for Zurabishvili, despite their dissatisfaction with Georgian Dream, was to prevent Saakashvili’s return to Georgia. In the case of a Vashadze victory, Saakashvili would have been pardoned by the new president. Saakashvili himself declared that he has no desire to fulfill any official functions in the country, but there were few who believe his assurances. Beyond that, no formal titles would be necessary for him to wield true power. He could govern Georgia from the back seat, just like Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The majority of Georgian citizens have sincerely had enough of both political camps. In recent weeks, there have been media reports about plans for the establishment of a new political party, called Law and Justice. One of its future leaders is rumoured to be Aleko Elisashvili, the centrist and independent candidate for mayor of Tbilisi during the 2017 city election. Elisashvili took second place in the elections, with 17.5% of the vote. The new energy could certainly bring the burst of fresh air into Georgian politics that so many await.