Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Voter Apathy in Georgia’s Presidential Election
Voter Apathy in Georgia’s Presidential Election

Voter Apathy in Georgia’s Presidential Election

On October 28, Georgia held a presidential election that is now set to have a runoff. The Georgian Dream (GD), the governing party, supported independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili, who received 38.63% of the vote, while the United National Movement’s (UNM) Grigol Vashadze received 37.74%. With the 15,000 vote difference, the battle looks to be very tight, something that the GD was not hoping for.

The Candidates

A number of candidates, many with experience in foreign relations, ran for the Georgian presidency. In an unusual move, the ruling party decided to back Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born diplomat, a former French ambassador, and the former Foreign Minister of Georgia. The UNM also made a bet on a career diplomat (including USSR service) with former Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze. Meanwhile, another branch of the opposition, comprised of former members of the UNM, opted for a former Speaker of the Parliament, one-time Foreign Minister, and physicist David Bakradze. David Usupashvili, a lawyer, former Speaker of the Parliament, and former leader of the Republican Party ran as a leader of a newly established “Movement for Development.” Zurab Japaridze (former UNM member) of Girchi movement ran on the platform of drug legalization and more freedom for youth, hoping to get their support.

Even though many candidates ran for the position, the political narrative was divided between the UNM and the GD as they upheld a hostile discourse emphasizing each other’s vices. The campaign was about the pursuit of zealots and extremes offering the choice between the UNM’s “nine years”—nine years of human rights violations and terror—and the GD’s policy of relative tolerance and fairness. Despite the foreign policy background of the candidates, their vision of Georgia’s international position was weak.

Zurabishvili’s statements about the 2008 war with Russia went beyond the criticism. The former Foreign Minister said Georgia attacked its own population in South Ossetia and shelled Tskhinvali. Her accusations that former President Mikheil Saakashvili provoked Russia were music for the Kremlin’s ears and jeopardized Georgia’s international reputation. A passage from her book caused controversy as she blamed Georgia in its preparations for the war. At the same time, she wished to depict herself as a president who could lobby the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for Georgia’s full integration. Vashadze and Bakradze did not offer any loud statements, but promised to pardon President Saakashvili (convicted for abuse of power in absentia), former Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili (who is sentenced to six and a half years on charges of abuse and ordering the beating of former MP Gelashvili), and former Defence Minister and “hitman” of the UNM government Bacho Akhalaia (who is charged for beating prisoners and a ordering mass shooting). Yet, the UNM thinks the charges are political and demands their release. The manifestos of the candidates were shallow and consisted of populist declarations and platitudes. In other words, Georgian society was not offered anything tangible to tackle the challenges that the country faces.

The Issues

There are four immediate issues that plague Georgia’s development: lack of institutional development, fragile rule of law, economic inequality, and weak political pluralism. These problems require a complex response, and none of them received appropriate attention from the candidates. Instead of offering new ideas and concepts that could help Georgia enter the next phase of its democratic development, the main candidates have performed a showdown of tapes, “kompromats,” and defamation. The campaign was largely focused on proving each other unsuitable for the job, rather than emphasizing the aptitudes and faculties they could bring to the position. By focusing on the negative aspect of the other candidates, the parties did not or could not engage in an open dialogue with the electorate. In fact, the public who had to make the judgement was left out of the political deliberation altogether because the debate was about tapes rather than the social, political, or economic issues concerning the electorate. The electorate condemned the vile campaign as they ignored the messages suffused with radicalism and fear. People did not vote for the ruling party as they were expected; instead, they forced the need for a runoff.

To refer to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce—and that is what has taken place in Georgia. The tapes of massive abuse of power across the prisons in Georgia helped the GD to defeat the UNM in 2012, but in 2018 the same method did not bring the desired results. It backfired, further alienated the electorate, and caused voter apathy (turnout 46%). The public, tired of recordings and tapes, looked for ideas that the political class was unable to provide. Hence, they stayed at home or cast a protest vote.

This election has demonstrated a crisis of governance, which the GD was unable to prevent. After a constitutional transition in 2012, Georgia demonstrated that democracy was on the rise and advancing. Despite promises to deliver more democracy and close the gaps left by the UNM during the implementation of democratic reforms, the GD could not handle the reform of the judiciary system. Legislative changes did not strengthen democratic institutions; rather, these changes were mostly focused on weakening the presidency. Georgia needed flexible institutions that were capable of providing good governance and creating “thought collectives” or “epistemic communities” that could help in the development of long-term transformation and assure firm foundations of an inclusive society. As Christer Jönsson argues, such institutions assign moral and political content to people. By failing to apprehend the need of advanced reform, the ruling party in Georgia contributed to the crisis that imbued a society with a sense of unfairness and apathy. In other words, the institutions did not embody the values acceptable to voters. On the other hand, such shortcomings obstructed Georgia from becoming a consolidated democracy that assures devolution of power and at the same time creates the environment for a pluralistic political system.

Instead of focusing on development of the political institutions that could help to strengthen democracy and promote economic prosperity at the same time, the GD was late to implement the next phase of reforms and could not coordinate government spending thoroughly, which caused currency volatility. Additionally, as Freedom House argues, the problem of “oligarchic actors” holding “outsized influence over policy and political choices” obstructs Georgia, and “judicial independence continues to be stymied by executive and legislative interests.” In fact, the GD got entrapped in the same pattern of isolation that brought down the UNM. By effectively controlling all branches of the government, it could not de-politicize the judiciary and was not challenged on policy issues. Without a pluralistic political culture, the GD was doomed to fail. It was Kakha Kaladze, current mayor of Tbilisi, who acknowledged that trend shortly after election night. He said that the GD did not listen to the people and that even the surveys were mostly “internal,” yet they were used to justify and legitimize many political decisions. In other words, the political culture of short-termism and one-dimensional outlook made the GD a party of politicians loyal to their chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili . By opting for isolation, the party was unable to see the bigger picture and offer long-term strategic decisions.

The public in Georgia wishes to have a law-governed democratic country which offers equal opportunities and helps to build a meritocratic society. Anything less is unacceptable, yet political parties seem to live in an illusory world hoping that the electorate could be deceived or blackmailed. Despite widespread fear of all-encompassing crisis, the electorate has demonstrated the unshakable quest for freedom and held the ruling party to account. This result could help political elites reach a new equilibrium with the alienated society, one that will preserve the good patterns, while remedying the worst embodiments of injustice and inequality.