Georgia's local elections come at testing time

By bne IntelliNews June 9, 2014

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -


Municipalities in Georgia have limited responsibilities: utility costs, local infrastructure maintenance, pre-school education and the like. But when Georgians vote in municipal elections on June 15, they do so in a heated geopolitical atmosphere following Russia's annexation in March of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, as well as worrying signs of pressure and intimidation being brought to bear on opposition candidates.

Russia's aggression in Ukraine has frayed nerves in Georgia, which fought a disastrous short war with Russia in 2008 that culminated in Moscow's recognition of the independence of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia's government, parliamentary opposition and most of the Georgian public agree that the country should pursue closer ties with the EU and Nato. But fears that Russia might try to disrupt Georgia's westward path are widespread and not without foundation.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, apparently promised Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, that Russia would not disrupt Georgia's intention to sign the free trade and association agreement with the EU, scheduled to happen on June 27. But while Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has tried to sound upbeat, others within his government have accused Russian troops based in South Ossetia of raising the political temperature. A spokesman from Russia's Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, said on May 22 that there could be consequences for the recent growth in Georgian exports to Russia. (Russia is currently Georgia's third-largest trading partner, and expanded the range of goods it would accept from Georgian on May 26).

For Georgia's western allies, much hinges on how well run the elections are. A free-and-fair vote will smooth the way to the signature of the Association Agreement. It will also contribute to Georgia's case for Nato membership, which Tbilisi is hoping to press at the Nato summit in Wales in September. Fortunately, a recent pre-election assessment by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) paints an overall positive picture, despite noting various areas for improvement. 72% of Georgians think that the elections will be well or somewhat well conducted, according to polling data.

However, in the run-up to the polls there are rising reports of pressure and threats on politicians, mostly on representatives of the opposition. On June 7, Thomas Hammarberg, the EU's special adviser for legal reforms and human rights in Georgia for the past year, urged the government to launch a campaign against the violence. "It is important that leaders of the country take a very clear anti-violence position," Hammarberg stated. "Frankly, when I talk with some of the leading politicians about this problem, I have not had a feeling that they have taken it sufficiently seriously."

Major political shift

The municipal elections will bring the curtain down on a tumultuous couple of years in Georgian politics. Two years ago, former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) was ascendant, having been in power since the Rose Revolution of 2003. Few people expected that to change, despite the emergence of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by Georgia's richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Yet Georgian Dream's stunning election victory in October 2012, which came after a sordid prison scandal emerged two weeks before the vote, ushered in a radical change in Georgian politics. Constitutional changes, which came into force at the same time, meant that Ivanishvili became the most powerful prime minister in Georgia's recent history, while the role of the president was diminished.

But it was not all plain sailing. Georgia's first ever constitutional transfer of power felt almost revolutionary, and was swiftly followed by an "extra-constitutional" transfer of power at the local level: as demonstrators congregated in the streets, some municipal officials felt forced to leave their positions, while others swapped sides voluntarily. According to Transparency International, more than 5,000 civil service officials left government office at either the national or local levels in the period between October 2012 and March 2013, highlighting how far Georgia has to go to build a truly independent civil service.

As a result, all but three of Georgia's municipalities are now controlled by Georgian Dream – even though no municipal elections have taken place. And when the Georgian Dream candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, won the presidential election in October with over 62% of the vote, Georgian Dream's hold on power was almost complete.

As election day approaches on June 15, the picture looks increasingly less rosy, with reports emerging of rising pressure on candidates and the political tone becoming harsher.

Up to 30 opposition candidates – almost half of them from the UNM opposition party – from ten provincial municipalities have so far withdrawn from the race. In some municipalities this has led to cancel the entire party list, as per the election law's system of voter numbers. On May 30 three independent organizations – the International Society for Fair elections and Democracy, Transparency International Georgia and Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA), released a joint statement stating that these cases have already become a trend, triggering the "reasonable suspicion" that the aim is cancelling the entire party list of opposition parties in the respective municipalities.

On May 31, addressing a crowd of supporters, Prime Minister Garibashvili said that Georgian Dream "will not allow victory of any other political force in any of the town or district."

Polls apart

For Georgian Dream, the elections offer a chance to confirm its hold over the municipalities through the ballot box. For the UNM, it is a chance to cement its position as Georgia's pre-eminent party of opposition, after winning 40% of seats in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, and 22% of the vote in the 2013 presidential election.

At a national level, the government appears to enjoy high public approval ratings. 55% of Georgians agree that it is making changes that matter to them. Georgian Dream nationally polls at 48%, and the UNM 12%. This is despite the fact that Ivanishvili's personal popularity has dropped considerably since he formally resigned as prime minister in November 2013, from 74% in November 2013 to 50% in April 2004. Most Georgians think he is still influencing government decision-making, which might explain some of the drop.

But feelings are more mixed about the success of local government, which only 45% of Georgians think is making changes that matter to them. 60% of eligible voters say they intend to vote.

Most attention will fall on Tbilisi, the capital. The current mayor of the capital, Gigi Ugulava, is a long-term UNM member whose position was suspended in December at the request of the public prosecutor, pending charges for misspending funds. That decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court in May in time for the local elections, although the trial continues.

14 people have registered to run for mayor in Tbilisi, where Davit Narmania, a former minister for Regional Development and Infrastructure who is the Georgian Dream candidate, heads the polls with 39%. In contrast, Nikoloz Melia, the UNM candidate, currently has 10% support, while the next opposition group has 9%. If Narmania cannot win 50% outright, the voting will go into a second round.

In total, 20 parties and four election blocs will contest these elections. After Georgian Dream and the UNM, the next most significant group is the coalition led by Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary speaker, who on foreign policy is Georgia's most neutral (which in practice means most accommodating to Russia) politician. In the presidential elections in October, she received 10% of the vote. Her party has entered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, who have espoused a more orthodox-nationalist line of late. Although nationally only 4% of Georgians would vote for them as a first choice, in some locations, they could give the UNM a run for their money as the chief party of opposition. Their success may give substance to the UNM's long-running accusation that the Georgian Dream government is trying to replace the UNM with a pro-Russian opposition.

But while Georgian Dream is ascendant at a national level, races in some locations may be more competitive. In Zugdidi, a city in west Georgia that has traditionally been a UNM stronghold, only 24% say they will vote for Georgian Dream as a first choice. In Gori the number rises to 32%, and in Rustavi 33%.

Those figures matter, not least because of changes to the election code that include the expansion of municipalities from 64 to 71 through the creation of more self-governing cities, and the direct election of mayors and gamgebelis (chief executive officers). They face a 50% threshold before they can declare victory in the first round, which means second rounds are likely in several locations. Controversially, one provision enables a two-thirds majority in the legislature to vote out the gamgebeli, for no particular reason.

Dividing lines

The campaign is not hitting the divisive heights of the October 2012 parliamentary elections. But the elections are not take place in a vacuum either. As the campaign gets further underway, the dividing lines of Georgian politics are being drawn evermore firmly.

The first of these concerns the prosecution of former officials from the UNM. The government claims this is part of a broader campaign to restore justice after the excesses of the UNM's time in power. Indeed, ordinary Georgians think that the government should go further. But to the UNM it is a political witch-hunt. A number of Georgia's foreign allies fear the worst. Most notably, former PM Vano Merabishvili was sentenced for five years in February, following convictions on a range of charges including exceeding official powers and abuse of state funds. When the prosecutor summoned former president Saakashvili for questioning on March 22, Georgia's western allies voiced concern.

A second dividing line is the issue of gay rights. Georgia earned international notoriety on May 17, 2013 when massive church-led anti-gay rights demonstrations disrupted a tiny rally of gay rights activists, leaving them in fear for their lives. In the annual Human Rights Report of the US State Department, the report noted the police failed to protect the activists' right to demonstrate and the government failed to hold the perpetrators responsible.

Georgia revisited the issue earlier this year when parliament debated and then adopted an anti-discrimination law that included reference to "sexual orientation" and "gender identity". The law is an important step in Georgia's ties with the EU, but it infuriated the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch, who is by far the most respected public figure in Georgia, said that "believers would not accept" a law that "legalized illegality". This year, gay rights demonstrators declined to rally, leaving the Church to re-claim May 17 as a national family day.

A third issue to monitor concerns religious minorities, and Muslims in particular. Since October 2012, the number of complaints of harassment and intimidation of Muslim minorities in Georgia has increased, although the public defender and civil society groups were quick to protest. Notably, this has been less prominent an issue in 2014. 

Finally, there's freedom of the media. In general, the media environment is "comparatively free and pluralistic," according to the EU's special advisor Thomas Hammarberg, although the quality of critical analysis and analytical reporting has been criticised by others. Even so, the Georgian Dream-led government has shown itself to be over-sensitive to media criticism. Former PM Ivanishvili summoned media representatives to his residence for a televised tongue-lashing prior to the October presidential election. In May, the government issued public statements condemning the news coverage of the broadcaster Maestro 2 and accusing it of bias.

A vote in the municipal elections will not influence how Georgia tackles these issues. But the political rhetoric, which has already seen UNM described as "torturers" and homosexuality likened to incest, provides a useful barometer of public opinion.

It's the economy, stupid

The biggest problem that Georgians complain about is the lack of jobs. Formally the unemployment rate stands at 16%; but 28% of Georgians describe themselves as "unemployed and looking for a job", according to opinion polls. Jobs continue to be the most important issue in elections, and only 13% of the country thinks they are better off than they were in October 2012.

The Georgian Dream coalition swept to power amidst high expectations for the economy, which so far it has struggled to fulfill. To some degree, this was the result of the uneasy "cohabitation" period, when the new government sat uneasily alongside former president Saakashvili, the previous UNM president. Wary investors put off their investment decisions and economic growth fell to 3.2% in 2013 (far below previous years). 2014 is expected to be better, with the International Monetary Fund projecting GDP growth will reach 5%. 

For years, Georgia was famous for its economic libertarianism under the UNM, which unleashed an extreme deregulation and anti-corruption drive after the 2003 Rose Revolution. That policy appeared to reap results: Georgia shot up the World Bank's "Doing Business" index (where it currently sits in eighth place), and GDP grew by an average of 6.1% in the period 2004-2012, notwithstanding the global financial crisis and the fallout from Georgia's disastrous war with Russia in 2008.

But the ultra-liberal policy began to blur after that war, when the state adopted a more activist role in the economy. The Georgian Dream coalition has moved further along that path, for example by increasing welfare spending and subsidizing farmers. But Georgia's overall pro-market orientation remains – despite measures such as the temporary ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners, which raised doubts about the country's openness to foreign investment.

Georgia's economic problems defy a quick fix. Structurally, the economy suffers from a strong current account deficit, with over-reliance on imports compensating for limited domestic production. The depreciation of the lari, which slid from GEL1.66 against the dollar in October to 1.78 at the end of January, made imports even more expensive for Georgian consumers. That Georgia recorded a strong harvest in 2013 is a positive step, but its agricultural sector needs more attention.

Nor is Georgia's strong ranking in the World of Doing Business Index mirrored in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, where Georgia languishes in 72nd place. Key weaknesses include: limited access to financing; Georgians' low level of education and the work ethic; policy instability; and limited capacity to innovate.

Georgia's municipalities will not have much say on those issues. But economic discontent was one of many factors in the vote against the UNM in 2012. If, as expected, Georgian Dream retains its grip over Georgia's municipalities, its next challenge is to prove it can deliver the jobs and growth that Georgians so clearly hope for.

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