Georgia Returns to Stability and Growth After Local Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 107

Candidates from Georgia’s governing party, the United National Movement (UNM), won the country-wide local elections on May 30, including the pivotal contest for the Tbilisi municipality, by large margins. The electoral process earned a positive net assessment from Western observers and also by the main opposition parties.

With all precinct reports tabulated, UNM candidates garnered 65.5 percent of the total votes cast country-wide. UNM’s lists scored above 50 percent in every one of Georgia’s 64 district and city councils. In Tbilisi, regarded as opposition turf, the NMU list garnered 52.5 percent of the votes cast; and NMU’s Gigi Ugulava won the first-ever mayoral election by direct popular vote, with 55 percent of the votes in a split field of candidates. The “National Council,” which had made an alliance with the Kremlin in recent months, took fourth place, with single-digit scores both in Tbilisi and country-wide (Civil Georgia, May 31, June 1, 2).

Fourteen parties and three blocs competed in these elections. Voter turnout was relatively low at 49 percent country-wide. This suggests that provincial authorities did not use “administrative resources” to mobilize or cajole passive voters into showing up at the polls. A higher turnout in the countryside would almost certainly have increased the UNM’s score even further, as passive or uninterested voters tend to cast ballots for the incumbent authorities. Conversely in Tbilisi, most of the radical opposition leaders boycotted the election, resulting in a 47 percent turnout.

The UNM ran on its record of performance, with the brand of a party that delivers tangible results on socio-economic development and chose irreversibly the West over Russia. It also benefited from the high public ratings of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s performance in office. By the same token, Georgian voters have rejected the radical opposition, including the Moscow-oriented “National Council,” which had campaigned for regime change. For their part the radical groups proved unable to unite, organize campaigns, or present competent programs. Most opposition-minded voters rallied behind parties that play by the constitutional rules: the Christian-Democrat Movement and the four-party bloc Alliance for Georgia.

The contest for the Tbilisi municipality was the central event in these elections. The radical opposition had prevailed in Tbilisi during the tumultuous presidential and parliamentary elections in January and May 2008. Saakashvili and the UNM received only 33 and 41 percent, respectively, of the Tbilisi vote at that time, although they won both elections in 2008 on a country-wide basis.

Ugulava, a member of Saakashvili’s inner circle, had been elected indirectly by the municipal council as Tbilisi mayor in 2005. He has overseen Tbilisi’s rapid economic and urban development, which became his main “incumbency advantage” to win re-election by popular vote. Successful management of the Tbilisi mayoralty can significantly strengthen UNM’s position for the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.

For the first time in Georgia, this campaign featured a full set of Western electoral trappings, including opinion surveys and exit polling, televised debates with and among candidates, and an abundance of political advertisements for all parties (peculiarly, free of charge on the country-wide TV channels). The winner, UNM, used the services of American pollsters and campaign consultants.

These elections marginalized the radical opposition conclusively. For many years the opposition had featured a multiplicity of deeply factionalized, leader-oriented groups, with no resemblance to modern political parties, without a doctrinal basis or programs beyond permanent “regime change,” operating mostly outside parliament in a mode of latent or active revolt, using inflammatory language on the brink of violence, and seemingly not reconciled with orderly political processes or even the institutionalized state as such. They operated on a pre-modern mentality in a rapidly consolidating, Western-oriented state. Ultimately, Georgia’s political development and the maturing process of its society overtook the radicals in these elections.

Saakashvili and the UNM interpret these elections’ outcome in a conciliatory manner, as a success for Georgia’s independence and freedom, rather than a victory for any specific party or certain candidates. Compared with preceding elections, these featured “fewer insults, more tactful behavior, more discussion about issues,” according to Saakashvili, adding, “We are still far from holding the type of campaigns that befit a developed European country, but have taken a step in that direction” (Civil Georgia, May 30).

The resumption of economic growth in Georgia this year has also helped de-radicalize the political process. The world economic crisis had set back Georgia’s economy, from double-digit growth to a 3.9 decline in the GDP in 2009. However, GDP is now projected to rise by 4 percent to 5 percent in 2010; or 6 percent according to the latest forecast, on the strength of a favorable business and investment climate, stable currency, internationally rated good governance, and Western financial support (Fitch Ratings, May 25).<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>