The first round of presidential elections, held in Georgia on October 28, did not reveal a winner. The candidate from the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, former French ambassador to Tbilisi Salome Zurabishvili, and her main opponent, former foreign minister Grigory Vashadze, representing the United National Movement (UNM) opposition party, received almost the same number of votes: Zurabishvili with 38.64 percent and Vashadze with 37.74 percent (Civil.ge, October 29). This means that, for the first time in the country’s modern history, starting with the presidential election on May 26, 1991, a second round of voting will be held in Georgia to determine the winner.
The October 28 elections are considered “historical” for two additional reasons. Frist, citizens of Georgia are electing their head of state for the last time via a direct ballot. The sixth president, in 2024, will be chosen not by popular vote, but by a 300-member Electoral College composed of parliamentarians and local and regional political representatives (see EDM, October 16). Second, the current elections have been characterized by unprecedented levels of competitiveness, dirty campaigning, and bitterness among the rival parties. As soon as the results of the first round became known, GD Member of Parliament (MP) Gedevan Popkhadze said, “If Vashadze wins the elections, this will be a real step toward the beginning of a civil war in Georgia… The attitude of revenge and the objective of the UNM to bring back [former president Mikheil] Saakashvili to free [former interior minister Vano] Merabishvili [from prison] gives me grounds to say this. All this will lead to the liquidation of those political opponents who present a problem for Saakashvili.” Popkhadze called for “unity” in blocking “this fascist force” from returning to power (Civil.ge, October 30). At the same time, the ruling party’s endorsed candidate, Zurabishvili (who is ostensibly running as an independent) says she will “fight to the end” (Civil.ge, October 30).
The third-place winner, European Georgia (EG) party candidate and former speaker of parliament David Bakradze, has thrown his support behind Vashadze in the second round and called on his voters (about 11 percent) to cast their ballots for the remaining opposition politician. The second round of presidential elections will be held in November.
Georgian non-governmental organizations have been reporting on a number of observed violations of electoral law during the campaign. Notably, the authorities used so-called “administrative resources” to back the GD candidate; and in some regions, there were even recorded cases of bribing voters. Georgia’s international partners warn that they are closely monitoring how democratic and honest the second round will be. “It is important that the second round of presidential elections be conducted in line with international standards, allowing all Georgian citizens to express their wills freely at the ballot box,” the United States’ embassy in Tbilisi wrote in a statement, on October 30. The embassy added it will “continue to monitor the election environment closely” (Ge.usembassy.gov, Civil.ge, October 30).
Maja Kocijančič, a spokesperson for the European Union’s External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement, on October 29, that international observers noticed “instances of misuse of administrative resources, sharp polarization of the private media, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric.” Her declaration adds, “These shortcomings should be addressed based on the OSCE/ODIHR [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] recommendations” (Europa.eu, October 29; Civil.ge October 30).
Many experts believe that the results of the first round were a political triumph for Saakashvili and the UNM. Even if their candidate, Vashadze, loses in the second round to GD’s Zurabishvili, the opposition has demonstrated its strength and prospects ahead of the decisive parliamentary elections of 2020. Ilia University professor of political science Ghia Nodia told this author that the opposition will now be much more active; and the myth of the invincibility of Georgian Dream and its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili “will be destroyed.” Professor Nodia continued, “If Vashadze wins and becomes president, he will be a very influential figure in spite of the symbolism of presidential powers in a parliamentary republic. The ‘opposition president’ will help to consolidate all opposition forces against the ‘party of power’ ” (Author’s interview, October 29).
Grigory Vashadze has turned out to be a “successful discovery” for the opposition and a strong candidate, according to local political expert Shota Utiashvili. Vashadze “was able to consolidate the votes of not only UNM’s traditional supporters, but also many ‘undecided’ voters” (Author’s interview, October 29).
Opposition leaders are convinced that the main reason for the failure of the pro-government candidate in the first round was her statements blaming Georgia for provoking the 2008 Five Day War against Russia. “The Georgian people will not elect a traitor as president. Zurabishvili repeated those false accusations that Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev repeatedly voiced against our country,” UNM MP and former Georgian ambassador to the EU Salome Samadashvili argued. Samadashvili is confident that Vashadze will win the second round of presidential elections, after which the “process of a peaceful change of power” must begin (Author’s interview, October 30).
Following the first round of elections, the two remaining candidates are both former foreign ministers of Georgia. Thus, their respective foreign policy programs—in particular, their attitude toward the fundamental problem of Russian-Georgian relations—are becoming a key election issue. Paata Zakareishvili, a former state minister for reconciliation and civil equality, argued that UNM candidate Vashadze will be more “tough” toward Moscow than Zurabishvili. The latter “will try to soften the rhetoric in order to achieve progress on the issues of [Russian-occupied, separatist Georgian regions] Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this is an absolutely hopeless attempt, although Paris may be helping her,” Zakareishvili suggested (Author’s interview, October 28)
Meanwhile, civil society activist Sophia Khorguani believes that, despite all the problems and risks that have arisen in the country as a result of the unprecedented “competitiveness” of this year’s elections, they have demonstrated Georgia’s democratic potential and the population’s high civic consciousness. “I positively estimate that, unlike in previous elections, citizens had the opportunity to freely express their opinion. And for the first time, there will be a second round of elections. There was no falsification of the voting results, and this is an achievement comparable to the country’s association with the EU,” Khorguani stressed (Author’s interview, October 31)
The next few weeks will demonstrate whether the main players (primarily the ruling party and the government) will respect the will of the people, thereby passing the “exam” on the consolidation of Georgian democracy.