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Georgia Elects: A Campaign for the Second Place?

Tuesday, October 1
It is less than a month before presidential elections. In this final phase of campaigning, the dynamics of the process have become quite intense. As assessed by international observation missions, this is the most competitive political environment ever, with 23 presidential candidates registered by the Central Election Commission (CEC). However, only a few are publicly known. Looking at the most recent public attitude survey by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), only five candidates out of the registered 23 are within the margin of active political actors, while remaining others do not exceed the 1% margin. There is still certain speculation about the extent to which these polls reflect the reality, but this undoubtedly shows main trends and tendencies of current political process.

According to the NDI survey, the Georgian Dream (GD) presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili was named as the elections favorite with 39 percent, which is logical considering that the GD political coalition won the parliamentary elections barely a year ago, and the Coalition and its leader, Prime Minister Ivanishvili, are still strongly supported by the public. Since NDI’s previous poll in June 2013, there has been no significant change observed in terms of public support toward GD, with a little over 50 percent. However, the popularity of Giorgi Margvelashvili has significantly increased, from 29 to 39 percent. It is thought that his popularity will continue to grow during the campaign period and bring Margvelashvili to the same margin as of GD, of 50-52 percent. Meanwhile, the numbers are so close to 50 percent that there is still a high probability for a second round of elections to take place.

Regardless of the likelihood of victory of the GD candidate, the United National Movement (UNM) candidate Davit Bakradze, with 18 percent, and the Democratic Movement – United Georgia (DMUG) candidate Nino Burjanadze, with seven percent, should not be dismissed as important actors in the 2013 campaign.

Even though the UNM has a low level of public support (10-12 percent), its candidate Davit Bakradze has certain advantages that make him a strong contender. First, UNM has a well-constructed and disciplined party organization with the expertise of conducting campaigns. Secondly, UNM has enough financial and human resources to conduct a very good nationwide campaign. Thirdly, Bakradze remains as one of the most popular Georgian politicians, including a positive image beyond UNM supporters. This last point is reflected in NDI polls: while UNM popularity has not increased for the period from June through September, public support toward Bakradze has significantly increased. In June, the unnamed UNM candidate had 10 percent, while the officially nominated Bakradze has reached 19 percent.

Nino Burjanadze seems to be a candidate who attracts voters not supportive to UNM but also those dissatisfied with the moderate approach of the new government toward the former government officials, and those who criticize the so-called “Cohabitation”. According the NDI polls, Burjanadze has only seven percent of likely voters, which is two percent more than shown in pervious polls released in June. Nonetheless, the intensive campaign launched by Burjanadze demonstrates that DMUG has enough financial and human resources to conduct an intensive nationwide campaign and consolidate voters of radical opposition, who are at the same time against UNM.

The number of votes that each of these two opposition candidates receives will define their political weight in the approaching political period and will be an important factor in shaping a political process in the post-election Georgia. In other words, the composition of Georgia’s future political landscape will be shaped not only by the winner of these elections, but by the political group with the second-best result. Thus, in order to become a key opposition force, each of the opposition candidates must focus on obtaining the second place as they strategize and set their long-term objectives.

…What does the second place mean, and what are the expected implications? If the UNM candidate gets the second place -- quite realistic -- it means that the status quo will be maintained. However, a UNM victory, either in the first or in a second round, would be a significant aspect in determining the balance of power between these two groups.

If the GD candidate wins in the first round, the Coalition will remain as a leading political group and structural changes on the opposition front, especially, within the UNM, are expected. If there is a second round, with an almost equal percentage of votes to both, this would mean the moral and political rehabilitation of UNM on one hand, and the increase of its influence in Georgian politics, in general, and in the Parliament, in particular. This would be a strong incentive to UNM to consolidate their supporters and set long-term objective to return to power in future. A second round, if it happened, would shake GD’s political strength; however, the government or parliamentary crisis cannot be expected in the near future.

Burjanadze’s second place would considerably change the political landscape. This would be a serious knockdown for both the GD and UNM if Burjanadze and her political party DMUG were to replace UNM as the major opposition force in the country. With strong public support, Burjanadze would be able to challenge GD and the government. Most probably, Burjanadze will intensify her demands for extraordinary parliamentary elections.

Other presidential candidates, like Giorgi Targamandze, leader of the Christian Democrats, and Shalva Natelashvili, leader of Labor Party, with three percent public support each, have neither enough financial and human resources, nor strong party organization as seen from the first phase of campaigning. Whether they remain in Georgia’s political arena largely depends on the results that they show in the elections. Regardless, they will not be able to make a significant difference in the political processes.

With the most important month of campaigning still ahead, making explicit predictions is impossible. However, current trends and tendencies show that the main objective of both Bakradze and Burjanadze is to obtain the second-best result and, preferably, to transfer major political battle with the leading candidate to a second round. Margvelashvili’s main election objective, as he understands his obvious advantage over other candidates and is convinced in victory, is to win the elections in the first round and underpin GD Coalition’s political strength. This seems a difficult but achievable task for his campaign staff.

Candidate Profiles

GD’s Giorgi Margvelashvili is the least politically experience candidate out of the three leading candidates. Educated as a philosopher at the Tbilisi State University, where he earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy, and as a sociologist at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Most of his professional career he has spent in the field of education. In 2000-2006 and 2010-2012 he served as a rector at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA).

Margvelashvili first appeared in politics in 2003 when he was presented by a tandem of Burjanadze and former Prime Minister of Georgia Zurab Zhvania as a member of their political coalition called “Burjanadze – Democrats”. Margvelashvili was among the top 10 candidates proposed by the Coalition. After the “Rose Revolution”, the election results were annulled and the “Burjanadze – Democrats” did not participate in the repeated elections as a separate political group but joined a bigger coalition of the United National Movement, chaired by Mikheil Saakashvili. Margvelashvili was not on the Coalition’s parliamentary list. The second time he joined the political process as a member of Advisory Board of Nino Burjanadze’s think tank - “Foundation for Democracy and Development” established after Burjanadze’s split from Saakashvili in 2008. Margvelashvili made his third entry into politics by supporting the Georgian Dream political coalition. After the victory of GD in 2012 parliamentary elections, Margvelashvili was appointed as a Minister of Education and Science of Georgia. As he started his presidential campaign, Margvelashvili stepped down from the post of the Education Minister in order to demonstrate the importance of equal opportunities for all candidates, even though the legislation did not require this.

UNM’s Davit Bakradze, educated as a physicist at the Georgia Technical University, where he obtained his doctoral degree, received his Master’s in Public Administration from GIPA. He also attended several educational programs such as Swiss International Relations Institute, George Marshall European Center for Security Studies and NATO Defense College. Bakradze’s professional career has started as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia in 1997. He continued his career with the State Security Council in 2002 as he led the Council’s International Department. In 2004 he entered politics. Bakradze was elected as a Member of Parliament and as a chairman of parliamentary committee for European integration in 2004. Later, in 2007, he joined the government holding the posts of the State Minister on Conflict Resolution and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 2008, when Burjanadze split from the UNM, Bakradze replaced her as he became number one in the party list. After elections, he was elected as the Chairman of Parliament of Georgia. In 2012, he was again number one in the UNM’s party list during the parliamentary elections, however, he became the leader of parliamentary minority as UNM lost elections. In 2013, Bakradze won the UNM party primaries and became UNM’s presidential candidate.

Bakradze’s political style was always different from his party colleagues. He adhered the image of constructive politician with less hostile rhetoric toward his opponents. His campaign strategy is based on the critical approach toward current government but at the same time criticizes certain aspects of the previous government. His political program repeats the UNM’s political approach – meaning western-oriented foreign policy and supporting more severe policy approach toward Russia. In socio-economic policy, the UNM and its candidate maintain neo-liberal policy approach, however, from time to time, UNM underlines social problems as a core priority of its team.

DMUG’s Nino Burjanadze is the most experienced politician among the top three candidates. Educated as a lawyer at the Tbilisi State University, she later obtained a doctoral degree in international law from the Moscow State University. Her political career began in 1995 when she joined the political party “Georgian Citizens Union” (GCU) led by the former President Eduard Shevardnadze. She was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1995 and later in 1998 was elected as a head of parliamentary committee for constitutional law. In 1999 she was reelected in the Parliament, and chaired the committee for international relations. In 2001, when confrontation within Shevardnadze’s team became sharper and Zurab Zhvania stepped down from his post of the Chairman of Parliament, Burjanadze replaced him and became the Chairwoman, with the strong support from Zhvania and young politicians from Shevardnadze’s team, including Saakashvili. In 2002, Burjanadze left GCU and created the Coalition “Burjanadze Democrats” with Zhvania. They both played a significant role in the “Rose Revolution” as they joined mass protests led by Saakashvili. After the Revolution, the political coalition “Burjanadze Democrats” joined UNM and Nino Burjanadze once again became Chair of the Parliament.

During her political career, Burjanadze held the position of Acting President of Georgia twice. First, when Shevardnadze resigned during the “Rose Revolution”, and later in 2007, when following the mass protests, Saakashvili resigned and set extraordinary presidential elections. Burjanadze split form UNM in 2008 on the eve of parliamentary elections – the fact that was officially explained by differences in fundamental political principles. Unofficially, however, the main reason behind her split was not including her people in the party candidates list. Leaving UNM, she established the Foundation for Democracy and Development and has not been actively involved in political processes for a while making a comeback in 2008 as she established her political party “Democratic Movement – United Georgia” (DMUG). In 2009 she joined the all-opposition protest rally against Saakashvili and later in 2011 she initiated another wave of protests.

During the parliamentary elections in 2012, the leader of then-opposition Bidzina Ivanishvili refused to invite Burjanadze in the GD Coalition. Burjanadze decided not to participate in the elections at all. In 2013, she was nominated as a candidate for president and mounted an intensive campaign severely criticizing both the current government and the now in opposition, the UNM. Burjanadze is considered as more pro-Russian, but refuses this label. Her campaign is focused on the “restoration of justice,” meaning, a much stricter attitude toward UNM and its leadership, and more emphasis on normalization of relationships with Russia.

The next several issues will offer comparative analysis of policy issues of political programs of candidates as we make linkages with general public attitude toward the specific policy issue.

Note: From September 24 through October 31, as part of its Weekly Report on Georgia/Caucasus published on Tuesdays, CGS Group will offer the independent analysis on the upcoming presidential elections in Georgia being held on Sunday, October 27, 2013. We will be reviewing local and international media, and providing in-depth analysis of political stands and policy programs of the candidates, as well as including official statements, campaign speeches and information distributed by campaign teams of the candidates. This analytical report will also be regularly reprinted every Tuesday in Georgia’s English daily - The Messenger.