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Georgia Elects: A Unique Campaign

Tuesday, October 8
What makes this campaign special and different?

A tranquil and moderate political climate during the final month of the campaign is something very uncommon in Georgia, and quite atypical for Georgian society. As we follow the media during these final days, the situation has been markedly different from any of the previous pre-election environments since Georgia’s independence, given that the society is not polarized and divided and the rhetoric among presidential candidates or their representatives is not extremely hostile. This is not to say that the candidates speak in unison during their competition for the highest post in the country. All involved stakeholders, certainly, express their differences; in fact, the election campaign of each seems built on criticizing, either the current or former government, or both. Nonetheless, such faultfinding seems neither to be reaching a boiling point within the society, nor facilitating polarization.

Since the launch of their campaigns, the presidential candidates have been largely focused on communicating with voters by voicing critical attitudes toward their rival candidates and political groups. For instance, the primary target of criticism for the Georgian Dream (GD) presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili is UNM and its leadership under President Mikheil Saakashvili. The GD candidate rails against UNM for its negative experience of the past years and blames the President for creating obstacles to the reforms initiated and conducted by GD. The UNM candidate David Bakradze, on the other hand, is focused on the promises given by GD during the pre-parliamentary election campaign last year, and alleges that the current government is not fulfilling its political obligations. The UNM candidate Bakradze calls for the need of effective control of the government to keep it accountable to society. The rhetoric of the other presidential candidates is similarly disapproving and negative, toward both the former and current governments and their respective political parties.

The current climate is such that we have a political leadership that is on the one hand, passionately involved in these presidential elections, and society, on the other, whose emotional condition belies the heated political rhetoric of the active political actors. This condition, seems likely to remain until the end of the campaign, absent any clear evidence or signs to show otherwise.

So, what could be the reasons behind such a contrasting display between the top and grassroots levels?

Skeptics might simply attribute this to public indifference to current political processes.

However, we would give a more positive interpretation and link it to the improvement of the general political environment in Georgia.

Since the parliamentary elections in 2012, there is a new reality in Georgia political landscape, and it has obviously had an impact on different areas as well. It has significantly affected the Georgian media, and particularly, the TV media, which remains a principal source of information for the majority of the population, and a significant influence on public opinion.

If we compare the media monitoring reports of 2012 and 2013, it shows significant improvements. The media now is not as divided and polarized as back in 2012 or earlier. As all Georgian TV channels offer diversity of political talk shows and pay considerable attention to the campaign and discuss political process, there is also a noticeable attempt of broadcasting information fairly and objectively, and portray every candidate equally and impartially. Such a media environment facilitates tranquility within the society as long as none of the political groups’ supporters feel marginalized from the political process. In addition, there have been no more physical clashes observed during the campaign between the activists of different political parties, which fanned the flames of confrontation in previous election campaigns. Despite few initial incidents, the authorities have managed to prevent continuation of this negative tendency. This time, the meetings of the candidates with their voters are handled in a nonviolent atmosphere – another important factor for the society to maintain tranquility.

Thus, we would question any reading of the political climate that claims public ”indifference.” The Georgian population is very evidently engaged in the campaign process; voters are actively, and even more importantly, safely, participating in the meetings with their favorite candidate. However, the elections do not seem to be an emotional battle for existence and survival between different groups, but rather a normal process of political competition. This is definitely a positive sign in transforming Georgia’s political culture into a more democratic one.

Foreign and Security Policy: Comparative Analysis

Given significant improvement of the political process and general climate during pre-election period in Georgia, one might expect more issues-based discussions and debates between and among the presidential candidates. At first glance, in this new competitive environment with its colorful palette of political actors, the candidates offer contrasting political programs and present different political priorities and course for Georgia’s further development.

The campaign strategies and key slogans of the candidates are, indeed, diverse. If the GD candidate Margvelashvili is focused on the continuation of the programs and reforms launched by the new government, and considers cohabitation to be a major obstacle to these changes, the campaign of the UNM candidate Bakradze is more concentrated on the failure of the new government to fulfill its pre-election promises, and on the need for its [the current government’s] intensive and effective control. The third trend is more or less common for the rest of the candidates as their strategies are built on harsh criticism of both the UNM and GD, former and current governments, respectively, alleging ineffective mechanisms used by GD government to restore justice in the country after a long and unjust rule of the UNM.

To better distinguish between the rival candidates and foresee expected post-election changes and continuities, we need to look at the proposed election programs of each of the candidates in more depth. Foreign and security policies represent the areas where the new president will be a strong actor and where his or her political stands will influence the government’s policy. Therefore, by looking at this area in more specifics, we can ascertain what changes or continuity we should expect when electing one or the other candidate.

The foreign and security policy program outlines of the main presidential contenders share some interesting themes. All candidates, including the current and former ruling parties as well as other opposition candidates, determine that their main goal is to facilitate Georgia’s integration into NATO and EU, and its strategic partnership with the United States. With regard to regional cooperation, all candidates stress close cooperation with regional States and Georgia’s active involvement in regional organizations. There is a similar shared approach on conflict resolution as well, underlining a consensus that a peaceful approach to conflict resolution is the only acceptable way to resolve ethnic conflicts in Georgia.

There are however significant differences in these broad commonalities between the various programs, which differentiate the candidates and the ways they would pursue their foreign policy ambitions, particularly in terms of Georgia’s relations with Russia, and the approach that the candidates consider effective to avoid major threats to Georgia’s national security.

The UNM and its presidential candidate Bakradze perceive normalization of relations with Russia as an important issue, but do not see the likelihood of regulation in the near future. This is a continuation of the policy approach that the UNM maintained during its years in power, as well as being an argument still voiced by President Mikhail Saakashvili at different national and international forums.

DMUG’s presidential candidate Nino Burjanadze, who refuses to be labeled pro-Russian politician, also supports the policy of normalization of relations with Russia, and emphasizes the need for political dialogue at the highest political levels, particularly between the presidents and prime ministers of Georgia and Russia.

GD candidate Margvelashvili voices the Coalition’s declared position, supporting the normalization of relations with Russia with cultural and economic cooperation as a basis, though not at the expense of the country’s national interests such as Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

The outlines of the programs of the presidential candidates do not in large part include details on how they plan to carry out their intentions. Therefore, we can only conjecture as to what theoretical policy approaches can actually mean in real life.

Seeming insignificant differences in foreign and security policies can be interpreted into sharper distinctions if we add background information about political actors to the picture. For instance, the UNM’s statements do voice the same policy that the UNM has been conducting over the years, but in a much softer way, meaning active cooperation with the West and cutting off all connections and ties with Russia. This policy was intended to fight against Russia at international arena and present it as an unfair political actor of international relations.

DMUG and its candidate’s meeting with the Russian leadership in the recent past adds an important dimension to Burjanadze’s policy approach. Her emphasis on the need for the highest-level dialogue can be interpreted as an attempt to maintain contact with Russia, but as the nation’s President. This does not automatically mean that Burjanadze’s real intent is to shift Georgia from a Western vector to a Northern one. But launching meetings with the Russian political leadership, when Russia does not show any signs of planning to change its policy approach toward Georgia, would represent a significant shift in Georgia’s foreign policy orientation.

The GD approach seems more moderate in comparison with the other two approaches. The GD presidential candidate lacks a background in international relations, leading us to expect that he will continue the same policy approach as initiated by the Coalition, which is to say, continuing the initiated dialogue at lower levels, while improving cultural and economic ties by sustaining Georgia’s western foreign policy vector at the same time.

Which of these policy approaches are more realistic and appropriate for Georgia, can be debated. It is clear, however, that Georgia’s political environment needs more issues-based political debates, much deeper and comprehensive analysis of policy issues that directly reflect -- and affect -- people’s lives. Georgian society should know in much more depth and spectrum just what the program outlines would mean in practice before they make their important political choice.
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.