Debates, Interim Assessment and the First “Scandal” of the Campaign
Nearing The End
BY: CGS GROUP
Tuesday, October 22
As the end of the presidential campaign in Georgia draws near, the news coverage has become more intensive. Last week was made remarkable by the political debates that took place among several of the presidential candidates – a “first” in Georgia’s contemporary history even without the participation by Nino Burjanadze, one of the three leading candidates.
Apart from extensive reporting on the upcoming elections, the coverage also included the news about interim assessments by international observer organizations that reported significant improvements and optimistic evaluations of Georgia’s political landscape, and specifically, in comparison with all the previous election campaigns in Georgia.
Election reporting reached a peak in midweek. Although the general atmosphere has remained relatively tranquil, it became suddenly charged when, at an October 17 press conference, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili asserted that there will be no second round – a pronouncement then echoed by his political protege, GD presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili, who said he does not see any reason to participate in the second round, and that he would withdraw from the race in case of a runoff.
In the following sections we will be discussing these issues separately.
On October 17 and 18, the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) hosted Georgia’s first-ever live political debates among presidential candidates. Similar debates were held earlier in 2010 during local self-government elections, when candidates vying for the post of city mayor participated in live televised debates. Last year, during parliamentary elections 2012, there was an attempt to bring political rivals together to open floor to political debates, however, one of the two leading candidates, Bidzina Ivanishvili, refused to participate.
This time, due to an overwhelming number of presidential candidates, the host of the debates set certain restrictions. First of all, the number of participants was limited and only qualified political subjects (parties or coalitions, and representatives, which received at least 3 percent in previous elections) were invited. The only exception was made for the leader of the Democratic Movement – United Georgia (DMUG), Nino Burjanadze, since all recent public surveys showed her to be one of the three leading candidates. Burjanadze, however, was selected to debate -- not on the first day of the debates, where the two other leading candidates (Margvelashvili and Bakradze) were set to participate – but on day two, when only the candidates with less than 2-3 percent of public support were invited to debate. Ultimately, Burjanadze refused to participate.
The results of the debates are described in detail in the Civil.ge article ”Public TV Hosts Debates of Some Presidential Candidates” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26556). For that reason, the aim of our analytical reporting is to offer assessment of the held debates in the broader perspective.
Without a doubt, there was neither an expectation for something extraordinary, nor were any assumptions made that there would be changes in distribution of votes as a result of these debates. What is important here is that such debates increase civic engagement and facilitate more issue-based discussions between and among candidates and their supporters – something that the Georgian political landscape has heretofore lacked. In this regard, these debates were certainly a necessary element in the current political process, although the conspicuous absence of one of the three top candidates made the TV debates that much less appealing and obviously narrowed the scope of political discussion.
On the whole, political debates, although they need further promotion and refinement, are gradually becoming a significant part of Georgia’s political tradition, while contributing to Georgia’s evolving democratization.
On October 14, the observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights (ODIHR) released its midterm report on evaluation of the pre-election process in Georgia. The report assesses the general atmosphere in Georgia as Improved, and that the legal framework of the elections is comprehensive and provides a possibility of conducting democratic elections. The report states that the registration of the candidates was conducted in a free and transparent manner, and contains no reports on obstacles to voters’ registration. The report underlines that the 2013 Presidential Elections campaign is proceeding in a calm political environment, representing a significant difference from the elections last year. In addition, the ODIHR report highlights that the media is no longer polarized, although notes a lack of critical analysis. The report also notes that cohabitation between the UNM minority party and GD majority party leaders is still strained despite the generally tranquil political environment. The report is critical of the work of the Georgian State Audit Service, and expresses concerns at the agency’s failure to completely fulfill its obligations. (The full text of the report can be found here: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/107052.)
The seemingly routine presidential campaign proceedings were momentarily ruffled by the Prime Minister’s ambiguous comment during an October 17 press conference with editors from print media and radio stations. PM Ivanishvili said he would advise GD candidate Margvelashvili to withdraw from the race in case of a runoff, even as he noted that this was merely advice and that Margvelashvili might have a different view. At the same time, the PM has stressed seeing almost no likelihood of a second round, as Margvelashvili has a significant advantage over other candidates and that the GD candidate will have a convincing victory in these elections.
Shortly after the PM’s statement, GD candidate Margvelashvili echoed the PM’s position, saying that he too sees little likelihood of a second round, and that even if this unlikely event were to be necessary, he would see no reason to participate.
This development prompted an immediate uproar, fostering contrasting interpretations. Opponents assessed the statements made by both the Prime Minister and the GD presidential candidate as frivolous and demonstration of disrespect toward voters. The statements were also criticized by the civil society, expressing dissatisfaction and evaluating it as pressure on voters.
Speaker of Parliament Davit Usupashvili, one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream Coalition, attempted to soften the statement by offering an alternative interpretation that Margvelashvili’s remarks were “metaphorical” and should not be taken literally. This may mean, as Usupashvili explained, that Margvelashvili is absolutely convinced of his victory in the first round and does not consider the runoff a possibility. Margvelashvili removed any chance of his remarks being considered metaphorical, however, when the next day he reconfirmed his statement by explicitly noting that he does not see any chances for the second round but, in case there is such, he will refuse to participate.
That said, how could this approach be interpreted? What is the actual reason behind such ambiguous remarks?
We should consider the fact that neither Ivanishvili nor Margvelashvili have much political background and experience, and that the golden rule of politics “Never Say Never” is no part of their political habit. Yet, they both can make calculations over possible consequences of the remarks they made in the case if the GD candidate fails to gain enough votes to win the elections in the first round.
In a scenario where the GD earns less than 50 percent of the votes, the GD leadership will be confronted with a no-win situation. If Margvelashvili agrees to participate in the consequent runoff he will doubtless win, but at great cost to his political reputation. That in turn will directly affect how much political power he, as a new president, would have: a damaged reputation would definitely limit his power. Alternatively, if Margvelashvili refuses to participate in a runoff, this would demonstrate his political immaturity and bring the country to crisis. The elected president under such circumstances would be a person with no strong public support and be a leader only because there is no other alternative candidate. This leaves either Bakradze or Burjanadze. In both cases, the newly elected president will attempt pressuring the parliamentary majority, and with the high probability the GD Coalition may collapse. This will lead to the political crisis mentioned above, embracing both branches of power, the Government and the Parliament.
Obviously, neither Prime Minister Ivanishvili, nor the GD presidential candidate Margvelashvili aim at either of the above-mentioned two options; they are counting on something different. They both maintain conviction of Margvelashvili’s triumphal victory, and that they do not consider alternative outcomes, yet cannot be so naive or idealistic as to discount the most negative possible scenario for the Georgian Dream – the runoff. Hence, the potential for such scenario exists.
So far, there have been three public attitude surveys released publicly. Each of these surveys has offered varying numbers; however, the most optimistic survey for the GD puts Margvelashvili’s ranking at 56 percent, showing Margvelashvili as the favorite of the 2013 campaign. In order to transform this percentage of popularity into actual votes, however, Margvelashvili needs first to conduct an effective nation-wide campaign. Secondly, he has to mobilize voters and get them to come to ballot stations and vote. As the current political climate is seemingly calm, a high attendance of electorate looks to be one of the major challenges in these upcoming elections. So, the potential for a runoff is realistically quite high, and the GD Coalition leaders need to face up to this possibility. On this account, the remarks that have caused controversy in this relatively peaceful campaigning environment would have a different subtext.
A while ago, when fraud at elections was part of Georgia’s political reality, such message would have been interpreted as an attempt from the leaders to “dictate” the outcome of the elections to the campaign organizers and the elections administration.
However, in the political reality that Georgia has today, blatant manipulation has ceased to be a factor. In the given moment, this controversial statement may mean setting of the red lines for the GD campaign management, that they have to make an effective use of the potential that the Georgian Dream leadership employs in order to gain maximum possible votes, thus avoiding the runoff. The message conveys to the campaign management that it has to mobilize GD supporters and guarantee high attendance of voters at ballot boxes. At the same time, the message could be addressed to the voters, and particularly to the GD supporters, to urge them to vote, by emphasizing the risk of return of the UNM to the power if they act otherwise.
How much these remarks will affect the Georgian electorate and the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections is subject to further speculation. It will remain as an obscure puzzle if the GD candidate wins the elections in the first round; however, if there is a runoff, the political picture will become much more complex. Their recent statements limit the area for political maneuvers for Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili, and could end up bringing into question the unity of the Georgian Dream Coalition. That can clearly be considered as a major political miscalculation.
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