Author: Jeyhun NAJAFOV
The election campaign for the next presidential elections in Georgia is approaching the final stage. Scheduled for October 28, the upcoming elections in Azerbaijan’s closest neighbor and strategic partner in the South Caucasus will be held under difficult international circumstances. Azerbaijan and Georgia have dynamically developing relations and jointly implement large-scale projects. Azerbaijan is the largest investor in the Georgian economy. Almost every year, Baku and Tbilisi come together with new mutually beneficial projects. As soon as the opening ceremony of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was over, both countries announced the start of construction in 2020 of the first high-speed railway in the Caucasus from Baku to the Georgian border. There are already practical steps in creating a single Georgia-Azerbaijan tourist package. The track record of strategic cooperation between Baku and Tbilisi is quite broad and multifaceted. Naturally, Azerbaijan is very interested in the political processes taking place in Georgia. Political scientist and analyst Zviad Avaliani (Georgia) told us a about the upcoming presidential elections in Georgia.
How many candidates and which political trends can take part in the elections?
So far, the CEC has registered 25 candidates, of which 19 are from political parties and 6 from initiative groups. Initially, there were 46 individuals willing to register but some of them could not meet the CEC requirements. It is possible that one of the registered candidates will later refuse to participate and withdraw his candidacy but for now, there are 25 registered candidates in total. This election will be slightly different not for the number of candidates but because a woman became a favourite of the ruling party, who can later become the first woman president of Georgia. Also, this will be last elections where the president is elected by popular vote. In 2024, under the new election system, 300 electors from the parliament and local governments will elect the president.
Who is the candidate of the ruling party and what are her chances to win the elections?
Interestingly, the ruling party Georgian Dream did not nominate a party member this year but supported an independent candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, who was the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2004-2005 but joined the opposition after a conflict with then-President Mikhail Saakashvili. After the change of power in Georgia, Zurabishvili returned to politics and in 2016 became a member of the parliament. At that time, she also ran as an independent candidate but the mutual sympathies of Georgian Dream and Zurabishvili became visible two years ago. That is why her opponents do not believe in her independence, although formally she has never been a member of the Georgian Dream. Either way, the ruling party supported her candidacy, and given the very high polling results of the Georgian Dream in the previous parliamentary elections, Zurabishvili can be considered a favourite but the second round of elections is also possible.
Are there any registered candidates against the current foreign policy of Georgia based on European integration and NATO membership?
There are candidates who criticise the current foreign policy of Georgia. However, they have negligible chances to win. The main competition will be and actually is between the favourites of the current and previous ruling parties. Interestingly, the strongest critic of Georgian membership in NATO, who supports Georgia’s non-aligned status, is Nino Burjanadze. She received 10% of votes at the 2013 presidential elections and did not nominate her candidacy this time. In general, with the reduction of presidential powers, some parties and political forces apparently lose interest in the elections and prefer to focus on parliamentary elections.
How can Ivanishvili influence the elections? As we know, he has played an instrumental role in the defeat of Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM)...
Ivanishvili is a chairman of the ruling party and has undeniable authority both in the party and among his supporters. Zurabishvili is a favourite candidate of the upcoming elections and is backed by Ivanishvili’s support. Otherwise her chances would be significantly lower. Therefore, the Ivanishvili factor will play a significant role in the Georgian elections this time too.
The Georgian Church represented by a member of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Peter Tsaava, is known for his criticism of Salome Zurabishvili and urges the voters not to cast their votes in favour of the “independent frenchised” candidate. Why is he doing this? How can the church influence the elections?
The statements of Peter Tsaava and other representatives of the Georgian clergy are not the official position of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Rather it is their personal position and a reaction of certain clergymen to Zurabishvili’s individual statements that caused controversy in Georgian society. In particular, Zurabishvili’s statements about the responsibility of the former ruling party in the events of August 2008 and the legalisation of marijuana. However, the Patriarch of All Georgia has already appealed to the clergy and asked them to refrain from political and incorrect statements.
Incidentally, Zurabishvili was born in France to a family of Georgian immigrants. She lived and worked in France until 2004. Hence the statements about her Frenchised nature claimed to be wrong and incompatible with Georgian traditions and mentality. For Zurabishvili's opponents, it is her French background that testifies her weak knowledge of the Georgian language. Sometimes Zurabishvili makes indeed embarrassing statements.
As for the influence of the church on the elections, the Georgian Church does not interfere in the elections. One can sometimes hear statements of support or criticism of candidates by individual dignitaries but this is welcomed neither by the church nor by Georgian society and their effect on voting results is negligible.
Can we expect a revenge of the United National Movement?
According to the results of the previous parliamentary and municipal elections, as well as the general trend after 2012, the UNM revenge is unlikely. The former ruling party today is divided into several parties, which take part in the elections separately. At the same time, the candidates of the UNM and the European Georgia Party may have a chance to qualify for the second round, if it takes place. But I think that this is the maximum they can do. In other words, if the ruling party and its favourite candidate do not make any catastrophic mistakes before the elections, the UNM revenge is extremely unlikely.
What about the institutions researching public opinion?
The election campaign has begun recently. There are no reliable forecasts from reputable neutral organisations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pre-election period will be politically intensive. I think the main challenge of these institutions is the prediction of the likelihood of the second round. The ruling party is confident that Zurabishvili will win in the first round but given factors that make the upcoming elections specific, we can expect a certain degree of intrigue up until the announcement of voting results.