Days before local elections, Georgia's ruling coalition is faced with plummeting ratings and accusations of intimidation of political opponents. Are voters about to wake up from the Georgian Dream? Joseph Alexander Smith reports from Tbilisi for commonspace.eu.
At a salon in central Tbilisi's leafy Vera district, the barber furiously snips away at my fringe. When I ask how he feels about the upcoming local elections, I catch him rolling his eyes in the mirror. "People are tired", he says. "Politicians just talk and do nothing." Then I press him further for an evaluation of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition's year and 8 months in power. "They've done nothing new ... all they've done is tear down what was there before. Voting won't change anything."
The brainchild of billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanshivili, Georgian Dream pledged to unseat an entrenched and increasingly authoritarian United National Movement led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. The party quickly attracted other opposition forces into a coalition after its founding in April 2012 and despite numerous government attempts to quash the movement, including stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship, the coalition won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in October 2012. In November last year the party's candidate also took the presidency with 62% of the vote.
The Georgian Dream government has introduced some of the most socially-minded reforms in Georgia's post-Soviet history, increasing spending on health by 22% and making many basic services, such as hospital childbirth, free of charge. An agricultural voucher scheme has benefited thousands of farmers, and school books have been delivered to pupils free of charge. The National Statistics Office of Georgia reported a modest drop in unemployment rates in 2013.
But after nearly two years in power, the coalition is facing a slump in ratings and accusations of political repression by key partners ahead of important local self-government elections. For the first time, voters in a number of regional cities in Georgia will be electing a mayor. The heads of all municipalities (gamgebelis) will also be directly elected. With turnout expected to be lower than in parliamentary and presidential elections, some analysts see these elections as a litmus test of the ruling party's hold on power.
According to the results of an opinion survey conducted in April by the National Democratic Institute, key political figures from the ruling coalition have seen their ratings fall. While Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili saw his ratings fall by 5% since the last poll in November 2013, President Giorgi Margvelashvili plummeted to 46% from 72% last November. Ivanishvili, has suffered a 23% drop in approval ratings. By contrast, leader of the opposition UNM faction in parliament, Davit Bakradze, saw his ratings rise by 3% during the same period.
The government have also been accused of intimidating their political opposition. On Sunday, the US embassy in Tbilisi released a statement saying "we are increasingly concerned about ... allegations of government pressure on candidates to withdraw" in areas where the opposition have a chance of winning seats. Up to four hundred candidates dropped out of the race, although many have now re-joined the contest.
In the majority ethnic Azeri district of Marneuli, where the UNM enjoys significant support, the candidate for municipality head Akmamed Imamquliyev was disqualified for not meeting a two-year residency requirement. The Central Election Commission (CEC) upheld the decision, despite having ruled in favor of two Georgian Dream mayoral candidates when their eligibility was questioned for similar reasons in May. Tbilisi's City Court eventually re-instated Imamquliyev, but for some the episode is evidence of the government's growing intolerance of opposition.
"Georgian Dream is doing the same as the UNM did by trying to marginalize the opposition" says Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science at Tbilisi State University, "and this isn't good for developing a stable and democratic political system." At a recent campaign rally, Prime Minister Gharibashvili told supporters that "we should get rid" of the opposition UNM from local government seats "once and for all". At a previous rally, the PM said that Georgian Dream wouldn't "allow the victory of any opposition force in any town or municipality".
Although the government has reiterated its commitment to a fair electoral process, many see this rhetoric as giving a green light for supporters to engage in violence against the opposition. There have already been violent clashes between Georgian Dream and UNM supporters in several places.
So, does any of this signify huge losses for Georgian Dream at the polls, or even the beginning of a political comeback for the UNM? Well, although the UNM enjoys support in some regional strongholds, Kakachia believes that in most of the country, the party is still "struggling for survival" and is unable to mount a serious political challenge to the ruling party.
"Georgian voters tend to vote against something, rather than for something" he says, and although "political parties have been trying to spin certain issues in order to polarize the pre-election environment and mobilize voters", expected low-turnout is likely to deliver a clear victory for the ruling party. In the NDI's April poll, 40% said they wouldn't vote if elections were held tomorrow.
Still, there is an element of unpredictability in these election, as in previous contests, which makes them hugely significant for the opposition. According to the same NDI poll, 19% of likely voters were unsure who they would vote for, with a further 8% refusing to answer. In the 2012 parliamentary elections this margin swung decisively in favor of Georgian Dream, but it is difficult to predict how the undecided will vote, or whether they will vote at all.
Ultimately, it is the opposition that has the biggest stake in the local elections, with these polls seen as laying the ground for the next parliamentary contest due in 2016. The UNM needs to hold on to its regional support bases and win enough local authority seats to be able to mobilize voters in two years' time. The same is true for smaller parties, who are eyeing seats in the next parliament.
For ex-parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement, which has allied with the Christian Democrats to contest the local elections, this vote represents an opportunity to overtake the UNM and become the second largest political force in the country. Having harnessed pro-Russian sympathies and recent discontent among conservatives over an anti-discrimination law seen as too liberal on gay rights, large gains for Burjanadze's party cannot be ruled out.
According to Kakachia, despite its troubles, the ruling coalition will likely "win by inertia." Despite best efforts, the cattle prod of political spin-doctoring seems unlikely to bring huge numbers to the ballot boxes this weekend. It seems that rather than finally waking up from the long Georgian Dream, voters have simply hit 'snooze'.
source: Joseph Alexander Smith is a free lance journalist based in Tbilisi. He contributed this report for commonspace.eu.