Goodbye Mr. President, Bonjour Madame la Présidente

Goodbye Mr. President, Bonjour Madame la Présidente

Georgia will hold presidential elections in less than two months’ time and will take an electoral year off until 2020 when parliamentary elections are scheduled. We are a parliamentary republic and the president is granted very limited power. The directly-elected president will serve until 2024 after which presidents will be elected by members of parliament.

Until yesterday, the political arena was unclear about two key things: if the current president was planning to participate and more importantly, what would be the ruling party’s (the Georgian Dream, GD) move, specifically, whether they would support any independent challenger or avoid the political battle. Mr. Margvelashvili, the acting president declined a second term and thus committed political suicide. He promised to serve his country “in a different form” and I assume that the form is anything but politics. I can guess the reasoning behind this decision and I think it was a rational one given his chances and available resources to win. Officially, GD has until the September 8th deadline to register a candidate. Last week the party leadership confirmed that they will not field their own candidate but might support an independent one if he/she meets their standards.

Except for GD, the political heavyweight, we have several horses in this race. Most have minimal chances to harvest more than 3% of the vote and two parties, once part of the same political body but now rivals, at least based on their statements – the Untied National Movement (UNM) and the European Georgia – can both overcome the 10% barrier if they manage to secure around 5 million USD each, the amount UNM used to spend daily during at least the last ten days prior to any major elections from 2005 to 2012. But those times are gone and most of the party bosses and treasurers are either in hiding from the Georgian judiciary or serving prison sentences for major crimes and are unlikely to invest money in these rallies. The reason is very obvious – zero return on investment (ROI). However, we are still going to see a political struggle among candidates with plenty of mudslinging and hate language. So, I am expecting the social temperature to rise a bit, but then cool down shortly after the elections.

We have at least one very strong independent candidate, who can be a game changer if she safeguards GD’s support - Salome Zourabishvili, the French-born Georgian politician. Interestingly, the top three candidates, including herself, Mr. Bakradze of the European Georgia and Mr. Vashadze of the UNM share one common thing in their respective CVs – they have each served for a short time as a head of a foreign office of Georgia.

But Salome has one big disadvantage: her gender. Georgia is a difficult environment for female candidates. Based on GORBI’s recent nationwide poll, close to half (46%) of survey respondents agreed that “It is better for Georgia to have a man as president” and another 31% sad that “I would not support a woman candidate for president.”

But when it comes to attributes that the next president should have, Georgians prefer well-educated, well-tempered and trustworthy people, 65%, 42% and 35% respectively; see the Chat 1.

In addition, a president with international and government experience (49% and 37%) is the most desired one.

Table 1: Well-educated “presidential” leader desired                  Table 2: Georgians want a more powerful president

Source: GORBI, 2018 May, nationwide survey (n=1000)

Another big disadvantage that all contesters are facing is the very low awareness and knowledge of the electorate about the powers of the next president. Half of the survey respondents think that the next president will have more power compared to the current one, which is not the case. Likewise, when GORBI asked last year the same question about the current and ex-president, around 40% said that the current president was enjoying the same power as former president Mr. Saakashvili. Hence, we have big and wrong expectations about what the next president can do and reasonably accomplish. Interestingly, a big majority of Georgians (85%) feel that the next president should have more powers than the current one enjoys. These two figures are a good demonstration of the low perceptions on the country’s development direction and the economic wellbeing of the population. Also, as I have presented in my previous columns, Georgians are very dissatisfied with many institutions, including political parties, trade unions, media, etc. and they see a theoretical chance that the next president will make their lives better.

GD was the only reason why Mr. Margvelashvili became a president in 2013, and 5 years ago GD was much stronger in terms of ratings compared to now. But the votes that they have lost did not go to UNM or to any other established political party. Still, we are “waiting” for a new leader. Salome may attract some votes but in no way enough to secure victory. IF Margvelashvili was running for president, he could have attracted a bigger part of these votes and bring some others from different parties, including GD, but he is no longer in the election formula.

Around 350 BC, King Philip II sent to Sparta the following threatening message: “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.” The Spartan’s sent back a single word in reply: “if”. As it stands now for me, IF Mrs. Zurabashvili receives endorsements and full support from the GD then we will most likely have our first female president. The ball now is in GD’s court.

Note: I would like to extend special appreciation to Ani Lortkipanidze who assisted with the analysis and charts featured in this article
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)