On 30 May local elections took place throughout the country. Georgian voters elected the members of 63 councils (sakrebulos) of local government units (municipalities and self-governing cities), Tbilisi City Council, the Mayor of Tbilisi, who was directly elected for the first time, and three vacant Parliamentary seats.
During the long election campaign all registered political parties and blocs concentrated almost entirely on Tbilisi and paid little attention to electoral races in the regions, with the notable exceptions of the United National Movement, the Christian Democratic Movement and a few others.
The local elections were important not only for their contribution (at least in principle) to local government but as a dress rehearsal for the 2012 and 2013 Parliamentary and Presidential elections. The campaign, polling day, the reliability and accuracy of the vote count and the handling of appeals are all indicators of Government and political parties’ commitment to democratic principles. Moreover, and no less significantly, Sunday’s local elections - particularly for the Tbilisi City Council and Mayor – were a major event for many leading Georgian political actors in their attempts to position themselves for the next electoral rendezvous.
This is why the first-ever direct election for Tbilisi Mayor took centre stage in these elections. Despite long and deep negotiations, what are called the “opposition” in Georgia could not agree on a single opposition candidate for Mayor. All the major opposition forces, with the exception of Irakli Alasania’s Alliance for Georgia, decided to present their own candidate. This made it difficult for them to seriously compete with Gigi Ugulava, the incumbent Mayor and candidate of the ruling party, and more so as Ugulava had at his disposal considerable administrative resources, always non-negligible factors in a country like Georgia.
Many observers noted the use of administrative resources by the incumbent Mayor during the election campaign. Under Georgia’s electoral legislation using public resources unjustifiably is strictly forbidden. Even Prime Minister Nika Gilauri called on all Ministries and state officials not to get involved in the election process and avoid exerting pressure on members of opposition parties. Prime Minister Gilauri warned everybody that such illegal use of public resources would be punished as stipulated by the law.
All candidates and parties strove to reach their voters by holding public meetings in different parts of the country, but above all in Tbilisi. Opposition parties accused the National Movement of being solely responsible for all the problems of Tbilisi and promised to resolve them if elected. The accusation that some candidates were making “unrealistic” promises flew from all sides of the political divide.
All the candidates’ programmes stressed the acuteness of social-economic and infrastructure problems, with an emphasis on the high rate of unemployment in Tbilisi and other regions. Alasania insisted on his “employment programme”, pledging to create at least 50,000 new jobs by setting up a municipal fund to help start-up businesses and contribute to the growth of small and medium-sized businesses. Gogi Topadze, owner of a famous beer producing company and founder of Industry Will Save Georgia (the Industrialists), also ran an active campaign focusing on resolving unemployment and improving socio-economic conditions for Tbilisians. Giorgi Chanturia, the Mayoral candidate of the Christian Democratic Movement, spoke a lot about bringing down Tbilisians’ cost of living by subsidising Tbilisi’s utility systems. However, his programme lacked concrete proposals to make this achievable.
Unlike other candidates Gigi Ugulava was able to change and adapt his tactics during the campaign. While at the outset he fought on the “unemployment problem” ticket, later he put himself in the position of a worker by appearing one day in a bakery in a suburb of Tbilisi and the next in a movie theatre cleaning windows, at a meat market as a butcher and at a petrol station pumping gas. He justified this by saying that performing these tasks would give him a better understanding of the needs and problems of ordinary people and small enterprises.
Mayoral candidates were given the opportunity, again for the first time in post-Soviet Georgia, to present and defend their electoral programmes on TV during the May 8 TV debate. Undoubtedly, this first live debate was a significant step toward refining Georgia’s political and democratic culture. However, the 90-minute programme also revealed that the candidates’ programmes, though better designed and more detailed than in previous elections, still lacked a clear understanding of Georgia’s constitutional provisions and regulations. For instance, three of the five major candidates, Zviad Dzidziguri, Gogi Topadze and Giorgi Chanturia, were keen on a adopting a protectionist economic policy to deal with growing unemployment in the capital. They promoted nurturing local enterprises through imposing higher taxes on imported goods that can be produced domestically. If, in addition, foreign markets could be found for Georgian products, the problem of unemployment would be gradually overcome, they claimed. They forgot (intentionally or not), however, that the protection of Tbilisi’s businesses or the imposition of new taxes on imports inevitably require a shift in the country’s economic policy that cannot be formulated at the local level.
When all is said and done, these elections showed that most serious problem in Georgian politics, at all levels, is that most of the media, especially television, is not transparent. The Georgian public still do not know who controls and finances the country’s two main TV channels, Rustavi2 and Imedi. One can realistically assume that the Georgian Government is financially backing these and other sources of “information.”
Also only Rustavi2, Imedi and the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB, Channel One), broadcast outside the capital. These are considered pro-Government stations. In a country where newspaper and internet readers are as rare as professional and knowledgeable TV journalists, it is not surprising that elections are won by those who can influence the public agenda by maintaining control over the spoken media. This is an aspect the Electoral Commission will inevitably have to focus on if Georgia wants to attain European electoral standards, as it claims.