Mtatsminda Elections: A Look beyond the Numbers

The fight for the Mtatsminda district parliamentary seat vacated by Salome Zurabishvili as she moved on to Presidency is coming to its final stretch. With less than a week to go, the election day is Sunday, May 19, the race is getting heated, and several traits are shaping up into what may very well define the next Parliament in 2020.

With the main concerns of the voters being unemployment and rising prices, low wages and poverty, people seem to have grown tired of the two major parties that have been in power for the last 15 years. In Tbilisi, almost half of the voters either have a difficult time picking between the two, or openly root for the new political force, the third power, to emerge and pull the country out of its current state. Mtatsminda is an excellent choice to test some ideas and formats: it’s a decent-sized district with some 43,000 eligible registered voters, and the turnout is projected to be around 70%. The district itself is, in many ways, representative of the whole Georgia: an old settlement with multinational neighborhoods where building the new needs to be balanced with protecting the old. Crumbling infrastructure, an onslaught of developers, gentrification, tourists, new cultures, reconciling them with the existing identities, historically high tolerance, overwriting the narratives and, against this complex background, the candidates’ takes on these issues.

What makes the race for a sole spot in Parliament even more interesting is that all the available polls show it to be quite unlikely that any candidate will break 50%, which means a second round of elections. The field is overcrowded, with 20 entities on the ballot: 14 from the parties and six independent candidates. On the surface, it’s business as usual: 18 parties and electoral blocs applied to the Central Election Commission (CESKO) at the “show of interest” stage. Traditionalists and the People’s Party were unable to proceed to the registration stage due to a lack of signatures to show preliminary voter support, as prescribed by the law. Thirteen parties registered, uneventfully, which leaves us with the three entities: the UNM, European Georgia and the Free Democrats.

European Georgia is a spinoff from UNM and is widely known as Euro-UNM, so their trade-off deal makes perfect sense: the mothership called off its participation in the parliamentary elections in Mtatsminda district and threw its weight behind the “Euro-nationals” in exchange for the latter providing all kinds of support in the Zugdidi mayoral race. An MP for a mayor seems like an uneven swap, but Zugdidi is a high-stake battleground, where UNM’s beleaguered ex-leader’s wife, Sandra Roelofs, is vying for a win and Euro-UNM’s regional support would come in handy. While the UNM and its spinoff joining forces for any chance to defeat Georgian Dream anywhere they could didn’t surprise anyone, the later addition of the Free Democrats to the bloc raised many an eyebrow. On an ideological level, the Free Dems, under Alasania, were distinctly at odds with the party of Saakashvili, where the current European Georgia leadership held prominent positions. Shavgulidze, who succeeded Alasania as a chair of the party, was widely expected to continue this line, especially since his prominence and recognizability rested on the Girgvliani case, a gruesome murder of a young man that has become the symbol of the abuse of power, lawlessness and rampant disregard of human rights under the Saakashvili regime. Shavgulidze represented the family of the victim, standing up to those in power with professionalism and courage, and gained the respect of many while doing so; the idea that he would switch the sides and stand with those he labeled murderers and enablers, just to get elected, repulsed many. That he would try to get elected precisely in the district where the murder took place added insult to injury. It may have looked good on the paper, and in the preliminary polls, the Free Democrat base adding their votes to European Georgia, but in the Mtatsminda district, it may misfire badly.

Georgian Dream has a candidate issue of its own, albeit a less severe one: Kakhadze was running against GD-backed Zurabishvili in this very same district and became a “dreamer” for the sake of the parliamentary elections. He’s said to be a decent guy and a good doctor, although many doubt that yet another grandfatherly figure in Parliament is what a doctor would prescribe. With the ruling party’s administrative resources behind him, he does have a chance to make it to the second round, though.

Of course, not all parties have the same ambitions: some throw their hat in the ring for every bout of elections, Presidential, Parliamentary or local, getting the state-mandated financing whenever applicable, use it up in salaries, gasoline charges and office supplies, and all but fade till the next scheduled outing. My personal favorite is the “Union Recovery justice voice of the people: The Lord our righteousness,” spelling and capitalization of the original letterhead, a one-man show of Mikheil Gela Saluashvili who shows no movement of funds on the accounts, but duly registers and files mandatory reporting to the Monitoring Service of the State Audit Office. (* Note: is a wonderful resource, and SAO responds to all calls in a super-helpful way – for those who might want to go through the numbers in more detail). Our numbers are based on data from two reporting periods (the last one, May 01-May 19, will be submitted after the elections): March 20-April 09, and April 10-30. The campaign finance reports are due within five business days from the end of a period, and certain entities will be facing SAO in court for failing to comply with the law, like Girchi (translated as “pinecone”), a party known for its theatrical stance on everything from military service to religion and cannabis laws. With undeniable appeal among younger voters, Girchi is often seen as testing the boundaries, and might be pining for its day in court (pun intended) as a matter of strategy. Most importantly, it doesn’t prevent their candidate from running: Herman Szabo has been seen canvassing the district and putting his live feeds up on Facebook.

Still, there are only two serious contenders among the 14 items on the party list: the usual suspects, Georgian Dream and the Euro-UNM-Free-Dem bloc, who operate the purses that can withstand over half a million GEL in advertising expenses, with items like candidate photo sessions, flags and songs, in addition to ubiquitous billboards and banners peppered throughout. This is a luxury independent candidates and even well-established parties simply cannot afford. Now, the “indies” are making the case that they don’t even need to go down the road of “the one with the most money wins.”

The six independent candidates make a very interesting group, but we will talk of three, as Tamar Alfaidze and Ioseb Koberidze show no activity, financial or otherwise, in the whole campaign period. Koba Davitashvili, once a brilliant lawyer considered a rising star in the Georgian legal field, now lends his voice to “say no to LGBT” and alt-info videos making up his Facebook feed; more importantly, his spending, or lack thereof, shows that his heart isn’t really in the race. For the remaining three candidates, the LGBT pride day on May 17 and the counter-parade of “Family Purity” backed by the Georgian Orthodoxy, should be an easy test to pass: they are progressives and respect the rights of all, regardless of their orientation or identity.

Youngest of the remaining three, Grigol Gegelia got off to a late start, and started spending mid-April, printing 2,000 copies of a flyer, but has been trying to attract attention by announcing a street action themed around the Rustaveli movie theater. The non-issue got swiftly debunked, and the cause for a street protest died with it, but Gegelia scheduled another one, on the Sunday before the elections: a procession through the electoral district. While he is not expected to make any impact in the May 19 elections, he’s may well have a future ahead of him. Lado Papava, a member of the Gegelia team, made an excellent point while taking questions on a TV show: media needs to quit painting the elections as a two-horse race; there are others in the fray, and journalists need to pay attention.

Two independent candidates deserve a good look, as they might break into the second round: Khorguani and Ioseliani. Both have been accused of being not-so-independent, and there might be some truth in it. Sofio Khorguani has been opposed to UNM rule both in her pervious line of work and in principle, and showed staunch support for GD early on. However, her tune changed and showed signs of disillusionment with the current lineup, which may hint at a readiness to join a “3rd power” that many voters are hoping for, if and when it emerges – or, maybe, even lead it. Levan Ioseliani, however, is not in a position to lead any 3rd power, as he’s nominated by Elisashvili, who is testing waters before forming a party of his own. This is a trial run for both, as they need to show that they can deliver swing votes: something that European Georgia toyed with (adding Elisashvili to their current bloc), but ultimately, decided against. Ioseliani started fast out of the gate, spending in excess of 2,000 GEL on outdoor banners and billboards, printed booklets and branded accessories – more than all the other independent candidates together. Khorguani had a contrasting approach, putting in less money, but more long hours of canvassing the district on foot and meeting hundreds of potential voters in a door-to-door effort before the other candidates picked up on it and followed suit. These individual talks, non-scripted, non-filmed interactions, are a very welcome change that candidates have embraced, a change that was long overdue.

Regardless of whether an independent candidate makes it to the second round or not, excitement is in the air: non-party faces bringing to the table issues that voters care about deeply, low-budget campaigns seeming to have true connection to the population they want to represent, people finally starting to appreciate their power of being heard. Mtatsminda spring, anyone?

By Kyra Devdariani

Photo: Levan Ioseliani and his backer Alexander Elisashvili

13 May 2019 18:05
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