Laura Thornton, NDI Global Associate, on the Popularity Poll

Exclusive Interview

Recent poll results released by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC Georgia revealed that the majority of respondents, 46%, believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only 25% thinks it is heading in the right direction.

"Unfortunately, Georgians see their leaders and representatives, who should be working on behalf of all Georgians, as harmful to the country’s unity,” said Laura Thornton, NDI Global Associate. “Particularly when people are losing confidence in their country’s direction, divisiveness and polarization can threaten Georgia’s resilience and growth. Leaders should lead by example and do more to bring people together," she added.

GEORGIA TODAY went to speak to her to get more of her take on the situation.

Who is to blame? Is it this government’s fault?

Good question. When things aren’t going well, you need to find a boogie man, and usually the answers are more complex. For example, the state of the economy: the economy is affected by global trends, by multiple things, resources. In Georgia, we do see this very negative trend and I can’t explain whether that would be different under a different government but I do think Georgians, at least in their perception, see the government as responsible. The country going in the wrong direction attracts very closely to the value of the GEL: the fact that people perceive the economy as performing badly- it’s all intricately linked and I would be very interested to know that if the economy was going well, whether it would change anything. Georgians identify their top national issues as primarily economic ones; so, whether it would be different under different government it’s a pure speculation, I cannot say. What I can say is that currently people hold them responsible for this and believe they are not performing well.

There’s a line in the NDI findings saying that the feeling that the country is moving in the wrong direction is strongly linked to the Lari depreciation.

This to me is fascinating, because according to official statistics, inflation is really not that high, but people perceive the Lari depreciation and inflation as the same and are clearly thinking the country is going in the wrong direction based on what the value of the Lari is.

There are countries with a huge inflation rate, but they feel fine.

Right. I’m very curious to see why that is; if they just look at the value of the currency as an indicator of something bigger. Certainly, that would affect people purchasing a lot of products that are imported, for example.

In 2010, the last time this dissatisfaction was seen, it was just two years ahead of an election. Can we assume this kind of scenario might be realistic in the upcoming election?

If I were an analyst in another country and someone said that 60% of the population believes that the government is performing badly, the majority of people think the country's going in the wrong direction, I would say you know the government's in trouble. However, in Georgia we don't see any support for any other options and continually have a similar outcome.

Is there a political vacuum? A void of political trust?

I think that's fair to say. Looking at our polling data, you can see 60%, you don’t see such figures in other countries; in the United States for example, you might have one to two percent undecided. We're in an unusual country, so it's not a very fair comparison, but you don't see so many determined voters who do not like anybody; basically no one likes their options and even though there's plenty of options beyond the main parties: smaller parties, new movements, the Democratic Socialist Party, Libertarian party, Populist party- there are other choices but yet people don't seem to be satisfied. So yes, I think you can call it a vacuum, though I look at it as a huge opportunity for anyone who's out there now.

You think they're looking out for someone and it’s not a kind of political nihilism?

It could be a bit of both. I think people are just fed up with politics; they don't believe anyone represents their interests, but when I see such high intention to vote, it makes me think that they want something. The majority of people who said “yes I will vote” are undecided. They want to participate but I don't know whether they’ll turn up on the day. A lot of people that work today make a decision the day of the election. They get into the polling station and, who knows, maybe they just choose [randomly]; they just hold their noses and vote for the lesser of evils. It’s a feasible option; so even though people might not dislike the two major parties, when they get into the polling station, interestingly, they do pull the trigger for one of them- they don't take a chance on somebody else and I don't know why that is.

Considering the polling was conducted in July, why is there no question whatsoever about Anaklia or Khazaradze’s political movement?

Because Khazaradze hadn't declared it. Actually, we asked about it in our last paper; I mean there's certain questions we only ask at check-in. We don't need to check in every two months on the same questionnaire and we have limited space in the poll. We did ask about Anaklia in our April poll and we asked about Khazaradze when the charges against him were brought as to whether the charges against him were political or perceived as political- and most people did say it’s political. I can't remember the numbers exactly, but we did ask about him, and about Anaklia. We’re doing another poll, and of course this will include Khazaradze’s social movement.

The approval rating is mostly about government leaders, and we see the mayor emerging as a star. Do you have any explanation from those participating in the polls why they think of him as such a cool guy?

No, we never ask why in the poll, but you know you like or don’t like a person. In our last poll, we had a lot more people, and we did individual ratings. We didn't have space in this poll to do that but in our last, Kakha Kaladze still stood out even among a big group of people as most popular; so, presumably, people are satisfied with what he's doing or they like his approach or charisma. I do know he's consistently popular.

We don’t see the opposition leaders there. Is that on purpose?

No, we did ask about a lot of opposition leaders, but, as I said, we didn't do individual ratings in this poll.

If the overall approval rating of government leaders is plummeting, there should be at least some gain for the opposition.

In our last poll, you could see there were some popular people: Margvelashvili, Davit Bakradze, Usupashvili. What's interesting is that the favorability and unfavorability ratings don't necessarily translate into parties. For example, Irakli Alasania was always enormously popular and yet Free Democrats was not. I think it's very interesting that one would presume that with the government having these negative trends, we’d see a jump in support for these opposition persons, but you don't. I certainly think it presents an opportunity for opposition parties to take advantage, but we don’t see that translating in real life.

You didn’t mention the [Russian] occupation among the June 20 events. Why not?

Because again our last poll was focused exclusively on foreign policy where we asked multiple questions related to security, foreign policy, EU, NATO. In every poll, we have to limit ourselves and we can't ask everything all the time. In this poll, we didn't ask about territorial integrity and asked one question about the EU.

The overwhelming mood, if we were to judge from the poll findings, is very negative. Anything positive happening? Anything to make people cheerful?

I always like to focus on the positive so I thought the results about healthcare were really quite positive; people believe that healthcare is of good quality, they like the universal healthcare system, they have accessible clinics nearby; I mean they complained about the cost of medicine but that's actually something very concrete and something that can be addressed; as could a lot of factors. My personal experience is the doctors here prescribe so many drugs, you have to question the need. This is something that can be addressed and fixed but, other than that, people were really positive, pleased even. I mean, we're struggling in my country with healthcare debates and spending on healthcare and universal healthcare and I think it's a real achievement over the last 10 years for Georgia, so, that's worth a shout-out I think.

By Vazha Tavberidze

23 September 2019 18:32