“No to the Nazis!” scream billboards across Georgia as they depict a malevolent-looking former president Mikheil Saakashvili, surrounded by his loyalists, their faces contorted in menacing grimaces against a blood-red backdrop.
The billboards, sponsored by the governing Georgian Dream party, are meant to discourage Georgians from voting for an opposition presidential candidate in runoff presidential elections scheduled for November 28.
The ads marked a further debasement in the political discourse that many Georgians believed had already hit rock bottom. But questionable strategies and ad hominem attacks appear to be fair game in the increasingly high-pitched fight to become the nation’s fifth president.
The irony, perhaps, is that the stakes in this race are relatively low, as the president is now a largely figurehead position. But the runoff – between the Georgian Dream-backed Salome Zourabichvili and Grigol Vashadze, the nominee from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) – is being conducted as if the survival of the state is at stake.
In one video broadside against the UNM, various characters masochistically recite what sort of torment and abuse they anticipate enduring should the UNM win. “I want to beaten, raped, have my business taken away from me and be thrown in jail,” says a smiling young man in the online video. “I want someone to bite me on my breast,” adds a young woman.
People in the ad refer to the excesses impugned to the party and Saakashvili during their time in power, from 2004 to 2012. The negative ads and billboards appeared after Zourabichvili, in a surprise setback, failed to defeat Vashadze in the first round of the election on October 28.
Losing this election could mark the beginning of an end to the Georgian Dream’s long-time, unchecked hold on all key branches of government. The UNM has not been this close to making a dent in the Georgian Dream’s rule in years. With both parties looking beyond the presidential election towards the more consequential parliamentary elections in 2020, the fight for the largely ceremonial office is proceeding with an unseemly ferocity.
While they lack the resources of the governing party and its billionaire chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the UNM and its supporters are holding their own in the mudslinging battle, with attacks on Zourabichvili that portray her as treasonous, incompetent and even promiscuous.
“She had an affair with the godfather of her children, while she was still married,” Nika Gvaramia, a director and show host at the opposition-leaning Rustavi2 television channel, pointed out in a live broadcast. “Maybe it is nobody’s business, but in any democratic country this would ruin any presidential candidate,” he claimed. Gvaramia, a government minister under Saakashvili and his continued loyalist, is also portrayed on the “Nazi” billboard.
Zourabichvili, who was Ivanishvili’s personal choice (and, arguably, personal mistake), has taken a backseat in her own campaign. Her perceived arrogant manner turned off many Georgians and after the flub in the first round, she has been largely replaced in the party’s ads by Ivanishvili and other party leaders.
Another set of Georgian Dream billboards now depict Ivanishvili and his loyalists exhorting voters to make a “principled choice” on November 28. The strategy, while underscoring that the rich and philanthropic Ivanishvili remains the Georgian Dream’s biggest selling point, also made conspicuous Zourabichvili’s absence from this phase of the campaign. That, in turn, inspired a series of photoshopped memes putting random characters like John Travolta on to the billboards.
But Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream aren’t only relying on billboards and negative ads. Just ahead of the runoff, a charitable foundation controlled by Ivanishvili, Cartu, promised to pay off bad loans of 600,000 Georgians, an act of generosity that will cost over $560 million. Democracy watchdog group Transparency International described the move as an “unprecedented instance of alleged vote buying.”
Cartu Bank, also controlled by Ivanishvili’s family, extended an 8 million lari (about $3 million) loan to the embattled Omega Group, a private business whose owner previously had accused Ivanishvili of running a protection racket against him. Georgian media have carried a number of reports about Georgian Dream activists paying voters between 30 and 50 lari (from $11-19).
Polls are inconclusive, but the combination of his billboards and billions could still propel Ivanishvili -- or rather his somewhat forgotten candidate -- to victory.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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