This weekend, Georgians should be lining up to vote for president. But many, especially young people, will not vote at all. The campaign has been a lesson in how to discourage a once-engaged citizenry. It has revealed weaknesses within Georgia’s parties and undermined recent constitutional reforms aimed at completing Georgia’s transformation into a party-based parliamentary republic.
The ruling Georgian Dream party did not nominate a candidate from within its own ranks. Instead, the party is supporting Salome Zourabichvili, an “independent” candidate who is increasingly seen as a puppet of the country’s richest man.
Georgian Dream is energetically promoting Zourabichvili and financing her campaign, with party leaders featuring in her ads and at rallies. Though Zourabichvili is nominally an independent member of parliament, she owes her seat to Georgian Dream, which supported her campaign for the legislature in 2016.
The Georgian Dream government, meanwhile, is trying to discredit the party of her chief rival, the United National Movement (UNM). This month the Prosecutor’s Office released tapes that allegedly reveal members of the UNM government, back in 2007, plotting to murder a businessman who died abroad the following year.
Clearly, Zourabichvili enjoys crucial support from Georgian Dream, yet she has campaigned on an anti-party platform. “I think the time for parties is finished around the world,” she said this summer. “I well know the negative aspects of parties … how parties’ internal battles dramatically damage a common cause.”
It’s fair to say that her cynicism about parties matches the views of Georgian Dream founder and leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister, has dominated politics in Georgia since his party’s victory in 2012. As Levan Berdzenishvili, one of his former political partners, has reported, “Ivanishvili does not understand parties, he does not like party thinking.” Ivanishvili believes “that politics is made by a single man.”
Ivanishvili’s dislike of parties is manifest in how he treats his own. His decision to support Zourabichvili prevented Georgian Dream members from selecting among the many able candidates within their own party, weakening it.
Vice Speaker of Parliament Tamar Chugoshvili, a Georgian Dream member who had advocated for the 2016 constitutional reforms intended to strengthen the party system, revealed in an August interview that the issue of choosing whether to nominate a candidate had split the party.
"We had many discussions on this issue ... There were positions on both sides. The position of the chairman of the party [Ivanishvili] is that Georgian Dream should not have a candidate in the election.” Chugoshvili is also on record as saying that failing to nominate a candidate would signal weakness.
While Georgian Dream may have hurt itself from within, the opposition has failed to take advantage of the moment, discouraging those who hope for a viable multi-party system.
Some may say none of this matters, that the president is a largely ceremonial role now. But the optics are discrediting the system, and the role of the voter, in a young democracy. That is especially true among young Georgians, many of whom are already discouraged.
Polls are few, but a Caucasus Barometer survey after the 2016 parliamentary election suggested voter turnout for Georgians aged 18-35 was significantly lower than among other age groups.
In my own research, I have found young people tend to favor independents.
“In such a polarized environment, an independent candidate would be a good alternative,” said Meko Natroshvili, 24, of the current field of candidates. “People who vote either for Georgian Dream or for UNM do so only because they hate [the other party].”
Party members must devote time to “antagonizing” rival parties, Natroshvili said. “Independents are less biased.”
Moreover, by backing a faux “independent,” Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream feed speculation and fear that the oligarch wields secret powers.
Having worked with young activists across Georgia for years, I am convinced this “ruling party-backed independent” masquerade will discourage young people and estrange them from politics. As Irakli Kupradze, a 23-year-old student activist recently told me, “Young people dislike [the campaign]. They feel deceived.” Kupradze believes young people, if they vote at all, will cast a protest vote for one of the more obscure candidates in a field crowded with oddballs.
So who is going to win this election? Cynicism.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary misinterpreted the Caucasus Barometer poll.
Vera Gogokhia is the founder of You for Democracy, a Tbilisi-based NGO that works with student activists.