With one month to go before the Georgian parliamentary elections scheduled for October 8, billionaire businessman and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has begun to campaign on behalf of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) party that he founded in 2011 and led to victory over the ruling United National Movement (ENM) of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012.
As on many previous occasions, some of his off-the-cuff statements and predictions have met with outraged denial from his political opponents and tactfully expressed disagreement on the part of former coalition partners.
Speaking in the western Georgian region of Guria on September 5, for example, Ivanishvili accused Saakashvili personally of inciting ENM supporters to perpetrate “chaos” with the aim of disrupting the election campaign, adding that the party no longer has the requisite resources or influence to inflict such damage. Saakashvili responded the same day with a counteraccusation pegged to an attempt to disrupt a campaign meeting in western Georgia by his wife, Sandra Roelofs, who is second on the ENM’s party list.
Ivanishvili has generally maintained a low profile since stepping down as premier in November 2013, but the ENM, and some observers of Georgian politics, remain convinced that he still functions as the eminence grise behind the government, or even as puppetmaster dictating government policy. While this may conceivably have been true under Irakli Gharibashvili, Ivanishvili’s hand-picked successor as prime minister, incumbent Giorgi Kvirikashvili says Ivanishvili has given him free rein and does not interfere in the day-to-day working of the government.
Last week, Ivanishvili launched a series of twice-weekly interviews in which he said he intended to analyze the current situation in Georgia for the benefit of those voters who were themselves incapable of doing so and thus make it clear why they should vote for GD-DG. Nika Melia, who heads the ENM election campaign, branded that statement an “unprecedented insult” to society as a whole.
In the course of that interview (which was aired on his son Bera’s TV channel, GDS TV), Ivanishvili praised GD-DG and Kvirikashvili personally as the sole party and political figure, respectively, capable of thinking in terms of the best interests of the state. He went on to claim that the economy is flourishing, an assertion that Roman Gotsiridze of the ENM dismissed as “far from reality.” GDP growth was 4.7 percent in 2014 but only 2.8 percent in 2015.
Ivanishvili further predicted that GD-DG will garner no fewer than 100 of the total 150 parliament mandates, and possibly as many as 115. In a lengthy open letter to the Georgian people in early June, he had cited the figure of 95 to 100.
Kvirikshvili, for his part, similarly told an audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in May that he expects GD-DG to win “a very strong majority” in the new parliament.
Those confident predictions are not borne out by opinion polls, however. A poll conducted in June-early July by the U.S. National Democratic Institute registered support for GD-DG and the ENM at 19 percent and 14 percent respectively, followed by the State for the People party founded by opera singer Paata Burchuladze and the Alliance of Patriots at 4 percent each; 35 percent of respondents were still undecided which party to vote for. The State For The People has since registered to participate in the elections in a bloc together with three other parties, two of which -- New Georgia and New Political Center-Girchi -- are headed by former ENM stalwarts.
Citing unnamed experts, the daily Rezonansi calculated that GD-DG could indeed win most of the 73 single-mandate constituencies plus 35 percent of the remaining 77 seats allocated on the basis of party lists, giving a total of 100. But Levan Berdzenishvili, a leading member of the Republican Party, which until recently was one of GD-DG’s coalition partners, dismissed Ivanishvili’s prediction as unserious. Like many analysts, Berdzenishvili believes popular confidence in Ivanishvili is far lower now than four years ago.
One of those pundits, Gia Khukhashvili, told the news portal InterpressNews that he thinks it unlikely Ivanishvili’s engagement on behalf of Georgian Dream will bring about a "breakthrough,” although it could halt the decline in that party’s popularity.
Khukhashvili characterized the election campaigns waged by GD-DG and the ENM as “mutual demonization” based not so much on a recapitulation of past achievements or a clear plan for improving the situation as on the argument that each is the better alternative. Both Khukhashvili and Paata Kvizhinadze, first deputy chairman of the outgoing parliament’s economic policy committee, have pointed out that the economic programs of both the ENM and New Political Center-Girchi are based on flawed math, possibly in a bid to win over those voters still unemployed and living in poverty. (The ENM is promising a 50 lari [$21.74] increase in the monthly pension of 180 laris.)
According to the NDI opinion poll cited above, 41 percent of respondents identified economic policy as the issue that matters most to them in deciding which party to vote for. Just 17 percent said their household situation has improved since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012; 51 percent said there has been no change, while 32 percent said they are worse off now than four years ago.