Thursday, October 19, 2017

Will an Independent Mayoral Candidate Bring Political Change to Georgia?

[Note: This piece was originally published at New Eastern Europe. It was written by David Sichinava. David is a Senior Policy Analyst at CRRC-Georgia and Assistant Professor at Tbilisi State University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC-Georgia, the National Democratic Institute, Tbilisi State University, or any other affiliated entity.]

A June 2017 survey CRRC-Georgia carried out for the National Democratic Institute suggests that Aleksandre (Aleko) Elisashvili, an independent candidate and prominent grassroots activist could win the Tbilisi Mayoral elections, if the elections enter  a second round, which the polling also suggests is a possibility. While only election day will tell the ultimate result, if Elisashvili does win, it could be the start of a shake up of Georgian political life.

Local elections are set for October including the election of mayors in several self-governing cities. In Georgian local elections, the Tbilisi Mayoral race is considered the main race, given that the city contains roughly one third of the country’s population. For the ruling Georgian Dream party, former Energy Minister and Vice Premier Kakha Kaladze is running for the post. The United National Movement, which following defections consists of loyalists to Mikheil Saakashvili, has nominated Zaal Udumashvili, a former anchor on Rustavi 2, the country’s largest TV station. European Georgia, a party consisting of defectors from the United National Movement has nominated Elene Khostaria, a former official in the UNM government and currently an MP, for the mayoral race. The race also features Irma Inashvili, the leader of right-wing Alliance of Patriots, and Giorgi Gugava, endorsed by the Labour Party of Georgia.

Besides the party-affiliated candidates, Aleko Elisashvili, an independent who rose to prominence through his engagement with a variety of grassroots movements aimed at preserving Tbilisi’s urban heritage and currently serving on the Tbilisi city council, has thrown his hat into the race.

June 2017 polling CRRC carried out for NDI places Kaladze in the lead with 37% of the vote among likely voters. Elisashvili came in second with 22%, followed by Udumashvili (16%) and Khoshtaria (5%). According to the survey, 16% of likely voters in Tbilisi are undecided or refused to answer who they would vote for.

If undecided voters are distributed equally between parties, a simple but often accurate way of forecasting election outcomes in the absence of a large number of surveys, it suggests that Kaladze would garner about 42% of the vote in the first round of elections. If Kaladze receives less than 50% of the vote, the electoral threshold to win outright in the first round of Georgia’s mayoral elections, it would lead to a runoff. Given the relatively small sample of likely voters in Tbilisi in the survey and the fact that elections were still at least two months away, it is still unclear whether there will be a run-off, though it is a possibility.

Even though Elisashvili is polling 15 points behind Kaladze, in a runoff, Elisashvili could win the race. In a TV interview, both Udumashvili and Khoshtaria expressed their willingness to support any pro-Western opposition candidate against Kaladze in a second round. Assuming those parties supporters would turnout for Elisashvili, the polls suggest he would garner about 54% of the vote. Although Udumashvili is neck-and-neck for the second place, in case of runoff, he does not have Elisashvili’s declared support. Again, keeping in mind the relatively small Tbilisi sample and the level of error associated with it, this places Kaladze and Elisashvili in a neck-and-neck race.

That means that the campaign, and the race for undecided voters matters. While Kaladze has vowed to replace Soviet block flats with modern housing and promises to further invigorate Tbilisi’s lively nightlife, Elisashvili’s campaign has focused on urban politics and policy. He has attacked Tbilisi mayor’s office for corruption and is positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate. Elisashvili’s negative stances towards large real estate developers and Tbilisi’s investor-induced construction frenzy indeed fit the anti-establishment image he’s cultivating.

A closer look at the NDI survey suggests Elisashvili is doing better than Kaladze among those voters who do not identify themselves with any party, almost 40% of the city’s population. Surprisingly for a grassroots activist, Elisashvili’s supporters are more likely to be older and well-off - two demographic groups who generally turn out to vote. They are also more likely to think that there is corruption, nepotism and a lack of professionalism in Tbilisi mayor’s office. Finally, voters who think that environmental pollution is the most important public goods issue in Tbilisi - which has consistently been viewed as the most important public goods issue in the capital - are also leaning towards Elisashvili, as are those who find recent construction in residential neighborhoods unfit to the area.

These political leanings in combination with support for Elisashvili make sense given his background. He was instrumental in founding Tpilisis Hamkari, an activist group concerned with preservation issues. Since its inception in 2005, Hamkari has led protest rallies to save several landmark buildings across Georgia’s capital from demolition. Started by a handful of activists, the movement climaxed in 2011 and 2012 when it drew hundreds to rallies attempting to save Gudiashvili square, a small pocket of urban green area in old Tbilisi. Apart from his work as an activist, Elisashvili also hosted political talk shows on the opposition-associated Kavkasia TV and served as head of the state parole board.

Elisashvili’s activism has contributed to his past political successes. In the 2014 local elections, he ran as an independent, winning a seat on Tbilisi city council in a narrowly fought race with candidates endorsed by the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement in the affluent Saburtalo district. At the city council, he fiercely criticized legislation the Georgian Dream-dominated city government proposed. Importantly, Elisashvili opposed the Panorama Tbilisi construction project which was endorsed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s former prime minister and the wealthiest man in the country.

Whether or not Elisashvili manages to maintain or increase his support, many care about the causes the independent candidate stands for. Georgians are extremely skeptical towards local government and issues like environmental pollution and urban development have become increasingly salient. Political scientists still argue whether such issues matter for party politics in post-communist societies. However, the polling and movements in different contexts increasingly suggest that activists have the potential to challenge and shake up city politics through focusing on these issues. The recent success of an anti-establishment social activist, Ada Colau, in Barcelona’s mayoral race is yet another example.

While, it is too early to say whether Elisashvili will be able to turn his popularity into a successful bid for the mayor’s office, the fact that an independent candidate with a relatively unusual political platform is polling strongly could suggest the winds of change are afloat on the political scene in Georgia. Whether those winds will lead towards a revival of Georgia’s democracy, or whether the 2017 local elections will be another round of hope followed by disappointment at the lack of the opposition’s political acumen like in the 2010 local elections awaits election day.

The data used in this article is available here. The input output model used to distribute voters is available here.

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