Georgian Presidential Vote Shocks Ruling Party, Energizes Opposition: Will Ethnic Azeri Voters Be Kingmakers?

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 1 November 2018
Georgian Presidential Vote Shocks Ruling Party, Energizes Opposition: Will Ethnic Azeri Voters Be Kingmakers?

Voters in the South Caucasus nation of Georgia ruined the ruling party’s hopes for the outright win in the October 28 presidential race. The governing Georgian Dream’s candidate Salome Zourabichvili failed to garner 50 percent of the votes, forcing the race into a second round. Georgia is now bracing itself for the December 2 runoff.

Independent presidential candidate Salome Zourabichvili, supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party, gained 38.6 percent of the votes, and opposition United National Movement candidate Grigol Vashadze - 37.75 percent.

Experts estimate the election results as a sensation though after this popular presidential election, a new constitution comes into force, which significantly limits the presidential powers, turning the head of state into a sort of “British queen”. The president of Georgia will no longer be able to implement foreign policy, the National Security Council will not subordinate to the president and he/she can even use the powers of the Supreme Commander only in the event of war.

True, the term of office of the president is extended from five years to six, but this certainly does not balance the cuts in real power. As a result, more recently, many experts were ready to consider the current elections as insignificant, where the candidate from the ruling party should win almost an “automatic” victory and opinion polls results gave the preference to Salome Zourabichvili.

Ethnic Azerbaijani voters of Georgia: Will they be kingmakers?

Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijani voters backed opposition candidate in the first round and the struggle for their votes and preferences will resume in the second phase.

The outcome was expected in districts where the ethnic Azerbaijani voters live compact. Salome Zourabichvili made several unforgivable mistakes during her election campaign and the opposition candidate took advantage of them and used against her. It was unforgivable for a professional politician vying for the presidency and even for a public figure.

During her election trip to Javakheti, a region densely populated by ethnic Armenians, she made a number of anti-Turkish statements, which caused understandable concern primarily among Georgian Azerbaijanis. However, not only among them - in Georgia, many people are well aware of how the promotion of Armenian separatism and the game of ethnic hatred can end. Not to mention the role that the relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey play for the country's economy.

An even high-profile scandal erupted around Zourabichvili statements about the Russian aggression against Georgia in August 2008. She said it was “Georgia that provoked a new round of conflict by engaging Russians in a provocation” and that Saakashvili “bombed own population” in Tskhinvali in August 2008. Her words predictably caused a storm of indignation in Georgia and she was considered an accomplice of Moscow.

In response, she tried to remind of her own merits in the withdrawal of Russian military bases from the territory of Georgia and said that she supported the country's membership in NATO and the EU. But it was no longer possible for her to “cross out” own statements. Moreover, in the Armenian “get-together”, in front of which Mrs. Zourabichvili so diligently crucified, they were also considered evidence that “tomorrow, instead of Russians, the Turks will come to Akhalkalaki under the NATO flag and arrange a second massacre here.”

As it turned out, Salome Zourabichvili, who said she was cautious about the outcome, was not in vain as she failed to win, not to mention gain an easy win. Salome Zourabichvili received less than 40% of the vote. Moreover, as the analysis shows, ethnic Azerbaijanis - citizens of Georgia decided the fate of the failed favorite: the majority of the ethnic Azerbaijanis backed opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze, who represented the party of Saakashvili and Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili already thanked the voters of Gardabani for their support.

Regions of Georgia voted differently and districts populated mainly by ethnic Azerbaijanis voted mainly for Grigol Vashadze. Georgian pundits believe a notorious statement of Salome Zourabichvili, perceived as anti-Turkic by many, played a crucial role in making ethnic Azerbaijani population to vote against the government-backed candidate.

However, official figures from the Georgian electoral commission indicate that Marneuli, Bolnisi, Dmanisi voted for Salome Zourabichvili, and the opposition candidate won Gardabani – the district populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis.

The results of the elections are an indication that the voting was fair and the results were not falsified. The actual loss of the pro-government candidate is due to the fact that, firstly, the ruling party initially relied on extremely unpopular figures, and this was clear to everyone except the government itself.

Second, during the six years of governance, Georgian Dream not only failed to improve the socio-economic situation in the country, but managed to worsen it in almost all segments. So before the elections, even those who “blessed” Bidzina Ivanishvili for “getting rid of Saakashvili” began to say that “under Misha, there was order” and it was reflected in the results of the vote. After all, Vashadze is the nominee of the United National Movement, whose leader remains Saakashvili.

And if he wins the second round, the clash between supporters of Mikheil and “dreamers” will be inevitable, according to some experts in the country who want to frighten Georgians and conjointly frighten society.

As for Tbilisi, voters of the so-called "elite" districts of the capital voted for the official candidate, "forgiving the dreamers" for six years of stagnation to prevent Saakashvili’s return though the outskirts of the capital actually confirmed for the restoration of the “old order” under the Saakashvili government.

Finally, the election rating of the Georgian Dream as such was not the best hit by a series of scandals, such as "tapping" of high-ranking people, accusations of "elite corruption" and so on. The Georgian Dream could still try to balance the “reciprocal salvo” in the war with compromising evidence, but it would be more difficult to refute the fact that the Georgian Dream does not have impressive results in the socio-economic development of Georgia. As a result, nostalgia for Saakashvili’s times is becoming more and more prominent in Tbilisi, and the victory in the election of the UNM candidate Grigol Vashadze will set the stage for his return to Georgia.

And such a turn of events is at least not excluded. The outcome of the struggle in the second round will be decided by voters who have supported minor candidates. And if those who supported Davit Bakradze in the first round vote for Grigol Vashadze, his victory will becomes a foregone conclusion. And in this case, the chances of a victory of the United National Movement will sharply increase the chances in the parliamentary elections of 2020.