Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tbilisi Mayoral Race Warms Up

Analysts predict winner could be well placed to challenge Saakashvili.
By Sopho Bukia
Unofficial campaigning for local elections is hotting up in Georgia, where the prize of Tbilisi mayor is seen as a possible springboard to the presidency.



The elections will not take place until May, but Tbilisi residents have already been promised measures to secure work for parents of large families; higher pensions; more spending on education; free legal and medical consultations and more.



“I am currently only thinking about how to ease the life of Tbilisi residents,” said current mayor Gigi Ugulava loftily, although he seems to be already fully engaged in his campaign.



“It is my opponents’ job to accuse me of exploiting the city’s administrative resources in the pre-election campaign. And it is my job, as the mayor, to do my work.”



The focus is mainly on the Tbilisi election, which will be the first time the capital has directly elected a mayor, because analysts predict the winner could be well placed for a run at the presidency in 2013.



Current president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in a bloodless revolution in 2003 and, according to the constitution, his second and final term must finish in three years’ time.



“The local government elections this spring will be the first step towards the era after Mikhail Saakashvili,” said Gia Nodia, a former education minister who now works as a political analyst.



“It is clear that after the elections the major theme for discussion will be Saakashvili’s successor. If Gigi Ugulava secures election, then he will start to be treated as a successor to the president in the government team. But if he loses, that will automatically ruin his career.”



He is not the only analyst watching the election closely for precisely this reason.



“Many people regard the mayoral elections as a rehearsal for the presidential elections,” said George Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation.



“In our country, several different scenarios are possible for how events could develop, including changes to the constitution to allow Saakashvili to compete for a third term. However, one thing is clear: a candidate that is elected to the post of mayor of the capital could become a very serious candidate for the presidency.”



Ugulava was the main impetus behind the government’s decision to turn the mayor into an elected position, since mayors were previously appointed. Analysts say he needs the elections to gain greater national standing for an assault on the presidency.



After the date of the election was officially announced, Ugulava, who previously spoke for the president’s National Movement party on the most difficult issues, stopped taking part in discussions or making dramatic statements. Analysts say the strategy is for voters to now associate him primarily with positive announcements.



David Zurabashvili, a former member of the ruling party, but now a member of the opposition Alliance for Georgia, said this showed his candidacy had support from the government.



“Ugulava is not one of those members of the ruling party who are absolutely unacceptable to the electorate,” he said.



Several opposition leaders will stand against him in the elections since the opposition has failed to agree to unite around a single figure. Analysts say his most significant opponent is Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations who became head of the Alliance for Georgia.



He makes no secret that he sees the mayoral post as a step towards the big time, and needs a victory to cement his claim to be the opposition’s candidate in 2013.



However, experts say other groups are not convinced he should lead them, especially since he has not managed to dislodge the National Movement in the opinion polls.



“What has Alasania offered to the rest of the opposition? In reality, nothing. He wants to be the united candidate, but offers nothing to the rest of the opposition. If they play by Alasania’s rules, a large part of the opposition spectrum will find itself out of the game,” Levan Ramishvili, representative of the Liberty Institute, a non-governmental organisation, said.



The national television channels, which are either controlled by the government or by people close to it, have focused their attention on less well known opposition figures who have said they will stand – independent candidate Nika Ivanishvili, businessman and former parliamentary deputy Gogi Topadze and Giorgi Chanturia, the former president of the Georgian International Oil Corporation. Experts say this effectively splits Alasania’s vote.



“Neither the political environment, nor the law, nor the basic situation in Georgia, none of them play into the hands of the opposition, especially since the government also has a large administrative resource. However, the main reason why the opposition loses votes is its own disunity,” Khutishvili said.



Opposition parties have strikingly varied policies, a fact that is likely to complicate any attempt to unite before May. One opposition leader, Levan Gachechiladze, who was a leader of the mass protests that paralysed Tbilisi for much of last year, says that elections will not achieve any change in the government and that all opposition activists should take to the streets.



Tbilisi residents are divided into those who will vote in the polls, and those who will boycott them – something that is likely to further sap the strength of the opposition candidates. Opinion polls suggest, however, that most of the capital’s voters would rather see the opposition take part in the election.



“According to the latest surveys, up to 80 per cent of the population advises the opposition to take part in the elections, instead of holding street protests,” said Iago Kachkachishvili, head of the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis.



“Against this background, there are no grounds to predict a new wave of street protests in Tbilisi.”



His words were supported by many Tbilisi residents, who were disillusioned by the giant protests last year that blocked movement through their city for months but failed to achieve any change.



“I think these opposition people hate each other more than the government, since everything they do plays into the hands of the authorities,” Mamuka Giorgobiani, a Tbilisi resident, said.



“They say they are fighting for a change in the government, but I think they are really more scared that someone will come to power who isn’t them.”



Sopho Bukia is editor of Liberal magazine.