Tbilisi mayor's race boosting Saakashvili's governing party
|Publication Date||10 May 2010|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Tbilisi mayor's race boosting Saakashvili's governing party, 10 May 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bfd3b7123.html [accessed 14 March 2014]|
May 10, 2010 – 2:28pm, by Molly Corso
There is a crowded field for Tbilisi's mayoral election, which will be held May 30. The vote will serve as the first serious test of President Mikheil Saakashvili's political strength since Georgia's disastrous 2008 war with Russia.
Although nine candidates are entered in the race, political experts in Tbilisi now expect the incumbent mayor and Saakashvili protégé, Gigi Ugulava, to win by a wide margin. His comfortable lead is seen not only as a reassuring sign for Saakashvili's administration, but also serves in part as a testament to his hard work on the campaign trail.
Touting his slogan "There is still much left to do," Ugulava has hustled votes while baking bread, waiting on customers at a sausage factory, packing medicine at a pharmaceutical factory and filling up tanks at a local gas station.
The gimmick prompted late-night talk show host Vano Javakhishvili to place a fake phone call to Saakashvili to beg him to return to Georgia and to "help" an Ugulava gone off his rocker washing windows and pumping gas.
Ribbing aside, Ugulava's campaign formula may have found its mark. A poll conducted in April by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers for the National Democratic Institute reported that 41 percent of 2,378 respondents believe Georgia is "mainly" going in the right direction now – a marked increase from 29 percent last year.
In the January 2008 presidential vote, Saakashvili received a minority of votes in Tbilisi's electoral precincts. Ugulava's strong run so far suggests that the governing United National Movement has bolstered its political standing in the capital. Georgia's next presidential election is scheduled for 2013.
Governing party critics are complaining that Ugulava – with the National Movement's supposed blessing – has abused his office to promote his image as a can-do politician. Free English and computer classes, along with neighborhood projects to help finance new elevators and roofs for apartment buildings, have raised concerns that Ugulava is using municipal funds to augment his election campaign.
Koki Ionatamishvili, founder of the non-governmental organization New Initiative, New Generation, and occupies the number-two slot on the United National Movement's list of Tbilisi City Council candidates. He dismissed those allegations against the mayor. "The mayor shouldn't build roads, he should not clean the city, we should not build schools because then they say it is all the use of administrative resources," Ionatamishvili posited. "If there are concrete complaints, please ... but otherwise ... the city cannot simply stop."
Sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili, the head of Institute of Social Studies and Analysis, noted that that Ugulava's "man of action" image appears to be resonating widely with city voters. "Ugulava wants to show himself as not a man sitting in the office, but a man who participates in [the] everyday life of the people," Kachkachishvili said. "He sells a product that is required in the market and people are buying."
Ionatamishvili emphasizes that the mayor's quick-change routine is not just a bid for votes. "That is not a change in his image, that is how it should be, and he is just doing his job," he said.
In a May 9 televised candidate debate, Ugulava pledged to turn the mayor's office into "an employment center."
Other political parties, notably the Christian-Democratic Movement and the Industrialists Party, have also built their campaigns around job creation and raising living standards. This has made for a jumble of nearly identical campaign platforms with only one candidate with a proven track record, noted political scientist Koba Turmanidze. "[I]f you are an opposition party and are promising the same as the governing party is promising, why should you be more credible?" Turmanidze asked.
Two of Ugulava's closest competitors are former United Nations envoy Irakli Alasania and Beer magnate Gogi Topadze. Both have been trying to keep pace with the incumbent by making sweeping give-away pledges of their own. Alasania, for example, has promised that city-run pharmacies would distribute discounted medications and that the city would make available low-interest loans for businesses. Topadze, meanwhile, has promised free health care for the elderly.
In an April poll of 800 voters conducted by Kachkachishvili, the sociologist, 10 percent of the respondents indicated that they had switched support from the opposition to the United National Movement. Twenty-six percent said they were undecided.
"The rehabilitation of the governing party happened not because of the party itself, but because of the weakness of the opposition," Kachkachishvili contended.
More radical opposition politicians so far have relied on protests in order to make an impression with the electorate. For example, demonstrations against commemorating Georgia's police on May 6 – St. George's Day, according to the Julian calendar – resulted in a brief scuffle between opposition activists and law-enforcement personnel.
Tbilisi State University political scientist Malkhaz Matsaberidze suggested that there may be little that his opponents can do at this point to derail Ugulava's re-election bid. "It will be very difficult for the opposition to compete against Ugulava," said Matsaberidze.
Editor's note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.