Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia

    Tearing apart: what drives political polarisation in Georgia?

    Lessons learnt from the 2018 Presidential elections

    Presidential palace, Tbilisi, Georgia

    By Tornike Zurabashvili

    Tornike Zurabashvili is an independent political analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. From December 2016 through June 2019, he edited Civil.ge, Georgia’s leading English-language daily news and analytical platform. He is currently a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network.

    Find the Georgian version of this article here:

    Abstract

    This article explores the phenomenon of polarisation in the Georgian context. It does so by scrutinising the underpinnings of political division during the country’s most-recent nationwide polls — Presidential election of 2018. Although Presidents carry a largely ceremonial role in Georgia, the campaign was characterised by an unprecedented degree of polarisation — radicalisation of public opinion, verbal attacks and active smear campaigns in social media dominated the pre-election environment. This article attempts to understand the sources of such extreme polarisation. To do so, it reviews the political context behind the Presidential election. It then provides an overview of campaign strategies of two major contenders — the Georgian Dream-backed Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze of the United Opposition. It also examines the role of television and social media in fueling partisan divisions. The paper concludes that the degree of polarisation reached a dangerous threshold during the Presidential election and that it could potentially threaten the country’s democratic record.

    Introduction

    Polarisation[1] has dominated the politics of Georgia of the last three decades. Extreme partisan divisions and black-and-white positioning have been inherent characteristics of the Georgian political culture, with party politics traditionally revolving around two radically opposing camps. While much of this had to do with majoritarian, winner-takes-all nature of Georgian electoral system, no less important was the totalitarian legacy of the Communist era.

    In Georgia, politics of polarisation has been equally employed and sustained by those in power and those in the opposition, but it has usually been the former that has found most incentives in antagonising their opponents. Short on policy achievements, ruling parties have spared no efforts to weaken the protest vote, and have done so by marginalising the opposition and advancing the narratives of “us” vs “them” or “others”. The “others” have varied, ranging from “communists’ and “Zviadists[2]” in the 1990s to “anti-reformists” and “revanchists” under Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, respectively.

    Political actors and contexts have differed as well, but the pattern and dynamics of polarisation have remained unchanged. What has united the opposing camps is their outright rejection of the legitimacy of the other, coupled with their failure to accommodate each others’ political positions. Consequently, both sides have treated politics as a zero-sum-game, suppressing cross-cutting interests and shunning those who have sought consensus. They have also relied heavily on negative messaging, politicising and exploiting the notions of the nation and identity, and painting politics as a struggle between good and evil.

    The presidential election of 2018 is a textbook example of the pernicious nature of polarisation. Although presidents carry a largely ceremonial role, the pre-election campaign was characterised by an unprecedented degree of polarisation. As the vote drew near, the campaign gradually turned into a battlefield of Georgia’s two major parties — the ruling Georgian Dream and the United National Movement. The radicalisation of public opinion, verbal attacks and active social media campaigns targeting Presidential candidates dominated the pre-election environment. This begs the question of what the sources of polarisation during the election were and what channels and discourses did the opposing camps use to amplify their messages.

    Election results and assessments

    The first round of Georgia’s presidential election was held on October 28, 2018. Voters went to the polls to elect their last directly-elected president[3] for a six-year term, replacing Giorgi Margvelashvili, who had been in the office since October 2013. A total of 25 presidential candidates were registered for the elections, the largest number of nominees Georgia has seen since it regained independence in 1991. No candidate obtained more than 50% in the election, with two top contenders — Georgian Dream-backed Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze of the United Opposition — garnering 38.64% and 37.74%, respectively.[4] Davit Bakradze of the European Georgia came third with 10.97% and endorsed Vashadze in the second round. A runoff between the two top candidates was held on November 28. Zurabishvili garnered 59.52% of the votes this time, while her challenger — Grigol Vashadze of the United Opposition obtained 40.48% of the votes. Vashadze did not concede, arguing that the election was massively rigged.

    International election observation missions, including the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), endorsed the vote cautiously, saying the polls were competitive and largely orderly. The two, however, pointed at a number of deficiencies both before and during the election day, including abuses of administrative resources, incidents of violence and reports of voter intimidation. They also stated that the campaign was marred by negative campaigning, harsh rhetoric and personal attacks and that the runoff proved to be much more divisive than the first round.

    Three Georgian election watchdogs — ISFED, GYLA and TI Georgia — echoed the sentiments in their joint assessment, saying the election environment ahead of the November 28 runoff was highly polarised, and was marred by “negative campaigning.” “Voters witnessed extreme polarisation, confrontation, aggressive rhetoric and hate speech employed by various groups supporting the presidential candidates,” the organisations stressed in their statement.

    That the 2018 Presidential election campaign was particularly negative is also confirmed by the Negative Campaigning Comparative Expert Survey Dataset. Figures 1 and 2, which draw on the survey data, show that the intensity of negative campaigning in 2018 was much higher than in the previous Parliamentary polls.

    Figure 1: Campaign tone during the 2016 Parliamentary election in Georgia, by party.[5]

    Figure 2: Campaign tone during the 2018 Presidential election in Georgia, by candidate.[6]

    Political context

    The current political configuration has largely been shaped by the 2012 Parliamentary election, when Georgian Dream (GD), a loose coalition of multiple opposition parties united under billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) with 55% to 41%. The modern-day polarisation traces back to that election as well. GD, which constructed its identity largely in opposition to UNM, adopted an openly confrontational strategy in the aftermath of the election, denigrating the opponent and going after its top leaders. UNM too continued exploiting partisan divisions; weakened by backbencher defections and victors’ justice, party leaders chose to rally around negative messages, employing radically-charged rhetoric against the ruling party and focusing on the need for removing them from the government.

    This tactic has earned both parties some achievements. They have successfully eliminated the middle ground and strengthened in-group loyalties — GD consolidated its support base, while UNM maintained party discipline. In subsequent legislative elections, held on October 2016, GD garnered 48.68 per cent of the votes, while UNM finished with 27.11 per cent of the votes, pushing the third parties out of the way and solidifying their stance as largest Parliamentary parties.[7] All of this, however, came at a heavy cost for societal cohesion, and for that matter, for Georgia’s democracy. Radical and exclusionary political rhetoric from both sides limited the space for constructive engagement and exacerbated the gap between supporters of opposing political parties. As polarisation deepened, the sides grew more and more distant from each other, including in their assessments of seemingly neutral developments. NDI’s pre-election assessment for the 2017 municipal elections summarised the situation accurately:

    “The NDI delegation encountered two divergent, parallel Georgias, a dichotomy that could undermine confidence in the political process. One, seen through the lens of the ruling Georgian Dream party, is characterised by very few democratic challenges: a free media and political environment; swift and unbiased justice; and reforms reflecting broad input. The other … represents a stark contrast: it is characterised by a calculated consolidation of power; uneven and political application of the law; an uneven and unfair electoral playing field; reforms designed to benefit the ruling party; shrinking media space for alternative viewpoints; informal governance; and abuse of state resources, particularly the use of state security services.”

    The GD-UNM polarisation has never been about ideological distance, nor has it been about traditional social and left-right cleavages (figure 3 shows that there was no significant variation in policy distance between the two parties in the 2012 and 2016 elections). Instead, partisan debates have centred around Georgia’s position vis-à-vis Russia, with UNM advocating a more assertive stance towards Moscow and GD prioritising economic and political normalisation with Russia. Polarisation has also emerged over the democracy cleavage. Here, UNM has positioned as a radical critic of Ivanishvili’s “single-handed” and “informal” governance, while GD has relied on police and security forces, and has used the narratives of order and stability.

    Figure 3: Left-right positions of Georgian political parties (2008, 2012, 2016 Parliamentary elections).[8]

    Campaign strategies

    GD’s initial campaign strategy was somewhat more relaxed. That the authorities entertained the idea of the opposition “taking” the Presidency or supporting a “neutral and non-partisan”, meant that they attached minor political importance to the election. Eventually, GD ended up — first tacitly and later openly — backing Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born career diplomat, who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2004–2005. Zurabishvili’s initial campaign messaging was broadly in line with her announced electoral image — of someone standing “above partisan politics” — she focused on her role as a unifying leader and spoke on softer policy issues, such as gender-based violence, emigration and preservation of cultural heritage.

    The incentives were radically different in the other camp. UNM hoped Vashadze’s potential victory could end the cycle of its electoral defeats and break the myth of GD’s invincibility. So, their choice fell on an offensive strategy from the very onset. Zurabishvili was attacked relentlessly in both rounds, particularly on her controversial statements on the Russo-Georgian war, in which she said: “the [2008] part of the war was launched by Georgia.” Vashadze also took a hardline stance against GD’s cannabis cultivation law, which also triggered wide-spread church condemnation. To raise stakes higher, the party also pledged to convene early parliamentary elections in case of Vashadze’s victory.

    GD revisited its strategy ahead of the runoff. Fearing a possible opposition victory, GD headquarters took over the Zurabishvili campaign entirely and launched a more assertive pre-election campaign. This entailed aggressive PR moves, including the display of anti-UNM campaign posters in the streets of Tbilisi and replacement of Zurabishvili’s image by GD leaders on campaign posters and video ads. Several anti-UNM rallies were convened across the country, mostly by public groups established shortly before the election. GD also announced a massive debt write-off scheme and social spending hike.

    Campaign rhetoric radicalised and the objective on both sides became to paint the opponent in the worst possible light. Labels were exchanged; GD-backed candidate was described as “traitor”, while UNM was called “a criminal, dirty political force.” UNM also claimed GD stood for authoritarianism, Russian interests and oligarchy. Zurabishvili camp, on its part, argued the opponents wanted to stir confrontation and topple the democratically-elected government. They also alluded to the possibility of civil war in case of Vashadze’s victory and invoked several high profile criminal cases under their government, including the Robakidze and Girgvliani murder cases in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

    The campaign was also marred by incidents of violence against opposition members, with Vashadze camp accusing the authorities of condoning the perpetrators.

    Facebook as a battleground

    The campaign was fought fiercely on Facebook, which harbours roughly half of Georgia’s population and is extensively used by politicians and voters alike. Smear campaigns were particularly wide-spread. ISFED, which monitored the activity of candidate support pages (both official and unofficial), recorded a total of 160 smear Facebook pages in the run-up to the second-round election.

    These pages, according to the organisation, discredited both Zurabishvili and Vashadze, including through mocking and labelling them and their supporters. The pages concentrated on a number of topics in their messaging, particularly on “injustices” under GD and UNM governments. They also blamed respective Presidential candidates of playing into Russian interests and those of Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili. ISFED said the overall tone of these pages was extremely negative, with some posts invoking candidates’ personal lives and using xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric.

    ISFED said 72 of these pages campaigned against Vashadze and UNM, while 43 campaigned against Zurabishvili and GD. Those targeting Vashadze had a total of 712,924 likers and published 3,164 posts from October 29 to December 2, while those targeting Zurabishvili had 721,646 likers and 8,383 posts in the reporting period. 282 anti-Vashadze posts were sponsored and 28 posts were sponsored against Zurabishvili. Figures 4 and 5 show the intensity and post ratings of smear pages targeting Zurabishvili and Vashadze, respectively.

    Figure 4: Activity of Facebook pages discrediting Salome Zurabishvili and GD shown on a timeline (June 1-December 2).[9]

    Figure 5: Activity of Facebook pages discrediting Grigol Vashadze and UNM shown on a timeline (June 1-December 2). Blue stands for post intensity, while orange stands for post rating.[10]

    Televisions go negative

    Partisan messages were also amplified by Imedi TV and Rustavi 2, the country’s two most-watched television channels. The media environment, overall, was extremely polarised, particularly ahead of the runoff race, but the two channels stood out in the intensity of their campaigning both for and against the Presidential candidates. Opposition-leaning Rustavi 2 was sharply critical of Salome Zurabishvili and the government, while pro-governmental Imedi TV was openly campaigning against UNM and Grigol Vashadze.

    The media monitoring report, commissioned by the UNDP and the EU delegation to Georgia, stated that the two channels “put aside the majority of ethical principles and replaced journalism with propaganda,” with reporters criticising the candidates through “biased texts and insults.” Here, too, according to the report, the major line of offence against Zurabishvili and Vashadze was accusations of Russian influence and the alleged wrongdoings of GD and UNM government.

    Figure 6: Tone of coverage of Zurabishvili and Vashadze in three TV stations.[11]

    Figure 6 shows that the tone of Zurabishvili’s coverage in Rustavi 2 was 68% negative, 31% neutral and 1% positive. Figures differ for Vashadze; his campaign was positively covered by 14%, followed by neutral and negative tones with 84% and 2%, respectively. The numbers are not significantly different in Imedi TV, where negative coverage of Zurabishvili stood at 6%, while 85% and 8% went to neutral and positive tones, respectively. Vashadze’s campaign was positively covered by 1%, followed by neutral and negative tones with 45% and 1%, respectively.

    Conclusion

    Legitimate level of antagonism is healthy for democracy and party politics; it simplifies electoral choices, mobilises voters and helps with party cohesion, but the degree of polarisation in Georgia’s last Presidential election reached a very risky threshold. Radical and exclusionary rhetoric employed by Georgian Dream and United National Movement, amplified by active smear campaigns in social media and partisan television channels, limited the space for constructive dialogue and widened the distance between supporters of opposing political parties. The parties seem to have achieved their immediate objectives — GD landed a victory to its favourite and UNM secured a firm second place — but it left the Georgian democracy at peril. Polarisation went well beyond the political domain, extending to other areas of public life, such as the army, church, schools and families. And although the political spectrum and society-at-large were more or less accustomed to the traditional type of polarisation — that pertaining to the elite division — state institutions and civil society organisations appeared to be largely unprepared in dealing with social polarisation. This left an open wound on Georgian democracy, something that will surely be exploited as the country enters the Parliamentary race of 2020 — a politically much more important event than the 2018 Presidential election.

    Footnotes

    [1] For the purposes of this article, I use the definition elaborated by McCoy, Rahman, and Somer (2018), which understands polarisation as “a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of us versus them.”

    [2] A term describing the supporters of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia was toppled in January 1992, less than eight months from his landslide election as the first President of Georgia. He died on December 31, 1993, in circumstances that remain a source of controversy.

    [3] According to the new constitution, which entered into force upon new President Zurabishvili’s inauguration on December 2018, the head of state will be elected by a 300-member Electoral College for a term of five years starting from 2024.

    [4] 1,975,845 voters cast ballots in the second round, representing 56.23% of all registered voters. Turnout was significantly lower the first round, when 1,647,878 voters turned out at polling stations, accounting for 46.83% of the total number of voters.

    [5] The campaign tone varies between -10 and +10, representing “very negative” and “very positive” tones, respectively. Source: NEGex — The Negative Campaigning Comparative Expert Survey, 2019. See Nai, Alessandro. How negative are elections, and does it matter? Georgian Institute of Politics. (2019)

    [6] ibid.

    [7] The third party to enter Parliament was the Alliance of Patriots, a radical right-wing outfit, which narrowly cleared the 5% threshold and secured six Parliamentary mandates. The liberal “third parties” — the Republicans and the Free Democrats — in contrast, failed to enter the legislature.

    [8] The y-axis indicates the left-right position of a party according to the rile-index where higher positive values indicate a right-wing position and negative values a left-wing position. The x-axis indicates the time. Source: Manifesto Research Project, Social Science Research Center Berlin, 2019.

    [9] Blue stands for post intensity, while orange stands for post rating. Source: Social Media Monitoring — Second Interim Report, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, 2018. Available at http://old.isfed.ge/main/1465/eng/

    [10] Blue stands for post intensity, while orange stands for post rating. Source: Social Media Monitoring — Second Interim Report, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, 2018. Available at http://old.isfed.ge/main/1465/eng/

    [11] Final Report of Elections Media Monitoring, 2016–2018. The European Union and UNDP. Available at http://mediamonitor.ge/uploads_script/accounts/tvangarishebi/2016-2018_Media_Monitoring_Report_ENG-1.pdf

    This article was written as part of a young authors competition in the context of the project “Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia — Phase III”, which is part of the German governmental programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”, funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.

    The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Democracy Reporting International (DRI).

    Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia

    These articles are published as part of the “Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia” project funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

    Democracy Reporting International (DRI)

    Written by

    DRI helps build better democracy through engagement in the field, reporting and analysis. Find out more at democracy-reporting.org

    Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia

    These articles are published as part of the “Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia” project funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

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