Salomé Zurabisjvili. PHOTO: OSCE

Salomé Zurabisjvili. PHOTO: OSCE

Election French-born Woman Elected President of Georgia

Salomé Zourabichvili used to be a French diplomat, now, as Salome Zurabishvili, she has become the president of Georgia: it is like a fairytale - quite a success story!

Published on on December 17, 2018

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Salomé Zourabichvili used to be a French diplomat, now, as Salome Zurabishvili, she has become the president of Georgia: it is like a fairytale – quite a success story!

She was born in Paris 66 years ago, daughter of Georgian immigrants. Her grandfather was a minister in the Georgian government during the short period of independence between 1918 and 1921, before the Soviet Red Army invaded the country at the initiative of the Georgian communists Stalin and Ordzhonikidze. Salomé grew up in a Georgian environment and chose a Georgian as a husband, and later on, in a second marriage, she married another Georgian man (who died a few years ago).

Zourabichvili made a brilliant career in the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs. She was posted at the embassies of France in Rome, Washington and elsewhere and also at the French delegation to NATO in Brussels. In 2003, she was appointed ambassador to Georgia. After the Rose revolution, when Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in 2004, he soon discovered the French ambassador, daughter of Georgian immigrants, and made her citizen of Georgia. She was immediately appointed minister of foreign affairs of Georgia.  After a year and a half, however, she was fired, since Saakashvili could not get along with her. Zurabishvili was furious and wrote a bitter book about the Saakashvili regime called “La tragédie géorgienne 2003 – 2008 : de la révolution des Roses à la guerre” (The Georgian tragedy 2003 – 2008: from the rose revolution to the war).

Zurabichvili joined the opposition to Saakashvili and founded a new political party. But at the time she was not very successful and in 2010 she left Georgian politics in order to work for the UN. In 2016, however, she made a come-back and managed to become member of the Georgian parliament. A few months before the presidential elections on the 28th of October 2018, she gave up her French citizenship in order to be able to run for president as an independent candidate. The Georgian Dream, which has been in power since Saakashvili’s party the United National Movement (UNM) was defeated in 2012, later on decided not to present a candidate of its own but to endorse Zurabishvili’s candidature and support her. The president who succeeded Saakashvili, Giorgi Margvelashvili, preferred not to run for a second term.

The Georgian Dream led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili had won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election in 2016 and was pretty sure that the candidate they had chosen to support would easily win the presidential election. Much to their surprise, Zurabishvili did not win a sufficient majority at the first round. That would have required that more than 50 % of the voters cast their votes in her favor. She garnered only 39 %, merely slightly more than the candidate from the opposition coalition led by the UNM leader Grigol Vashadze, who got 38 % of the votes. The turnout was rather low: only 47 % of those allowed to vote showed up.

The relative failure of Zurabishvili in the first round had two main reasons. First of all, she made quite a few controversial statements during her campaign, which made her unpopular with many Georgians. She criticized the Georgian government under Saakashvili for having started hostilities in August 2008 by bombing the capital of South Ossetia which led to the war with Russia: “Starting the war was the whim of a crazy president who ordered the bombing of his own population. He started the war!” She also criticized the Georgian Orthodox Church for interfering in the political affairs of the country in an inappropriate way: “I do not understand how the Church can be involved in the election campaign to such degree … That is not their business.” Even if her statements corresponded to reality and were true, both of these matters are very sensitive subjects in Georgia. These, and other topics as well, were perhaps not treated by Zurabishvili in a sufficiently diplomatic way. At any rate, trust in her diminished as a result.

Secondly, the Georgian people turned out to be quite disappointed with the rule of the Georgian Dream and did not want to vote for the candidate that it supported. The results of the first round of the elections became a wake-up call for the Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili himself recognized that his government had lost contact with reality and had failed to live up to the justified expectations of the population.

The campaign that preceded the second round of the presidential elections on the 28th of November 2018 became very intense and led to sharp confrontation and extreme polarization of the Georgian society. At the outset, many observers were convinced that the candidate from the opposition bloc, Grigol Vashadze, would win the election. Simple arithmetic seemed to have it that way: as could be expected, the candidate who came third at the first round with 11 % of the votes, Davit Bakradze from European Georgia, a new party that had recently split off from the UNM, encouraged his followers to vote for Vashadze in the second round. So did most of the other unsuccessful candidates. Had the number of voters remained unchanged, Vashadze would have won. But believing that that would be the case was not taking Ivanishvili’s ability to mobilize Georgian society into account.

The ruling Georgian Dream realized that the UNM – and thus Saakashvili – was close to make an unexpected come-back. Politicians from the Georgian Dream therefore took over the campaign from Zurabishvili in many respects and started to remind the population of the horrors of Saakashvili’s regime, frightening them with the prospects of a return of “evil” forces, while underlining the importance of Ivanishvili and his billions for Georgian society. A striking example of the latter was a debt write-off scheme presented a week before the runoff: loans of around 600 000 Georgian citizens will be abolished before the New Year and covered by the Cartu Foundation, owned by Ivanishvili. This initiative concerns people who have loans not exceeding 2000 laris  (= $ 750) and who are incapable of paying their loans themselves.

Aggressive rhetoric, hate speech and conspiracy theories ensued, from both sides. Both candidates were accused of favoring Russian interests, Zurabishvili because of her remarks on the outbreak of the war in August 2008, Vashadze because of his past as a Soviet diplomat. Saakashvili, on the other hand, presented Vashadze as the Georgian equivalent to marshal Mannerheim of Finland (comparing himself to Simon Bolivar, by the way, because of the latter’s heroic activities in several countries).

The turnout of the second round was significantly higher than at the first one: 56 %. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians who had not voted the first time now went to cast their ballots. And they all voted for Zurabishvili. She received almost 60 % of the votes, whereas Vashadze got slightly more than 40 %. Most observers agreed that voting procedures were respected and that the elections had been free, competitive, transparent, professionally administered and had been carried out in a calm atmosphere, in spite of some minor violations. But they were tarnished by incidents of violence and intimidation and were preceded by a pre-election period that generally received a highly negative assessment.

Media on either side were criticized because of their lack of impartiality.  The unequal distribution of private funds for the electoral campaigns was highlighted: during the runoff period, Zurabishvili received 87 % of private donations. The government was criticized for disproportionate use of administrative resources, for coercion and undue pressure on voters, for vote-buying and for their unjustified attacks on NGO’s. The debt write-off scheme was characterized as electorally motivated public spending, giving unfair advantage to the candidate supported by the ruling party. It was perceived as unprecedented voter-bribing. Former president Margvelashvili expressed “concern over the deterioration of the level of democracy” during the election campaign. Others characterized it as a step backward and far from international standards.

Vashadze has refused to accept the outcome of the election. The UNM considers the elections to have been marred by extensive fraud and vote-buying. They have organized street demonstrations in Tbilisi together with other opposition leaders during which Saakashvili has addressed his followers from a giant screen in front of the parliament building, encouraging them to adopt civil disobedience. For the time being, this part of the opposition demands that the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020 be held earlier. It is worth noting that the other party, which originated from the UNM and split off to create European Georgia under the leadership of former speaker Bakradze, has declared that street manifestations are not their way to try to bring about political change.

The 2018 Georgian presidential election was, in fact, not so much a competition between the two candidates Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze as a battle between former president Mikheil Saakashvili and former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and chairman of the Georgian Dream. The Georgian constitution was amended in 2010 and 2017, shifting Georgia’s political system from presidential to parliamentary. The super presidential model thanks to which Saakashvili accumulated unprecedented political powers has been abandoned in favor of more checks and balances in the country’s political system, boosting the roles of the prime minister and of parliament. As a result, the Georgian president is not an all-powerful figure anymore but more of a public one. The heated debates during the presidential election campaign therefore seem somewhat surprising, since the president no longer has the possibility to influence many of the issues that were raised. But the president still has some power. One of them is the right to pardon prisoners. When asked if he would pardon Saakashvili – a three year prison sentence awaits him if he comes back to Georgia – and other high-ranking former UNM officials now in prison, Vashadze answered yes. That was probably his greatest mistake during the presidential campaign. The other branch of the former UNM, European Georgia led by Davit Bakradze, has cut the ties to Saakashvili. Vashadze’s UNM has not. Saakashvili is still the honorary chairman of the UNM. When the UNM and seven other political parties joined forces and created the new opposition platform in April 2018 in order to win the presidential elections this autumn, they first went to have consultations with Saakashvili in Amsterdam, where he is now living after having been thrown out from Ukraine.

When it became obvious after the first round of the elections that there was a serious possibility that Saakashvili would come back to Georgia if Vashadze became president, hundreds of thousands of Georgians who had not voted in the first round did so in the second round in order for this not to happen. This was a vote not so much in favor of Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream but a vote against Saakashvili. The government’s debt write-off scheme did not have any effect on the UNM voters, since they did not abandon their candidates Vashadze and Bakradze. It may have convinced some of those who had not voted in the first round to do so in the second. Coercion, vote-buying and similar undue pressure from the ruling party may also have played a role. But the main reason behind Zurabishvili’s victory was the wide-spread fear of Saakashvili.

These elections were the last time that Georgians were allowed to elect their president directly. When Zurabishvili’s term expires in six years, the new president will be elected by an electoral college instead. Zurabishvili’s inauguration as President of Georgia took place on the 16th of December 2018 in Telavi, the capital of Kakheti in Eastern Georgia, in the castle that served as the residence of the Kakhetian kings in the 17th and 18th centuries. She justified the choice of Telavi for this ceremony by referring to the fact that her election campaign was largely focused on the need to develop the regions of Georgia. A second reason behind her decision was that Telavi did not vote for her: “It is one of the places where I lost the elections and I want to show that I am their president even if they did not vote for me”, she said before the inauguration.

Zurabishvili has stated that she sees the following as her main tasks as president:

– domestically, to unify the polarized Georgian society,

– externally, to secure Georgian EU and NATO membership.

Georgia now has a very representative and experienced woman as president. She will certainly be an asset for Georgia, not least in developing its international relations.



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