Ending a political career is apparently the latest thing in Georgia. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili wants to quit; President Mikheil Saakashvili has to quit; lead presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili says he may quit.
Under election law, a runoff occurs if the top candidate does not secure more than 50 percent of the vote. But to Ivanishvili,not known for his love of criticism, less-than-60-percent of the vote for his presidential protegé would be a sign that Georgian society did not appreciate the so-called tireless work he and his Georgian Dream team have been doing for the last year in office.
If the public doubts him, which Ivanishvili does not think is possible after everything he has done, then he will pack up and leave, and Margvelashvili should do the same, he concluded.
What he perceives as the price for such a move is one which might raise questions about the extent to which Ivanishvili understands Georgia’s current system of government.
With Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili gone, he reasoned, the opposition United National Movement candidate Davit Bakradze will become president, and Saakashvili will reinvent himself as prime minister.
Meant as a warning to voters, that scenario, though, is completely impossible. Georgia’s prime minister is chosen based on which party holds the majority in parliament. For the next three years, that’s Ivanishvili’s own Georgian Dream coalition.
But Margvelashvili, who holds a doctorate in philosophy rather than political science, later parroted Ivanishvili's main point. A runoff scenario would be a miracle, he predicted, but if it does happen, he does not want to be a part of it.
Having already tossed ideas of further co-habitation to the wind, he claims he will fight for the presidency only if he gets a major popular mandate to go through with all the ideas he, Ivanishvili and the rest of the Georgian Dream crowd have in mind. (The expected #2 candidate, Bakradze, of course, said he will take whatever voter support he gets.)
To many outsiders, the campaign logic here may not be obvious. But in Georgia, politics is about the chiefs; not about the concepts.
The key contenders, Margvelashvili and ex-Parliamentary Speaker Bakradze, are often seen as wingmen of the real political protagonists, Prime Minister Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili, respectively.
During the debate, Margvelashvili chose a strategy of snubbing competitors’ attacks and focusing on his and the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition’s vision for the future. Bakradze used every opportunity to bash Margvelashvili for those unfulfilled dreams and for what he termed the cabinet’s mellow stance toward Russia and its “creeping occupation” of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
He also kept plugging his campaign slogan, which translates into English as “Let’s control the government together.”
But the mutual swipes mostly did not go beyond a circumlocutory sparring at dinner from a Jane Austin novel. At one point, Margvelashvili asked the host to repeat a question, for his competitors’ free-flowing responses had gotten him confused about what the question was about in the first place. Bakradze said that there was no need to repeat the questions. “I don’t get confused,” he said.
The third and youngest candidate, 39-year-old Christian-Democrat Party leader Giorgi Targamadze, an ex-TV host trailing far behind in one recent poll, offered operatic soliloquies and finger-pointing, prompting Margvelashvili to lose his composure briefly.
The fourth participant, former Central Election Commission chief Zurab Kharatishvili, 45, did not sound too excited about the presidency gig, and stayed out of the mike-to-mike combat. Making broad, familiar statements about the need to integrate with NATO and the EU and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, he even had time left over to speak.
The one remarkable thing about this event was that it was boring. Georgian politicians have never been short on theatrics, and TV moderators, for their part, usually do what it takes to make for a good show.
This time, there was none of it. The rules were clear, the program structure organized and no one threw anything but accusations. Maybe, in a way, it's a form of progress.