News that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, refused to take part in the historic TV debates arranged by the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) on September 9, left many surprised and disappointed.
The debates, which were organized with support from USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), marked a precedent when the leaders of Georgia’s political establishment gathered to take part in a well-designed debate aimed at deepening and strengthening the ties between political entities in Georgia and Georgian society. The political figures invited to participate were all prime ministerial candidates: Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze and PM Vano Merabishvili of the United National Movement.
Ivanishvili, who was busy with pre-election campaigning in the regions at the time the debates were due to begin, cited two reasons behind his refusal to participate. First, he referred to the participants as the ‘pseudo opposition.’ Ivanishvili doesn’t recognize the Labor Party and Christian-Democratic Movement as oppositional forces; in fact he publicly called them an ‘appendage’ of the ruling party. The second reason for his absence was that according to the Georgian billionaire, Merabishvili has no real power or authority inside the ruling party. Consequently, Bidzina asked to debate with the actual leader of the UNM, Mikhail Saakashvili.
The GPB debates were structured in such a way that featured less actual debating – obviously in an effort to avoid chaos, which tends to appear during direct debates between Georgian political figures. All participants of the TV debates were given questions two days prior to the debates. As a result, their answers to each of the four questions were essentially just prepared three-minute speeches. There were a total of four questions provided that covered unemployment, budget distribution, tax and fiscal policies and territorial integrity and safety. At the end of the responses, each participant was permitted to make a one-minute rebuttal following the opponents’ answers.
In their introduction speeches, the leader of the Labor Party Shalva Natelashvili, as well as Vano Merabishvili emphasized the absence of the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. “I think this meeting would have been much more interesting if all the candidates had participated. I think it would have showed more respect to voters and TV viewers [if he were present],” Merabishvili noted.
Indeed, the participation by all the main political forces in Georgia could have promoted civil awareness and increased the political importance of the debates. The Georgian Dream coalition is definitely the key opposition force in the country and the refusal of its leader to take part in the debates was a vote of no confidence, which in turn decreased society’s interest in the discussion.
Ivanishvili’s refusal to take part in the debates does make sense in the minds of his supporters however. It’s no secret that the real power inside the country is in the hands of Mikheil Saakashvili – not Ivanishvili. Misha is the main striking force of the UNM and it is he who enjoys the support of Georgian society. Hence, if the Georgian Dream and particularly Bidzina Ivanishvili plan to achieve victory, this victory must be achieved against President Saakashvili, rather than Prime Minister Merabishvili.
The leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, Giorgi Targamadze, was chosen to answer the first and one of the most important issues –regarding unemployment. According to Targamadze, there are three pillars that must be addressed to deal with unemployment: the first is fair tariffs/prices, as well as the privatization of the energy sector. His party plans to allocate one billion Georgian lari to address this issue. The second is the renewal of the agriculture sector via creating agricultural cooperatives. And the third is the promotion of small and mid-sized businesses.
On his behalf, PM Merabishvili emphasized the importance of creating the Ministry for Employment. According to him, the ministry is already working on shaping the list of unemployed citizens, as well as studying the job market. He assured the audience that they will make available comprehensive information about the professions that are in demand. Additionally, he underlined the necessity to further promote tourism.
The second issue had to do with budget distribution. Merabishvili reminded society that the UNM is going to hand out1,000 lari vouchers as well as plans to keep its word given to pensioners concerning increasing the state-provided monthly allowances to one-hundred dollars equivalent in lari all senior citizens.
On the same populist note, Targamadze claimed that Christian-Democratic Movement plans to allocate 0.1% of the Georgian budget (about 100, 000, 000 lari) to maintain the Georgian Orthodox Church which is considered to be the main pillar of Georgia’s well-being.
Lastly, Natelashvili further promoted the pre-election statement of the Labor Party “Take from the Rich, Give to the Poor,” which is based on the idea that the era of oligarchs and multi-millionaires must be ended and the country’s wealth should be divided between all citizens of Georgia. How this task will be carried out in reality Natelashvili never elaborated.
The final two questions touched upon tax and fiscal policies as well as territorial integrity and the safety of the state. As expected, the participants focused on Georgia’s relationship with Russia and NATO integration. Unsurprisingly, Natelashvili explained that if he becomes the new PM, Georgia will cease its path towards NATO integration.
In a nutshell, the debates lacked the essence of actual debates: however, the debates represented a huge step forward in establishing a democratic society in Georgia. The debates also highlighted the fact that the culture of debates must be further developed to create a foundation for having direct and comprehensive discussions between political figures and parties.