Former speaker of parliament Irakli Kobakhidze will be appointed chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party on Saturday, party officials have announced.
Kobakhidze’s political success has been widely attributed to support from Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has recently stepped down from the position announcing he was retiring from politics.
Kobakhidze previously served as Chair of Parliament before resigning in June 2019, amidst anti-government protests sparked by an invitation to address parliament extended to Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov.
Unrests on the night of 20–21 June, since dubbed ‘Gavrilov’s night’, along with the heavy-handed police response shook the Georgian political landscape. Georgian Dream were quick to compromise — including on electoral reforms and Kobakhidze’s demotion — to abate continued street demonstrations.
Days before assuming his new role as head of the party, the 42-years-old former constitutional lawyer admitted it would not be easy to fill Ivanishvili’s shoes. Ivanishvili’s popularity has seen a sharp decline in recent years, along with diminishing public support for Georgian Dream.
Despite resigning over the Gavrilov scandal, Kobakhidze, who previously spearheaded constitutional changes and ousted a group of party founders opposed to controversial judicial appointments, did not disappear long from the public eye.
Kobakhidze has become known for his harsh rhetoric against what he has termed the ‘criminal opposition’, primarily targeting the formerly ruling United National Movement Party (UNM) and European Georgia, which spin-off from the UNM 2017.
Kobakhidze has also had harsh words for leading watchdog groups, including the local offices of Transparency International as well as ISFED, accusing them of being controlled or influenced by the UNM.
Party leadership unlinked from the cabinet and popularity
Kobakhidze is replacing Bidzina Ivanishvili less than a month after his party reconfirmed Giorgi Gakharia as Georgia’s Prime Minister.
As the selection of a new party chair approached, leading party officials did not confirm that they had even considered the candidacy of the PM for the party leadership.
The positions have not been held by the same person for over 32 months, since Ivanishvili ousted Giorgi Kvirikashvili as prime minister, taking over formal leadership of the party while still not seeking any official position.
Giorgi Gakharia assumed office in early September 2018, weeks after his critical role as Interior Minister in the dispersal of ‘Gavrilov’s night’ crowds in Tbilisi.
Recent opinion polling has indicated that leading the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic since last February has helped Gakharia’s popularity.
A poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and CRRC Georgia from last August suggested a slightly recuperated public confidence in Georgian democracy compared to one of the worst numbers registered right after ‘Gavrilov’s night’.
This came alongside an 82% positive evaluation of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and 63% approval of Gakharia among those surveyed in June-July.
Another favourite amongst the leaders of Georgian Dream who Kobakhidze beat to the top spot was Kakha Kaladze. Kaladze, who is Georgian Dream’s General Secretary, has maintained relative autonomy from the party’s other leaders by serving as Tbilisi Mayor since 2017.