With one month left until the municipal vote in Georgia, a lot of eyes are on the Tbilisi mayoral race where Georgian Dream’s Kakha Kaladze is running for reelection against some of the most prominent opposition leaders in the country.
On 2 October, Georgians will vote to choose mayors and leaders of municipal bodies, known as ‘sakrebulo’ of 64 municipalities throughout the country.
Major opposition parties have called the election an informal referendum.
According to the EU-mediated 19 April agreement between them and Georgian Dream, the ruling party committed to calling the early election next year in case they gather less than 43% of proportional votes.
While Georgian Dream said on 28 July that they ‘annulled’ the deal, opposition groups still seek to deny them more than 43% of the vote to obtain possible leverage to pressure the ruling party to schedule early parliamentary elections.
Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, is just one among the 64 municipalities that are contested in the 2 October vote, though it is by far the most consequential.
Here’s the rundown on the main contenders vying for the position of mayor of the Georgian capital.
Kakha Kaladze: The favourite
Incumbent Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze is the most popular politician from Georgian Dream and among the most popular public figures nationally. The former Georgian football star is considered by many as the favourite in Tbilisi mayoral race.
Despite his popularity, Kaladze’s planned return to the mayor’s office has not been without bumps in the road. On 6 August, three days after campaigning officially began, Tbilisi sanitary workers went on strike — and for a brief moment garbage collection in the city was paralysed. Only a day after the strike began, the Tbilisi mayor’s office found strikebreakers to continue garbage collection and three days after it began, the strike was over.
Kaladze then condemned the strike as a ‘provocation’ from unnamed political rivals.
Kaladze has also frustrated many with his response to the mob violence against journalists and liberal activists on 5 July, which led to over 50 journalists being injured, and one journalist death.
When he opened his campaign headquarters, a month after the violence, the Tbilisi Mayor appeared to waffle on the issue. While he condemned the violence and insisted that Tbilisi ‘was and will remain’ a place of ‘love, unity, support, and solidarity’, he also called ‘slander and bullying’ coming from opposition-leaning TV stations ‘equally evil’.
According to a survey carried out by the National Democratic Institute, as of late July, 39% approved of Tbilisi Mayor's performance while 25% disapproved.
Nika Melia needs no billboards
Nika Melia is the joint candidate from opposition groups European Georgia, Droa, Girchi - More Freedom, and United National Movement (UNM) whose current chair is Melia.
In exchange for unity, UNM, the largest opposition party in Georgia, gave up all of Tbilisi’s majoritarian district races to their partner parties.
Melia became Tbilisi’s mayoral candidate several months after leaving pre-trial detention under the auspices of the April deal between the ruling party and the opposition groups. Melia had been charged in June 2019 for ‘leading and participating in group violence’ during protests that erupted in the aftermath of the visit of Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov to the Georgian Parliament.
Nika Melia, who became UNM’s leader last December, has recruited many new faces to prominent positions in the party and has appeared to reinvigorate the former ruling party.
For years, UNM has struggled to escape being the perpetual opposition since 2012, when Georgian Dream dislodged UNM founder Mikhail Saakashvili from the Georgian presidency, and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili became Prime Minister.
In the wake of 5 July violence and the yet unsolved murder of Australian citizen Shanae Brooke in Tbilisi on 31 July, the joint candidate has accused Georgian Dream and Kakha Kaladze of making Tbilisi ‘safe for criminals’ and vowed to defeat Kakha Kaladze ‘without using billboards’.
Gakharia: ‘You are going to deal with me, personally’
On 1 September, claiming that the authorities have been pressuring his supporters and his party’s election candidates, former Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakhariia announced that he too would be running for Mayor of Tbilisi.
Until his resignation as Prime Minister in February 2021, Gakharia was a member of Georgian Dream. He had been elected only a year before.
'I want to say this to my former team members', he said, addressing members of Georgian Dream. 'From today, you are going to deal with me, personally'.
Gakharia stressed that he was born and raised in Tbilisi and that knew what the city needed, including ‘mega-projects’ that would make the capital the ‘first megapolis’ in the South Caucasus.
Since resigning over the planned detention of Nika Melia in February, Gakharia and his new team have struggled with the accusations of being secretly allied with the ruling Georgian Dream party and their founder Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Gakharia, meanwhile, has positioned himself as an alternative to both the ruling party and UNM, who he claimed are now using the same playbook.
'What difference does it make for me, a private citizen, if Georgian Dream, due to their feebleness, will make UNM come back to power or will they themselves use the same methods that UNM did?’, Gakharia said on 1 September.
Earlier on 1 September, Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria reported that over 60 public servants had confirmed to her office that they faced pressure and were sometimes fired from their positions for supporting Gakharia.
Anna Dolidze, a mayor ‘for the people’
Anna Dolidze is running for Mayor as the leader of the recently founded Movement for People party. She had previously served as deputy defence minister under Georgian Dream, and has, in recent years, emerged as one of the loudest advocates of judicial reform in the country.
One of her messages has been a call to ‘end polarisation and hate’ in Georgian politics.
In her recently launched campaign, Dolidze has emphasised the disappearance of public spaces in Tbilisi, alleging that it had become a city for a privileged ‘less than 1%’.
Dolidze has been critical of the authorities shutting down the public transport and even held protests outside the Tbilisi City Hall and the government offices in Tbilisi asking for Kaladze to ‘call a cab’ for her.
On 23 August, Dolidze reported that someone tried to hack her Facebook account and appealed to the authorities to investigate.
Lelo’s Ana Bibilashvili makes herself known
Despite having two prominent bankers and public figures as leaders, the Lelo party has named the relatively unknown architect and urbanist Ana Bibilashvili as their candidate for mayor.
While Bibilashvili ran for a majoritarian parliamentary mandate in Georgia’s western Imereti region, she had not had the spotlight in the country’s political scene until very recently.
In her fiery nomination speech, Ana Bibilashvili accused Tbilisi authorities of ‘devastating’ municipal green zones and failing to address the ‘lead-filled’ and polluted air of the capital.
'Do we really have four more years to witness how Tbilisi is ruined?’, she said. ‘We don't need a city covered in dust. We need a modern, European, green city where cultural heritage is protected, where streets will be free from traffic jams, where people will feel free and where youth have space to congregate’.
Bibilashvili has described the Tbilisi City Hall as excessively bureaucratic and slow in responding to Tbilisians’ needs and has touted Portugal’s Lisabon as a role model for urban planning.
The Lelo candidate also proposed restoring Laguna Vere, a large but abandoned sports complex, and supported a grassroots movement to 'save' the Dighomi meadows on the banks of the Mtkvari River from further pollution.
‘Third power’ is betting on Tamar Kekenadze
The Strategy Aghmashenebeli party, in an alliance with UNM’s former leader Grgol Vashadze, Republican Party, and Free Democrats party are presenting Free Democrats leader Tamar Kekenadze as their own unified candidate for Tbilisi mayor under the Third Power banner.
Tamar Kekenadze became the head of the Free Democrats last September after a years-long exodus of prominent party members, including party founder Irakli Alasania in 2016.
The decline appeared to culminate in the 2020 parliamentary elections, with the Free Democrats receiving a 0.27% of the vote.
Kekenadze was announced as a mayoral candidate on 2 September and as of yet has not had a chance yet to share in detail her vision for the capital. During the speech where she was announced as the Third Power candidate, however, she did stress that she wanted to make Tbilisi an ‘economic centre’ of the South Caucasus.
Mikheil Kumsishvili, the ‘ignored’
The Labour Party is rare among Georgian opposition parties, for still having refused to take up their single parliamentary seat since the last year’s parliamentary elections.
Initially, after the results of the 2020 election were disputed, most of Georgia’s opposition refused the parliamentary mandates they won — in protest of what they said was a rigged election. However, after EU-mediation, most parties, including UNM, finally took up their mandates.
This apparently drove a wedge between the labour party and the rest of the opposition, and, according to the Labour Party, led privately-owned TV channels with opposition ties to ignore their candidate, Mikheil Kumsishvili.
Frustration with this apparent invisibility led Kumsihvili to record a video segment, in which wore blackface, so as to look ‘exotic’ and hence interesting enough for the media to cover his campaign.
With this performance, Kumsishvili made reference to media attention to the Nigerian-born Georgian mayoral candidate Arinze Richard Ogbunuju.
After the video, Kumsishvili insisted that he did not intend for his video to come off as ‘racist’.
Lomia: Georgia needs better relations with Russia
The Anti-NATO and anti-Western Alliance of Patriots party fielded their mayoral candidate Giorgi Lomia early, on 18 August.
While the Alliance of Patriots has used the time allocated to them by the Public Broadcaster to air a small number of ads on public television, the majority of their campaign has been waged on their own TV channel Obiektivi.
Like several other candidates, Lomia has railed against polarisation in Georgian politics. He and the Alliance of Patriots have insisted that the ruling Georgian Dream party and UNM feed off each other and keep the country trapped in a bipolarity between two parties that are, in reality, much the same.
Lomia has also kept up the Alliance of Patriot’s usual talking points of the necessity of a renewed dialogue with Russia.
Giorgi Lomia was among several dozen prominent Georgians who appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin in early August to restore Russia’s relationship with Georgia, a proposition Kremlin publicly welcomed on 13 August.