Five main Tbilisi mayoral candidates discussed employment, social, city infrastructure and communal tariffs during the first and only live TV debates on Saturday, three week before the local elections.
Incumbent Tbilisi mayor, Gigi Ugulava; leader of Alliance for Georgia Irakli Alasania; Zviad Dzidziguri, leader of Conservative Party, nominated by National Council coalition; Giorgi Chanturia, nominated by Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM) and Gogi Topadze, leader of Industrialists Party participated in the 90-minute debates, hosted by the Georgian Public Broadcaster.
In thier opening remarks, for which the each candidate was given two minutes, contenders mainly focused on issues which they prioritize in thier election campaign.
Giorgi Chanturia, who opened the debates, said the country was in "deep economic crisis" and "I came here to try to convince you that implementation of anti-crisis program is required, pillar of which is employment and low [communal] tariffs."
Zviad Dzidziguri, whose three-party coalition also includes Party of People and ex-PM Zurab Nogaideli's Movement for Fair Georgia, unlike other candidates, targeted personally President Saakashvili during the debates for number of times. In his opening remarks Dzidziguri started by saying "strange things are happening in this beautiful country" and added that President Saakashvili was already for a month in foreign trips. "He arrived back [from the U.S.] only for two days... and after that again left the country; yesterday he was in Vatican and today he is in Costa Rica and we do not know where he will go tomorrow," he said. Dzidziguri also said that voters are told by the government that Georgia is a better country now than it was five years ago. "But I ask: why more territories have been lost and why do we have more displaced persons and why the country's security is in worse situation than it was previously?"
"We should change this government through election; so everyone who do not like this government should come and cast ballot to the opposition," he added.
Incumbent mayor, Gigi Ugulava, echoing the ruling party's campaign slogans, said in his opening remarks that "Tbilisi is a better city, than it was five years ago." "But we all agree that a lot still remains to be done, especially in terms of employment," Ugulava said and then listed some of the Tbilisi municipality's projects, which he said, aimed at creating additional jobs.
Irakli Alasania, leader of a four-party opposition Alliance for Georgia, who is considered to be Ugulava's main rival, told the viewers in his opening remarks that "the most important thing that needs to be done is to overcome hopelessness."
"This election is an opportunity to change your future and you should be active and come at polling stations," Alasania said.
Gogi Topadze, a beer magnate, said in his opening remarks that the Tbilisi municipality was implementing many "inappropriate" and costly projects. "I do not like today's Tbilisi; I live in this city for seventy years and I do remember better Tbilisi," Topadze said.
How the candidates plan to resolve unemployment problem was the first of four questions asked to each participant. The candidates were given two minutes each to answer each of the four questions and then they had an additional one minute for rebuttal remarks.
Zviad Dzidziguri, who was the first to answer the question on unemployment problem, said the National Council was the only political force having plan to resolve this issue.
"We state that through a dialogue with Russia, Russian market will reopen for the Georgian products; railway, sea and air communication will resume and people will be employed," Dzidziguri said adding that Georgia should resolve its territorial and security problems through a dialogue with Russia. "Those who will support the National Council, will also support launch of a dialogue with Russia on these issues... Otherwise this country has no prospects for creating jobs."
He also said on the matter that measures should be implemented to protect local producers from importers, especially in the field of agriculture.
Gigi Ugulava told the viewers that unemployment was the number one problem. He named several projects, which the Tbilisi municipality launched last year - the one is 'Old Tbilisi's New Life', being implemented in cooperation with banking sector and real estate developments in an attempt to stimulate construction and banking sectors on the one hand and on the other hand to resettle people from crumbling old houses in Old Tbilisi. Two other project named by Ugulava, which he said, were aimed at addressing unemployment problem was free-of-charge computer and English-language courses for Tbilisites and the project through which the Tbilisi municipality provides soft loans for small businesses.
He also said that it was more important "to look for new export markets" rather than to resort to protectionism and "to close down borders".
Irakli Alasania said the authorities' "wrong policies" and "pressure on business" should be blamed for the fact that "almost half of Tbilisi population is unemployed".
Alasania then laid out briefly his election program envisaging setting up of GEL 120 million municipal fund to provide soft loans to help with start-up and expansion of small and medium businesses. He said that this plan will help to employ 50,000 Tbilisites in one year period. He also pledged to establish a business ombudsman institution.
He also said that the authorities failed to keep thier promise to help create new jobs. "No jobs are being created and the major problem is that there is no institutional guarantee for protection of business and there is no free judiciary," Alasania said.
Gogi Topadze, who is an owner of beer and beverage-producing company, Kazbegi, said that he had already contributed to creation of jobs through his factories and added "I know how to make it."
He also said that he was in favor of protectionist approach in order to help the local production. Topadze added that Tbilisi mayor's position was influential enough to successful lobby for protectionist legislation and measures.
CDM mayoral candidate, Giorgi Chanturia, told the viewers he was glad that his campaign slogan "Employment and law [communal] tariffs" became part of election programs of other mayoral candidates. He then laid out in brief his major election campaign promise to significantly cut gas and electricity tariffs and to make water consumption free of charge, saying that it will reduce production cost for industries and businesses, paving the way for creation of jobs. The issue of communal tariffs was discussed in more details later during the debates, when a separate question on the matter was asked to the candidates.
Second question asked to the candidates was about thier vision on Tbilisi's infrastructure development. The incumbent mayor told viewers that construction of new roads and rebuilding old ones, as well as other major infrastructure projects, including the one envisaging to divert railway traffic from the city center, would eventually help to develop business and to create more jobs.
Irakli Alasania said: "What is now happening in Tbilisi is a violence on the capital city and urban chaos."
"There is no strategic vision on how the city should develop. One of the first things when we come into the city administration will be to present this vision on which the city's strategic development plan will be based," he said.
He also criticized the city authorities for non-transparent implementation of various infrastructure projects.
Gogi Topadze criticized the city authorities for irrational spending and planning.
Giorgi Chanturia said that each and every project should undergo public scrutiny and broad discussion with professional prior to thier launching.
Zviad Dzidziguri said: "Tbilisi today is Potemkin Village. Only those places were made beautiful, where Saakashvili goes... It depends on one man's [referring to the President] whim what should be built and where... But the problem is that he [Saakashvili] has no good taste."
He also targeted Ugulava's remarks by saying that all the infrastructure projects implemented in Tbilisi had nothing to do with creating jobs. "It's about corruption and it's waste of money," Dzidziguri said.
Irakli Alasania said on the matter that affordable healthcare was not available for 80% of Tbilisi residents. He then laid out briefly the Alliance for Georgia's healthcare projects involving increase of sector's funding up to GEL 117 million in the capital city; creating of chain of municipal drug stores to help reduce price of medicines. He said that his promise also involved GEL 100 allowance for socially vulnerable people during the winter period to ease communal cost.
Gogi Topadze said that his party's promise was free healthcare insurance for people over 60 years old. He also said that at least one municipal hospital should be build in a year, which will cost about GEL 23 million and which will provide services in "either free of charge or in extremely low prices."
Giorgi Chanturia said that CDM's proposal was to set price limits on medicines to make them affordable. He also said that he agreed with proposals about municipal hospitals and drug stores.
Zviad Dzidziguri said in case of his election, the city budget would allocate annually GEL 150 million to cover full health insurance package for pensioners. He also said that textbooks for school pupils would be free of charge.
Gigi Ugulava said that "there is no perfect social program." "No matter what kind of social program will be implemented, we will still say that lot remains to be done and that more perfection is needed. The best social program is employment; that's the only way to help our population to overcome social hardship," he said.
The fourth and the last question of the debate was about the candidates' views on communal tariffs.
Giorgi Chanturia, who made low communal tariffs the major focus of his election program, promises voters, that in case of election he would cut gas tariff from current GEL 0.51 for households per cubic meter to GEL 0.1 and would reduce electricity tariff, which now varies from GEL 0.135 to GEL 0.177 (depending on amount of consumed electricity) to GEL 0.05.
Gogi Topadze also says that it is possible to make water consumption free of charge. "It will cost the mayor's office no more than 6-7 million Lari per year," he said. Chanturia said it would cost GEL 2.8 million to the municipality budget per year.
Zviad Dzidziguri said that the issue of communal cost was something beyond the reach of the local authorities. "It is up to the central authorities. Chairman of regulatory commission is appointed by the President and it's hardly imaginable to change the current tariffs unless we change this President," he said.
Gigi Ugulava said that it was "one of the most painful issue for Tbilisites." He said that he welcomed the fact that the issue was raised in the election campaign by Giorgi Chanturia, "although we have a different opinion about it."
"With the experts, we have calculated and about GEL 400 million is required for implementing proposals laid out by Mr. Chanturia. It means that Tbilisi's budget won't be able to fund other services," Ugulava said. He also said that in last five years the authorities revamped the entire system to secure stable electricity and gas supply.
"We should be sincere before our voters. Many of the promises, that I listen are imposible to implement. What is possible to do is to further improve social assistance programs, including providing allowances to those people who need it most," Ugulava said.
Irakli Alasania said it was possible to reduce tariff for water consumption. "But we all should know that water can't be free of charge," Alasania said.
He also said that it was possible to reduce gas tariff by 50% and electricity tariff by 30%.
In his closing remarks, the incumbent mayor told the voters to make a choice not based on "empty promises, but based on deeds, which are already being done."
"We are offered to turn Tbilisi mayor's office into center of political wrangling; I offer you to turn Tbilisi mayor's office into employment center. We are told that the Tbilisi mayor's office is a trampoline for better future, but I am telling you that the Tbilisi mayoral office is a round-the-clock work for the sake of Tbilisi," he said.
In his closing remarks Alasania again called on Tbilisites to turn out at the polling stations on May 30 and repeated that these elections "are chance to change our future."
"The most important thing I want to tell you is that the major weapon of change is a ballot paper; we should win and defeat injustice in our country with use of this weapon. I am sure you will make a right choice and support us," Alasania said.
Gogi Topadze said that today "everyone is now repeating issues related with unemployment - something which we have been saying since 1996 and I am happy about it."
Chanturia told the voters that he would use "all my experience and international ties" to implement his election promises. "What we are promising is real," he said.
Dzidziguri said that when Ugulava was formally nominated for re-election he was asked by journalists whom he considered as his major rival. "My answer was - Mikheil Saakashvili, because Gigi Ugulava in fact has nothing to do here; it's in fact a campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili," he said.
"We have no other option than elections, so I beg you to turn out at the polling stations and vote for any candidate, except of thier [the authorities'] candidate... because the authorities still have a lot to spoil," Dzidziguri said.
There are total of nine candidates in the Tbilisi mayoral race, but these five contenders have been selected based on a principle that they were nominated by the political parties, which the election code defines as “qualified parties” – those that won at least 4% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections and at least 3% of the vote in the last local elections.
The public television plans to host a separate TV debates in which the four remaining candidates will participate on May 9.
Debates are co-funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and GPB. USAID provided USD 40,000 to assist the public broadcaster with staging the debate and other costs, and for funding post-debate online survey and focus groups and candidate training.