Grab from Georgian Public Broadcaster’s footage of TV debates between Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili; Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze and PM Vano Merabishvili.
Standing at a rostrum in public broadcaster’s studio during live televised debates on Sunday, PM Vano Merabishvili expressed regret that major rival of the ruling UNM party in the October 1 parliamentary elections Bidzina Ivanishvili was absent, adding that the event would have been “much more interesting” with the participation of the leader of Georgian Dream opposition coalition.
Two other participants of the TV program were Christian-Democratic Movement (CDM) leader MP Giorgi Targamadze and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili. The Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) invited to take part in the debates prime ministerial candidates of the four political groups. According to the constitution after the October elections, the government and PM will have to resign and President Saakashvili will have to present new cabinet or re-submit the one existing at the time to the newly elected Parliament for confidence vote.
Ivanishvili, who was in Telavi for his coalition’s campaign rally at the time when debates were about to start, cited two reasons behind his refusal to participate – the one was presence of, what he calls, “pseudo opposition” parties in the debates, CDM and Labor Party; and another reason is that Ivanishvili wanted debates with President Saakashvili, who is UNM chairman, or as an alternative with PM Merabishvili on the condition if the ruling party would have declared him as its prime ministerial candidate not only for this upcoming election, but for post-2013 presidential election, when new constitution goes into force empowering PM with significantly more authority than it has now.
All three participants of the TV debates were given questions two days prior the debates, so their answers to each of the four questions during the program were mainly pre-prepared three-minute speeches with less actual debating; few exceptions were perhaps when the participants were giving one-minute rebuttal remarks following opponents’ answers.
There were total of four questions on topics like how parties are planning to reduce unemployment; how they will distribute budgetary funds based on their respective priorities; what will be their tax and fiscal policy and a question on security issues, foreign policy and territorial integrity.
Probably one of the most memorable moments of the program came, not surprisingly, from outspoken Shalva Natelashvili, who in his opening remarks took out from a pocket a picture of a penguin and offered to put it on an empty rostrum in the studio, throwing a jab at Ivanishvili, who keeps penguins in his private zoo. “The billionaire politician loves penguins and lemurs more than [his] own country,” Natelashvili said, adding that on the other hand President Saakashvili was also spending millions for personal purposes.
“God save us from this hell; may god send this government together with its oligarchic opposition to a political afterlife,” Natelashvili said.
Natelashvili, whose Labor Party runs the campaign under the slogan “Take from the Rich, Give to the Poor”, is often targeting Ivanishvili, whom the Labor Party once wanted as its prime ministerial candidate.
“Saakashvili is resorting to violence to falsifying elections and Ivanishvili is buying elections; there is no difference who will eat us – a wolf or a wolf-like jackal,” Natelashvili said.
Merabishvili also made references to Ivanishvili for several times, including in his opening remarks, when he said “it is very regrettable” that the Georgian Dream leader refused to participate in the debates.
“I think this meeting would have been much more interesting if all the candidates had participated; I think it would have showed a respect to voters and TV viewers,” Merabishvili said.
In his closing remarks PM Merabishvili said: “Today’s debates confirm that there is a democracy in Georgia. Each candidate has an opportunity to address Georgian citizens, but unfortunately some of our friends have not used this right.”
The PM made references to Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream in few other occasions during the debates, including when he was responding a question on Georgia’s security and foreign policy. He said that establishing good relations with “Russia should not happen at the expense of return” into power of “corrupt former officials” who in the past were ex-Adjara leader, Aslan Abashidze’s allies – he was referring to some of Georgian Dream’s majoritarian MP candidates who served on various senior posts in Adjara when this region was ruled by Abashidze. “Russia will never bring us freedom and democracy,” Merabishvili said.
The PM again targeted the Georgian Dream when speaking about NATO integration.
“As I already noted it is very regrettable that the Georgian Dream representative is not present here, but I am sure batoni [a Georgian polite form of addressing a man] Shalva [Natelashvili] has already said what the Georgian Dream would have said,” Merabishvili said, referring to Natelashvili’s remarks in which he said that the first thing the Labor Party would do in case of victory in elections “will be saying no to NATO membership and pulling Georgian guys out from Afghan slaughter-house.”
Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream has declared for multiple times that “there is no alternative” to NATO membership for Georgia, but the authorities insist that these public statements are political posturing rather than Ivanishvili’s genuine stance.
In his remarks Merabishvili, who was often looking down at prepared notes, mostly focused on his government’s four-year plan, which is also the ruling UNM party’s election program, and mentioned for multiple times government’s pledge to distribute to each family in the country four-year GEL 1,000 vouchers.
He said that unemployment was “the largest challenge” for his government, adding that the authorities had already taken “concrete steps” to tackle this problem by setting up state ministry for employment, which, Merabishvili, said was already registering unemployed citizens to help them with finding jobs.
In his opening remarks CDM leader, Giorgi Targamadze, said that after almost nine years of rule by President Saakashvili, Georgia had few millionaires and the army of poor people.
Recalling PM Merabishvili’s remarks made at the UNM’s convention a day earlier, that “our key task is to erase from Georgia’s political map those dinosaurs of 1990s, whose shadows are still roaming in the streets of Tbilisi and Georgia”, Targamadze said: “Batoni Vano was speaking about political dinosaurs, but they themselves are real political tyrannosauruses; the Georgian people will deliver a verdict against them on October 1.”
Natelashvili’s answers were mainly a compilation of political slogans without any specifics; for example on a question of parties’ tax and fiscal policies and from where they would get funds to finance social programs, Natelashvili responded: “It will be financed as soon as a people-loving government comes into power. It requires no major economical, philosophical or dogmatic calculations; it simply requires seizing economic levers from bandits; that’s exactly what our slogan – Take from the Rich, Give to the Poor – means.”
On this same question, Targamadze said that his party would cut those expenses, which were now used for “the comfort” of a bureaucracy; he also said that his party would cut defense and law enforcement funding from GEL 1.6 billion to GEL 1 billion; he said that CDM would introduce progressive corporate income tax and in addition impose more personal income tax on those who have over GEL 100,000 annual income; he also said that other policy priorities of his party would lead to economic growth and in overall these moves would allow his party to find funds for pledged increased social programs.
On this question, PM Merabishvili said that the government’s opponents were able to give “bold promises” to voters thanks to the increased budgetary revenues, which was the result of policies carried out by the present authorities. “During our time in government, the state budget has increased fifteen fold,” he said. “Such promises would have been perceived by voters as utopia in 2003.” Then he said that the ruling party was planning to distribute to voters “a calendar” with timetable and deadlines showing when each concrete promise would be implemented by the government in next four years.
At the end of the TV program Georgian Public Broadcaster’s news anchor, who moderated the debates, told participants: “You have participated in historic debates in which the Georgian Dream representative has refused to participate. Each of the participants was able today to pass an important test in democracy and I sincerely congratulate you.”
The Georgian Public Broadcaster organized debates with the support from USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).
The public broadcaster plans next round of TV debates on September 18 between the same political parties’ top MP candidates on their party lists – in case of ruling UNM party it is incumbent parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze; Shalva Natelashvili and Giorgi Targamadze lead their respective party lists and in case of Georgian Dream it is ex-footballer Kakha Kaladze.