The rivals for Tbilisi mayoral office, ruling coalition Georgian Dream’s Davit Narmania and opposition United National Movement’s Nika Melia, faced each other in seventy-minute televised debate on July 9.
Narmania, who garnered 46% in the first round of elections on June 15, and Melia, who was 18 percentage points behind, will face each other in the second round runoff on July 12.
Several televised debates between the Tbilisi mayoral candidates were held in the run-up to the first round of vote in number of Tbilisi-based television stations, including in the public broadcaster, with the participation of both Narmania and Melia, as well as some other candidates, who were running in the June 15 elections. Ahead of the second round Narmania agreed to face his opponent from UNM in televised debates, but insisted on holding it at, as he put it, “neutral territory”, meaning at a venue other than any particular TV channel from where all the broadcasters would be free to air the event.
Melia responded that although he did not understand what “neutral territory” was, he was ready for debates at any venue wherever Narmania would feel comfortable; he said that he would even agree to hold it in ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili’s planned TV talk show. UNM and GD representatives agreed on format of debates with facilitation of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the event was held in Sheraton Metechi Palace hotel during which journalist from Tbilisi-based TV channels were able to ask a question.
During the debate, aired by several television channels among them public broadcaster and Imedi TV, candidates were often exchanging jabs and at times focus was more personal.
Melia started his opening remarks by teasing Narmania over his “neutral territory” remarks. “At last these debates are taking place at the venue, which has been called a ‘neutral territory.’ Thank you batono [a polite form of addressing men in Georgian] Davit for informing me that we have a ‘neutral territory’ in Tbilisi and that’s Avlabari,” Melia said mockingly referring to Tbilisi’s district where debates were taking place.
At one point, in response to one of Narmania’s attacks, Melia made what seemed to be a reference to the fact that unlike him his rival is not a native of Tbilisi. In a written statement next day, Melia had to deny making any such reference.
During the debates, Narmania said that he won the race in the first round on June 15 even at a polling station in Melia’s native neighborhood in Mtatsminda district. “Question is: if even his own neighborhood does not trust him, why should we entrust the city’s fate to him?” Narmania said.
Melia responded: “How would you know where either polling station No.6 or Chitadze Street is, were it not for prepared [campaign] ‘message box’? Stop speaking with such aplomb when you don’t even know where Chitadze Street is and it’s just impossible for you to know it; it is even worth asking a question how many times have you ever been in Mtatsminda district?”
On July 10 Melia said in the written statement that his remarks were wrongly perceived as a reference to his competitor’s “non-Tbilisite origin.”
“During the pre-election campaign I have stated publicly for multiple times that the origin of a person is not important. Moreover, I deem it immoral to focus on this aspect,” Melia said.
Throughout the campaign and during the TV debates as well, Melia has been repeatedly arguing that if Narmania becomes the mayor, the GD candidate would be accountable before ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, who named then infrastructure minister as Tbilisi mayoral candidate in November, 2013, and not before voters.
Melia suggested that instead of listening to voters, Narmania would follow each and every instruction of Ivanishvili.
“If Bidzina Ivanishvili phones you right now and tells you to stand where you stand now up until 11:30pm, you will be standing there,” Melia told Narmania.
Melia also said that although he has many friends in UNM, during the campaign he has never refrained from criticizing previous government and Tbilisi city authorities on the issues which deserve criticism; he also said that although there were “lots of achievements” under the UNM, there also were “lots of mistakes, wrongdoings and mistakes amounting to crime.”
“I have always been, still am and will always be an independent person and my biography shows it,” Narmania responded and then listed some points from his education background and working experience, adding that he has always been independent in his decisions.
“The question was not about how independently we can make an omelette… but about politically how independent we will be,” Melia told Narmania.
While responding on allegations of being fully dependent on Ivanishvili, Narmania also said that he does “not rule out” rejecting Panorama Tbilisi project if it fails to gain support of broad range of experts. He was referring to a project, proposed by Co-Investment Fund in which Ivanishvili is one of the investors, involving building of a multipurpose complex in Sololaki neighborhood, next to Ivanishvili’s hilltop residence, linked with separate complexes in old part of the city with cable cars; this project, proposed in the old part of the city, has stirred controversy.
On the question of pre-trial detention of UNM’s campaign manager and former mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava, Melia said that it was done in order to create “favorable” conditions for Narmania ahead of the second round runoff.
Narmania responded that no one should be above the law and suggested that Melia would benefit more from Ugulava’s detention because “a person burdened by crimes” will no longer be standing next to Melia in this campaign.
“I have to be congratulated if we believe to batoni Davit,” Melia responded. “Gigi Ugulava is my friend and he will remain my friend and I do not pay attention whether he is popular or not… His arrest was kind of a gift for Narmania to somehow achieve a victory in the second round.”
Asked about the problem of car parking space in Tbilisi, as well as about C.T. Park, a company which was granted in 2007 by the Tbilisi municipality 15-year right to operate car parking in the capital city, Melia said that if elected four new parking lots, among them two underground ones, will be constructed in Tbilisi.
On C.T. Park he said that he also does not like some aspect of how car parking is managed by this company, but added that it is “a lie” when Narmania says he would cancel the contract with this company and if he does, Melia said, it would cause financial damage to the municipal budget as the state will inevitably lose the case in international arbitration.
Narmania said that if elected he would achieve “revision” of the contract and also added that it should be C.T. Park, not the municipality, which should invest in creating additional parking lots in the city.
One of the additional criminal charges filed recently against former mayor Gigi Ugulava stems from contract with C.T. Park; prosecution claims that Ugulava unlawfully provided the company with preferential treatment that caused financial damage to the municipal budget; Ugulava denies charges as politically motivated.
When one journalist asked Narmania about “ludicrous” promise to plant one million trees in Tbilisi, GD’s candidate said that it is based on concrete “calculations” and is “absolutely real”.
“300 hectares are required in Tbilisi and its surrounding for this purpose and I am sure we will do it,” Narmania said.
When Melia was asked how he is going to implement one of his promises to remove excise tax from fuel as the issue falls within the central government’s competence not the local authorities, UNM’s candidate responded: “I will make the central government to do it.”
“I will pressure – in the positive sense of this word – the government on a daily basis to provide a fuel excise tax exemption, which will cause reduction of rising fuel price,” Melia said, adding that although the state budget will no longer receive GEL 138 million as a result of this move, in long run it will stimulate more business activity and add GEL 400 million to country’s economy.
Asked how he plans to cooperation with Tbilisi City Council (Sakrebulo), where GD won more than two-thirds of seats, if elected as mayor, Melia responded that he sees “no problem in it.” He said that situation wherein UNM holds control over city government and GD is in the majority in Sakrebulo would be good for checks and balances. Melia also said that absence of such “balance” made “disservice” to UNM when it was in power.
When Melia asked his competitor if he agrees with statements of Ivanishvili and PM Irakli Garibashvili that the GD has already done more than it promised to voters ahead of the 2012 parliamentary elections, Narmania responded: “Of course not all the promises have yet been delivered, but I want to stress that part of them have already been implemented and others are now being implemented.”
In his closing remarks Melia said that in case of Narmania’s victory in the runoff, Tbilisi will become “attached to artificial breathing apparatus for next three years, because incompetent people will come into city leadership.”
“A person may come into Tbilisi leadership, who is far from having any independence. He won’t be able to take even simple decisions independently. I think Tbilisites deserve to have a mayor who will be accountable before voters; we have already made such a mistake when we elected Giorgi Margvelashvili as the president… We all should go to elections on July 12 to make a choice from which Tbilisi will benefit and not one person [referring to Ivanishvili],” Melia said.
In the closing remarks Narmania called on voters to go to the second round runoff and said: “Ballot of each of you is decisive, so I call on you to make a choice… which Tbilisites and Tbilisi deserve.” He also said that “the capital city is in a very grave condition”, but he’s ready to tackle “hard legacy” he would face if elected as the mayor.