Nine things politicians should know about Georgian voters

When discussing political competition in Georgia, some politicians bemoan Georgian voters: they describe the majority of voters as socially conservative and economically short-sighted. Therefore, parties have few options to campaign on, beyond promising immediate benefits or subsidies, while keeping silent about liberal values and an open economy. 

This blog post shows that despite significant problems related to political competition in the country, the blame directed towards voters is exaggerated. Based on a small scale pilot survey of 342 voters in suburban Tbilisi (representative of the voters living in Gldani and Samgori districts of Tbilisi), and conducted between March and April of 2015, this post shows that voters’ preferences are more nuanced than some politicians give credit for. In fact, voters often hold seemingly conflicting views. Hence, this blog post claims that Georgian political parties have many options to put forward effective electoral programs for the 2016 parliamentary elections. 

The questionnaire contained 14 pairs of questions about voters’ preferences on economic and social issues. Most of these pairs of questions included statements with opposed meanings that were read out in a random order. The respondents were asked to agree or disagree with each statement using a scale from 0 (“Completely disagree”) to 10 (“Completely agree”). Hence, the survey helps not only to understand voters’ preferences, but also to examine inconsistencies between the voters’ positions on opposed statements. 

Descriptive analysis of the data leads us to observe that Georgian political parties would find helpful. These observations are grouped below under nine major issues, with mean scores for the respective statement, measured on an 11-point scale, reported in parenthesis. All reported differences are significant as tested using t-test. The data was not weighted, hence we use “voters” and “respondents” interchangeably throughout this blog post.

  1. Economic liberalism: Voters are quite liberal on some economic issues, such as the state’s role in income redistribution and business ownership. For example, more respondents supported the statement that “The Government should provide equal opportunities for economic activity and then should not get involved in income redistribution” (7.85) than the statement that “The government should increase taxes for the rich to finance the poor” (5.33). Moreover, more respondents endorsed business ownership and investments in the country regardless of the investors’ nationality (5.52) compared to reserving business ownership to Georgian nationals alone (4.68). 
  2. Land ownership: Respondents do not mind if foreigners invest in the Georgian economy and own a business, but most believe that the land should be owned by Georgian citizens, no matter how the owner uses it (6.73). The opposing statement – that the owner’s nationality does not matter in so far as s/he uses the land profitably – received relatively low approval (4.37).
  3. Government spending: As much as respondents appreciate the idea of limited government interference in the economy, they do expect the government to increase social spending, even if this requires cutting money from infrastructure development (6.99). Significantly, fewer respondents supported the option of developing infrastructure even if it requires reduced social spending (3.51).
  4. Support for democracy: Voters are very liberal in terms of human rights and participatory governance: an overwhelming majority supports the idea that “human rights are a supreme value and should always be protected” (9.19). In contrast, relatively few respondents believe that the state’s interests should prevail over human rights (4.20). Even fewer voters endorse a strong leader who makes decisions for the good of the country (2.99).The vast majority of respondents approve of an elected leader who makes all the important decisions in consultation with the public (7.88).
  5. Prioritizing traditions: Support for democratic values is not unconditional. If such values clash with traditions, respondents expect the government to sacrifice freedom for the sake of tradition. More voters say that the government should restrict publishing any information which contradicts the traditions of society (6.18), than voters who believe that publishing any information is the publisher’s sole responsibility and the state should not get involved (4.76).
  6. The split over secularism: It is well known that the Georgian Orthodox Church has been the most respected institution in the country for the past decade. Voters are, however, split on the issue of the church’s involvement in politics: secularists are in the majority (“Religious institutions should not participate in political decision-making” – 5.76). Yet, quite a few respondents believe that, “In policy making, politicians should obey religious institutions” (4.73).
  7. Law enforcement: Voters support stricter law enforcement than what they witness in today’s Georgia. More respondents report that “The police are too lenient on the people who break the law” (6.05) than agree with the opposing statement (3.64).
  8. Inconsistent preferences: If voters’ preferences were perfectly consistent, opposed statements would be negatively correlated with a coefficient of -1. However, no pairwise correlation is so strong: the highest correlation coefficients are observed for the land ownership and law enforcement questions (-.56), followed by the questions on religious institutions and business ownership (-.47). It is noteworthy that respondents did not see pairs of statements on the government’s role in income redistribution and freedom of information as having opposed meanings.
  9. Issues and parties: Increasingly, Georgian voters do not identify with any political party, i.e. they do not name any political party which is “close” to them. It is a very relevant question for all political parties to find out whether such voters are systematically different from their fellow citizens who support a political party. This survey shows that party identification is not a significant factor for issue preferences. Moreover, inconsistency of preferences is also not related to party identification, showing that non-partisan voters are not more confused than partisan voters.

Georgia’s political parties will soon enter a very important race to win votes in the 2016 parliamentary elections. This blog post shows that the window of opportunity for political parties to pursue meaningful electoral programs is quite wide: voters have a range of preferences on significant policy issues such as the state’s role in the economy, human rights, democratic governance, freedom of information, state-religion relations and law enforcement. Surely, a larger, representative sample and deeper analysis is needed to describe Georgian voters in more profundity, but one thing is clear: rational political actors will benefit from systematic and comprehensive study of voter preferences before making judgments about their opportunities and constraints. 


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