“To win the people, always cook them some savory that pleases them.” ― Aristophanes, The Knights
As the Election Day of October 8th approaches, we hear more and more about the platforms of Georgian political parties. Given that political competition is very fierce, one naturally expects to hear some blatantly populist statements – the kind of political promises (known to humanity from the times of Aristophanes) which are very popular among the voters, but are hard or impossible to implement in practice.
Thus, for example, the reform of the tax system is among the hottest topics in this election season, and almost all economic platforms start with promises related to the reduction and/or complete elimination of various taxes. At the same time, there is little explanation of how the country’s budget could support these promises.
Just how populist are political platforms of various parties in Georgia? In this blog we explore the platforms relating in particular to the agricultural sector.
A CINDERELLA OF POLITICS
If there were a beauty contest amongst the topics on the political agenda, agricultural development would surely get one of the last places in Georgia. This is quite strange, given that agriculture employs more than 50% of the labor force, while being one of the most technologically backward sectors. Discussions on how to industrialize agriculture without jeopardizing the livelihoods of people currently working in rural areas are very important in international and national policy circles. So why is agriculture not a sexy topic for politicians? A brief look at a few party programs gives us an idea.
First, it seems that development gaps in the agricultural sector are far too obvious to be the subject of a hot debate. Politicians could hardly disagree on the need to promote infrastructure and labor productivity in rural areas. And without a disagreement, there is almost no point in raising an issue – at least not during the election season. Second, it seems that the solutions to agricultural sector problems are a bit too complex to be easily digestible. In practical terms, any issue that cannot be explained in one minute or less is not great for TV.
To be fair, most political parties do mention agriculture in one way or another. But what do they have to say? Here’s our “popular guide” to political platforms on this topic:
In a contest for the least populist platform on agriculture the winner is….
The United National Movement (UNM). UNM’s program mentions agricultural issues only very briefly (although the need for infrastructural projects, including rehabilitation of irrigation systems, does feature in the party’s platform). What is more interesting is that the party promises to abolish all entry barriers to the Georgian food market for high quality, certified food products. Given that farmers usually lobby for protection policies (read more about this in our blog article “Will Restricting Food Imports Save Georgian Farmers?") this promise, which economically makes a lot of sense, will not go over well with the Georgian farmers.
The agricultural platform with the most populist appeal belongs to….
New Political Center Girchi. Girchi’s program focuses on land registration issues, and opposes the current government’s land registration reform. This party suggests employing an Anglo-Saxon model of land privatization, according to which all fossils and minerals identified in the land plot are owned by the land owner (which currently is not the case). Since land registration is one of the most contentious and problematic topics in Georgian agriculture, Girchi’s platform definitely speaks to the interests of many Georgian farmers. Although the issue of owning minerals is currently not that important, it makes the voters feel good (who knows, they might find commercial oil fields in Kakheti one day!).
The most boring (and the most comprehensive) program belongs to……
Not surprisingly, the incumbent Georgian Dream Coalition (GDC). The agricultural section of GDC’s program is highly comprehensive, and touches upon almost all aspects of Georgian agriculture. Basically, the government plans to continue its current strategy, and pays quite a bit of attention to agriculture.
The GDC platform reviews already implemented initiatives such as the creation of the Agricultural Projects Management Agency (APMA) the Agricultural Cooperatives Development Agency (ACDA), and the Agricultural Scientific Research Center, and emphasizes the importance of projects such as agricultural insurance, loans etc.
In the future, supporting cooperatives will be one of the major targets of the platform, along with land reform aimed at the reduction of land fragmentation. Other issues include improved farmers’ access to storage facilities, packaging and processing equipment, and supporting the development of distribution networks. These measures could ultimately help farmers create higher added value to the production process, become vertically integrated and eventually more competitive.
In addition to the actions mentioned above, GDC plans to continue to work on an agricultural insurance project and farmers’ access to finance, machinery and knowledge. GDC plans to increase meliorated and irrigated areas and support the application of modern irrigation techniques, as does UNM. The last part of GDC’s program focuses on issues of approximation in Georgian food safety regulations under DCFTA requirements, the potential of bio production, geographical location, application of smart agriculture techniques, and improvements in agricultural data collection systems.
Despite the comprehensive detail, GDC’s platform is not very specific as to how these various government programs will be supported by the budget (the platform lacks analysis of the fiscal burden of such programs). Secondly, the document also lacks specific targets and gives little idea of how programs will be prioritized (promising a lot of changes and interventions to be implemented simultaneously makes the program less credible).
The prize for the most original idea goes to….
Paata Burchuladze – State for the People. This party’s program has common elements with other programs, although it provides a couple of numerical targets (budget spending structure). The last element of the program is quite interesting and is related to the promotion of Georgian brands, in both the local and domestic markets. Most of the programs focus on the promotion of Georgian brands in foreign markets, but none of them discusses the importance of marketing Georgian brands in local markets.
State for the People also plans to reduce budget spending on subsidies and increase education and infrastructure related costs. The party aims to establish professional colleges and demonstration plots, apply the VAT exemption for agriculture-related imported technologies, and develop laboratories. It is planning to conduct land registration reform, foster state land privatization procedure and promote Georgian brands at local and foreign markets, as do other platforms.
The prize for the least original idea belongs to….
The Republican Party, which focuses on increasing Georgian production and exports. In order to achieve this goal, the Republicans plan to create a special program: “Supporting Exports,” which will provide information/consultation services to relatively small potential exporters. Regional information-consultation centers are supposed to play major role in this process. In addition, the proposal involves the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well economic departments of various councils. The initiative itself is quite interesting, but not very original, given the existence of many donor-funded projects with similar goals, as well as already existing information-consultation centers which already actively assist farmers.
And finally, the Free Democrats discuss agriculture even less than representatives of UNM. The platform merely emphasizes the importance of supporting export oriented production, which will definitely benefit Georgian producers, the majority of whom are small scale family farms.
IN CONCLUSION …
Agriculture might not be a major focus in the current political debate (for the reasons we mentioned above), but it is not altogether neglected, and many planned interventions are either directly or indirectly related to agriculture.
Programs’ most common elements include land reform, export promotion and investments in infrastructure. All of them are vital undertakings. Let us just hope that the winning party will make sure that these promises do not just stay on paper.