Making energy matters matter: entering the electoral field

[Editor’s note: This is the seventh post in the series Thinking about Think Tanks in the South Caucasus, co-published with On Think Tanks. It was written by Tutana Kvaratskhelia of World Experience for Georgia. The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of CRRC-Georgia]

Elections are coming in Georgia. Although some thinktankers suggest that elections are a difficult time for think tanks to find an audience, it has also been pointed out that they present opportunities to contribute to the democratic process. At World Experience for Georgia (WEG), in part inspired by previous posts on think tanks and elections at On Think Tanks, we decided to see whether we could indeed help to shape an important debate.

To do so, we developed a set of activities (more on this below) to try to insert energy policy into the pre-electoral debate. Before getting into the details, some background is important.

WEG, Georgian elections and energy policy

WEG is a boutique think tank in Georgia, primarily focusing on the energy sector but also on sustainable development more broadly. Energy issues have strategic importance for the country, but the growing role of foreign interests in Georgia’s energy sector, the lack of transparency in government dealings, and the pre-election populist promises made by politicians, increase the country’s vulnerability to external influences during the election cycle.

In Georgian elections past, political parties have promoted populist, vague and sometimes unrealistic promises that they can rarely keep. While this may not be unusual in some respects, some of the promises have been particularly outlandish when it comes to energy policy. For example, during the 2012 electoral campaign, then candidate and now former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that it was possible to instantly slash electricity bills in half, using Georgia’s sizeable hydroelectric resources. Two months after coming to power, he confessed that the calculations about tariffs were wrong, and he might have overstated what was really possible.

In order to safeguard Georgia’s interests through developing energy security and a European political orientation, WEG has decided to actively participate in pre-election discussions surrounding energy policy in Georgia.

Our proposal: Introducing evidence based policy to the campaign

Electoral campaigns have yet to reach full speed as the elections are still a year away, but to accomplish the above goal, we have started to think about how to make political promises rely on realistic policy options and how we (and think tanks more broadly) can insert our proposals and data into pre-electoral campaigns, leading to impact. As a result, we have developed a strategy for advocating for evidence based energy policy during Georgia’s upcoming electoral campaigns. The strategy consists of three main areas of activity:

  1. Critical examination of energy issues before the elections – here, we intend to review and analyze the main problems in Georgia’s energy sector. These include the growing influence of other countries in the domestic energy sector, grey areas in legislation and practices, which when coupled with unrealistic populist promises by political parties pose risks to the country’s independence.
  2. Monitor the party programs during the run up to the elections – this will enable engaged citizens to independently contrast the different policy positions of parties and make an informed choice in the elections. If political parties have not publicly declared their policies, then WEG will contact them directly and request their positions on energy issues. We will analyze their manifestos on a number of relevant indicators.
  3. Increase public awareness about populist and potentially harmful policies – we are going to communicate with journalists and send them questions to ask while covering the election campaigns. We will also organize roundtable discussions and presentations of our monitoring results during this period.

We hope that our activities will have some impact on pre-electoral discourse and if successful that it will provide a framework for think tanks in other sectors in Georgia to emulate.

It is important to note that we are not reinventing the wheel here – reviewing the problems facing a society, monitoring political programs and promises, and public awareness and roundtable events are bread and butter think tank activities. This suggests that if it works, the model will face low adoption costs by other think tanks and provide some organizations which are skeptical of election years as working years a familiar model to work off of.

All the above said, we are still in the process of thinking about and discussing what our options are and how we can improve our strategy. Any additional suggestions or remarks would be highly appreciated. If you have some, please do share them in the comments section below.