The Georgian parliamentary election: Georgian Dream still at the helm

5 décembre 2016
by Maren Garberg Bredesen, Research Assistant at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, member of the Caucasus Initiative
Last month’s parliamentary election in Georgia is a reminder that its democratic and Euro Atlantic course remains steadfast. Compared to its eastern neighbour, Azerbaijan, where a recent constitutional referendum has significantly strengthened the president’s prospects for ruling indefinitely, the last Georgian election is again evidence of the country’s commitment to competitive electoral processes and real power shifts.

The election: winners and losers

The winning party in the parliamentary elections on October 8th turned out to be the incumbent and main coalition member Georgian Dream Democratic Georgia (in short, Georgian Dream), with 48.6 per cent of the votes. The main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), gathered 27.1 per cent, while the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a right-wing populist party, received 5 per cent. The following majoritarian run-offs, conducted on October 30th, secured the Georgian Dream 76 per cent of the total number of seats in parliament, enough to change the constitution. While the Georgian Dream was generally considered to be one of the strongest parties in the election, opinion polls from this summer had indicated that the party lingered at 17% support (some polls suggested a little bit higher), and the UNM at around 13% (again, subject to different polls), suggesting that neither party would win an outright majority. Pundits had speculated whether the large share of undecided voters would go to “third parties”, who made a relatively strong appearance during the election campaigning; yet in the end all but one failed to clear the threshold. The election result was therefore contrary to beliefs earlier this year that Georgia was likely to get another coalition government. The last party to enter parliament has been this election’s biggest wild card: The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a small nationalist party with a distinctly more Russia-neutral and anti-Turkish line than its colleagues in the new parliament. Its ‘Georgia First’ line resonates with populist movements in Europe and the US. However, with only six seats in the parliament they are not expected to gain much significant bargaining power.

Noticeably, all the other former coalition parties failed to break the 5% threshold. Perhaps the biggest disappointment for many Western observers was the poor performance of the Free Democrats and the Republicans, two of the most pro-EU and pro-NATO parties in the Georgian party landscape. The resignation of the former Republican party leader, Davit Usupashvili, now also outgoing Chair of Parliament, alongside the loss of several of his minister colleagues has been considered ill-afforded. Widely credited for bringing the parliament back as a vital political institution in Georgian politics, Usupashvili’s resignation from the Republicans is likely to be a blow also to the party, which despite being a former member of the Georgian Dream coalition only managed to attract 1.55 per cent of the votes in this election. Irakli Alasania, now former leader of the Free Democrats, has also announced that he will be leaving Georgian politics. Alasania was the former UN ambassador and special representative in talks with breakaway Abkhazia, and has been recognised for building a good working relationship with Abkhaz officials. More generally, he has represented a diplomatic and rational voice in Georgian politics. Both parties’ decision to run separately in the election proved detrimental, as creating a power bloc – like so many of the other third parties – would have significantly increased their chances of breaking the threshold.

Surprisingly, this year’s election campaign differed from previous years of Georgian politics in that it was not entirely dominated by the dichotomy between multibillionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (GD) and former president, now governor of Odessa, Mikhail Saakashvili (UNM). Instead, it featured a wider range of normal politicians as well as newcomers, including State for People leader and former opera singer Paata Burchuladze and former first lady cum UNM majoritarian candidate Sandra Roelofs. Also current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (GD) – who is recognised as a much needed political bridge builder and for lessening the political tension in Georgia – seems to enjoy significant popularity both at home and internationally. Arguably, Kvirikashvili is more independent than his predecessors and more capable of removing the premiership further away from the backstage control of Ivanishvili. If this is the case, he would be the first prime minister to have achieved this after Ivanishvili himself withdrew from being prime minister in 2013, allegedly only to continue to oversee and instruct the premiership from behind the scenes. That is not to say that the Georgian election campaign came without the usual scandals, rumours, accusations and rivalries, which per the Georgian normal tend to take centre stage at the expense of interest representation and strong party platforms. This year’s UNM election line of regime change took a dramatic turn when Saakashvili, in a released recording, expressed his intentions to return to Georgia and start a revolution if the Georgian Dream win the election. Moreover, isolated instances of violence occurred in the weeks running up to the election, as well as on the election day, but were mostly limited to scuffles between UNM and Georgian Dream supporters. The most serious incident, however, was when the car of a UNM-member exploded three days before the election. This was a sharp reminder that there are still forces in Georgia that seek to undermine the country’s democratic processes.

Health barometer: Georgian democracy

In the aftermath of the October 8th election, concerns have quickly risen over the extent to which the Georgian Dream will attempt to consolidate power even further, creating a de facto one party rule. Civil society activists expressed fear that a super-majority would constitute a threat to democracy and encouraged voters to support opposition candidates in the majoritarian runoffs. These fears are likely to be reinforced as the party now holds not only a parliamentary but also constitutional majority. Playing into these concerns, only ten days after the election on October 8th Prime Minister Kvirikashvili announced that he would introduce constitutional amendments. This would involve changes that mandate parliament to appoint the president instead of appointment by popular elections, as the current constitution instructs. As Lincoln Mitchell has recently argued, this suggestion would be problematic as it would create a confusion of power responsibilities without any political rationale. Already under the last government disagreements and power struggles between the President and Prime Minister were not uncommon and it is questionable to what extent two leaders deriving from parliament would benefit Georgian decision making. Moreover, in recent years President Margvelashvili has played an important role as a check on the government and been an important critic of the coalition’s at-times chaotic governance style. Hence, the Georgian Dream will have to carefully evaluate to what extent these constitutional changes are beneficial to the Georgian political system in executive terms, as well as how the new majority government and their democratic credentials will be evaluated should it choose to go through with it.

Concerns about the party’s one party dominance might be considered unfair, but not entirely unfounded.

Although the election has been concluded as competitive, well-administered and in respect of fundamental freedoms, this summer’s campaigning came at the backdrop of a year that has posed questions over Georgia’s democratic course. The biggest question pertained to the much criticised lawsuit against Georgia’s most popular TV-station and government critic, Rustavi 2, which questioned the credibility of two governments – past and present. While the alleged involvement of Saakashvili’s party in passing the station to UNM-connected owners in the mid-2000s was probably no big shock to the broader Georgian public, the court’s decision to temporarily replace Rustavi 2’s senior managers was certainly concerning for many in terms of the Georgian Dream coalition’s commitment to media freedom and the rule of law. The concerns arose not only from the suspicion of direct involvement by the government, but also from an impression that the judiciary is still politicised along party lines. In response, and in effort to legitimise themselves upon the faults of the previous government, the Georgian Dream coalition resorted to comparisons between the state of media freedom then (under the UNM) and recently under coalition-rule. And granted, since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power in 2012, media pluralism and freedom has increased and substantial reforms have been implemented to ensure a more transparent and independent judicial system.

Moreover, the victory of the ruling Georgian Dream means that the reforms that have been initiated in the last four years are likely to continue, which will be greatly beneficial to the stability and development of Georgia’s political institutions. This is good news for a country where changes in power have previously been synonymous with tearing down or fundamentally reorganising institutions and governmental structures. When the UNM were elected to power in 2003, Saakashvili was quick to implement a ‘hyper state building’ project. While many of these efforts were inherently positive, like rooting out corruption in the lower echelons of government such as in the public services and law enforcement, the Georgian political system also saw the concentration of executive powers in the presidency and increasingly curbed media freedoms. Since the election in 2012 the Georgian Dream coalition has been determined to rub out some of the UNM government’s legacy. From the outset the coalition took important steps to decentralise the country by introducing direct elections of district governors. They changed the system of government from presidential to semi-presidential, vested more powers in the parliament, and – in contrast to the neoliberal policies under Saakashvili – increased pensions and brought in the state as the main provider of public services such as health care. In addition to this, they have started reforms of the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office to ensure more transparency. Hence, with the Georgian Dream still in power, Georgia is likely to continue on the same path of reform and stabilisation.

However, the development of Georgia will also depend on the Georgian Dream’s ability to become a more cohesive and capable political force when it comes to solving Georgia’s immediate problems. Looking back, it is difficult to discern an overarching and consistent programme for the economic development of the country; that is to say, the government has to a large extent relied on the assurances of a prosperous Georgia (once its integration processes with the EU are completed) as their main vision for the country. Furthermore, consistency and progress have arguably been hampered by the Georgian Dream coalition’s internal preoccupations. During the last four years the Georgian Dream coalition saw no less than three changes of prime minister, four changes in foreign ministers, and four changes in defence minister, to mention some. Although primarily a symptom of the coalition’s internal fragmentation, starting when Alasania and the Free Democrats broke out in 2014 after a row with former prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, the rapid change in ministers arguably created instability in the relations between the government and external actors, such as civil society, foreign diplomats and investors.

The coalition also busied themselves with efforts to prosecute former UNM government members suspected of corruption and abuse of power. From the Georgian Dream side, this has primarily been a question of legitimising the coalition’s governance by displaying a firm commitment to accountability, while critics have regarded it as selective justice and as a sign of a backsliding Georgian democracy. Upon warnings from particularly American, but also EU and NATO officials, the Georgian Dream coalition government did to some extent accommodate the Western preferences concerning the prosecution processes and political independence of the judiciary, but have nevertheless ignored calls to stop the prosecutions entirely. Getting beyond this rearward looking way of governing would be a crucial next step for the re-elected government, both in order to rebuild some of the confidence that seems lost on some Western officials, and to guarantee Georgia’s chances to move forward in a time of economic decline and widespread disillusionment.

Halting this preoccupation with the past would also be important for the consistency of Georgia’s democratic development. It would signal to Georgia’s multiple political parties that elections and the potential for a change in majoritarian rule is not a threat to an incumbent party’s future survival, or the survival of opposition parties in general. Several analysts have been surprised that the UNM has managed to survive as a party, given the former coalition’s efforts to undermine them, but also because of the tendency of Georgian politicians to switch party alliances or quit politics when faced with electoral loss. As already mentioned, both the Republican and Free Democrats have started to disintegrate after their leaders announced that they would temporarily quit politics. Ridding the political competition of this mentality would arguably foster a more meaningful form of party politics and pluralism, based on consensus building, negotiations and compromises rather than the typical accusations of being “enemies of the state” or a Russia stooge, aimed at destroying the opponent’s reputation. At the moment, given the antagonism that exists between the Georgian Dream and the UNM, it does not bode well for constructive parliamentary sessions under the new composition.

The most urgent challenge for the Georgian Dream will be to get Georgia’s economy up and running. Holding a clear majority will very likely improve their chances to push policy forward. However, this will depend on their ability to formulate, communicate, and efficiently implement policy proposals, especially on the economy. The former coalition government did make some relevant efforts to address the economic situation, which has been deteriorating with high inflation, a steep depreciation of the lari, rising unemployment (unofficial numbers indicate over 50%) and falling exports. However, most of the efforts in the last four years have gone towards doing preparatory work and approximating the Georgian production and export systems to those of the EU. While this foundational work was a requirement for the Association Agreement to come into force, it has given few immediate economic returns to the majority of Georgians, which has increased people’s impatience and sense of disillusionment. Hence, high expectations are tied to Georgia’s EU Association Agreement, which entered fully into force in June 2016 and is hoped to cure Georgia of some of its economic illnesses. Additionally, Kvirikashvili has introduced a four-point plan to reignite growth by investing in infrastructure, a labour market oriented education system, and governance (in terms of transparency and involvement), as well as a taxation system reform that aspires to increase investment. This plan is mainly aimed at the Georgian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up the bulk of the Georgian economy. This vision is also very much in line with Kvirikashvili’s proposals from his time as Economy Minister, and suggests that the new government is more disposed to a consistent and detailed vision for Georgia’s future economic engine.

The missing links: Abkhazia and South Ossetia

One of the most notable aspects of this year’s election campaign was the absence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although Georgian leaders frequently condemn Russia’s actions in the breakaway territories, this has been about the extent that it has been dealt with in the national dialogue, not just in the elections, but over the last year. While Georgian politicians again condemned Russia’s military drills in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August, and for holding elections for the State Duma inside the territories in September, few of parties partaking in the Georgian election presented a serious platform on the issue. According to opinion polls from the last year, territorial integrity still remains high on the list of the country’s most pressing issues, but is currently not in the top three.

Faced with deepening bilateral relations between Moscow on one hand and Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on the other, facilitated by the negotiated agreements on economic, security and judicial integration in 2014 and 2015, respectively, as well as continued Russian borderization (the erection and movement of border fences), Georgia is seemingly dealing with a less benign Russian foreign policy than has been the case in the last three years.[i] On top of this, the prospects for a South Ossetian referendum on accession to Russia, which was due to be held this year but has been postponed till 2017, will complicate matters further. Combined, this seems to have caused a sense of paralysis in the Georgian government in terms of finding appropriate responses or developing a clear plan for conflict resolution. Yet, despite the lack of a vision for resolving the conflicts in more substantial terms, the former coalition government worked hard to restore relations with Russia. They managed to reduce hostility, and ensured the resumption of economic ties, which has been – and continues to be – crucial to the Georgian economy. This continues to be a balancing act, ready to be exploited by the opposition if any of the government’s moves could be interpreted as giving concessions to Russia.

Overall, both the former, but most likely also the new government, will continue to pursue soft incentives to maintain a level of influence in the breakaway territories. These measures include offering free health care and education in Georgia to the breakaway populations. Moreover, the expected EU agreement on visa free travel in the Schengen and other goods of Georgia’s European agenda will be made available to Abkhazians and South Ossetians, as was made clear by Kvirikashvili in his speech to the UN Assembly in September. Measures like these might become even more important as the two breakaway territories are increasingly subject to Russian efforts to augment its presence with more soft power resources, like closer integration with the Eurasian Economic Union in the case of Abkhazia, or like in South Ossetia where expectations are high that living standards will significantly improve under the new alliance and integration treaty. While from the West the Eurasian Economic Union is largely seen as a Russian attempt to provide an alternative to the EU in the post-Soviet space, in the case of the breakaway territories it is precisely Georgia and the EU that are currently challenged with presenting a more attractive alternative.

Therefore, continued state building, democratic development, and the chances of progress on South Ossetia and Abkhazia will necessitate that Georgia’s Western friends up the game and deliver on their promises, such as the EU visa liberalisation agreement.[ii] For now, the agreement seems likely to be approved by the end of the year and will be a long awaited conclusion for Georgia after several years of negotiations and reforms.

[i] MacFarlane, N.S. (2015) ‘Two Years of the Dream Georgian Foreign Policy During the Transition’, Chatham House Research Paper, May.
[ii] De Waal, T. (2016). ‘Georgia holds an election without saviours’, Carnegie Europe, 26 September.

The article is based on a policy brief previously published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).
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