By Niklas Nilsson (09/19/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

As Georgia approaches Election Day on October 1, much attention is paid by international Georgia-watchers to whether these elections will signify a step forward in the consolidation of Georgia’s political system. Indeed, practically all elections held since the Rose Revolution in 2003 have been considered litmus tests of Georgia’s democracy in one way or another. Yet these parliamentary elections, given their function as a scene-setter for the presidential elections scheduled for October 2013, arguably have an unprecedented significance in that they are potentially the first step toward Georgia’s first constitutional and orderly transfer of political power since independence.

BACKGROUND: A brief recap of previous such transitions – the violent ouster of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January 1992 and the less violent Rose Revolution forcing Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation in November 2003 – highlights the importance that the next transition takes place within the confines of the constitution and through a recognized election.

Georgia has certainly come a long way as a state over the last decade. Many state functions have been drastically improved, with the virtual elimination of everyday corruption and overhaul of the police force as the most frequently quoted examples. Overall, the Georgian state is clearly much stronger than it was ten years ago. Yet, while a functioning state is one precondition for the evolution of a democratic system, it does not guarantee such an evolution in itself. In Georgia, the extreme powers vested in the executive after the Rose Revolution, the tendency of non-transparent decision-making by a closed and unaccountable group of advisors and not least the government’s dominance over nationwide broadcast media all present problems of Georgia’s political system and obstacles to the consolidation of Georgian democracy.

Indeed, the dominance of the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party in all spheres of political life is one reason for the weakness of Georgia’s political opposition, which has frequently taken to street protests rather than engaging in the legislative process. To their detriment, Georgia’s opposition parties are also internally divided and are often based around the personalities of their leaders rather than around political agendas.

However, these elections differ in that the government faces a more organized and better funded opposition that in any previous election. The Georgian Dream (GD) coalition headed by former oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili – ranked the 153rd richest man in the world by Forbes and by far the richest Georgian – includes a disparate group of opposition parties who have nevertheless managed to campaign across the country. While the table is tilted in favor of the UNM, these elections are arguably the most contested ones in Georgia so far and holding free and fair elections in such an environment will unavoidably be considered a measure of Georgia’s political maturity among domestic as well as international observers.

IMPLICATIONS: The most controversial aspects of the year preceding these elections have been, on the one hand, Ivanishvili’s background and intentions. The Georgian government and the UNM have persistently sought to make the case that the fortune he made in Russia in the 1990s, and his ability to sell off his Russian assets at a competitive price ahead upon his decision to move into politics, imply that he maintains connections with the Kremlin. Hence, his political endeavor is frequently depicted as an extension of Russian attempts to meddle in Georgian politics. Ivanishvili’s allegedly soft stance on Russia is quoted as an indication of this, but this stance comprises of a vaguely stated objective to improve relations with Georgia’s northern neighbor. While such allegations refer to the very real security threat that Russia poses to Georgia, currently manifested in the Kavkaz 2012 military exercises in the North Caucasus, they cannot in themselves serve as an argument against Ivanishvili’s right to run for public office.

A second and arguably more serious challenge that Ivanishvili poses to the UNM is his personal wealth. Ivanishvili possesses the resources to fund social reforms out of his own pocket, let alone his political campaign. This has also raised the issue of regulating campaign funding in Georgia. While such regulations are uncontroversial in most established democracies, the Georgian State Audit Office’s seemingly selective application of such regulations and the excessive fines issued upon violations in the case of the GD coalition is arguably not contributing to the creation of a level playing field. Combined with the earlier controversy surrounding the revocation of Ivanishvili’s citizenship and the subsequent constitutional amendment, valid for three years, allowing him to stand for election, can easily be interpreted as concerted attempts by the government to delimit Ivanishvili’s prospects in the elections. 

The campaign climate has in large part followed the pattern established in Georgia over the last five years, where the competing parties in an extremely polarized political spectrum accuse each other of posing existential threats to Georgia as a state. The UNM’s depiction of Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge is matched by the GD coalition’s assessment of the government and President Saakashvili as turning Georgia into an authoritarian regime on par with its most repressive counterparts in the post-Soviet space. GD has at times seemed more focused on taking protests to the street after Election Day than on the elections themselves. Such accusations frequently overshadow issue-based debate on Georgia’s real challenges, defined by the population at large as its dire economic situation, unemployment, poverty, medical care and agriculture.

Elections are an imperfect measure of democratic standards and democratic consolidation arguably takes place through the building of institutions and evolution of democratic culture between elections. Yet, elections still provide a snapshot of the state of democracy in any given society and the attention paid to such events domestically as well as internationally implies that the holding of elections at an acceptable standard, now in October as well as next year, hold real significance to Georgia’s political future. The perception that whichever political figures will form Georgia’s next government have gained power through free and fair elections is crucial to their domestic legitimacy and at least as importantly, to Georgia’s foreign policy options.

Indeed, one reason why Georgia’s elections receive significant international attention is the foreign policy narrative the Georgian government has sought to establish about its role in the world after the Rose Revolution, which provides for a very intimate connection between the country’s domestic mode of governance and its international security objectives. This narrative holds, first, that Georgia is essentially a European country and deserves a place in the European and Transatlantic security community. Hence, Georgia should modernize and democratization is one aspect of this modernization.

In its international extension, the narrative holds that the international example Georgia sets through its reforms – that of an alternative model of development in the post-Soviet world and beyond – constitutes an asset for the West that extends much further than to Georgia alone. This progress must be bolstered as it provides for a more or less automatic conflict with Russia, fearing similar developments in its neighboring states and ultimately in Russia itself. The government’s narrative also makes the case that the current ruling elite is the only feasible political force in Georgia capable of consolidating these achievements.

While this narrative obviously serves to legitimize the rule of the current government and to discredit the opposition, it also presents democratic practices as a key precondition for Georgia’s international security objectives. Unless Georgia is capable of demonstrating that it can hold elections in accordance with international standards, its prospects for future integration with the EU and NATO, admittedly distant objectives following the 2008 war, will be drastically reduced.

CONCLUSIONS: While the electoral implications of the recent prison abuse scandal is unclear, most recent polls suggest that the UNM will win the upcoming elections but that GD will present a real challenge and be able to form a substantial faction in parliament. It remains to be seen whether the opposition will take these seats or revert to previously tried practices of parliamentary boycott and street rallies. A far more positive scenario would provide for a stronger opposition faction that actively engages in the parliamentary process, which would increase the role of parliament as an institution and a venue for managing political cleavages, as implied by the constitutional changes entering into force after the 2013 presidential elections. Such a development could also provide for the evolution of Georgia’s currently highly immature party system as it could force existing parties to focus more on ideology and issue-based debate than on trading accusations of authoritarianism or treason. 

AUTHOR’S BIO: Niklas Nilsson is Associate Editor of the Central Asia–Caucasus Analyst, and a Research Fellow with the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. He is currently a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University.