PROSPECTS AND PITFALLS AFTER GEORGIA’S ELECTIONS

By Niklas Nilsson and Svante E. Cornell (10/04/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Georgia’s parliamentary elections on October 1, 2012, concluded in a clear victory for the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat for his United National Movement (UNM) in an election approved as largely up to standard in preliminary assessments by international monitors. This marks the first step toward a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power in Georgia, which has not experienced such a political development since independence. Yet challenges abound. The election outcome forces the new parliamentary majority to cooperate with the President in the formation of a new government and Georgia is likely to see a chaotic process ahead, which could nevertheless hold positive implications for Georgia’s political evolution.

BACKGROUND: As the vote tally in Georgia’s parliamentary elections is about to conclude, it is becoming clear that the GD, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, will form Georgia’s new parliamentary majority and is therefore likely to form the next government. While final results have yet to be released, GD is likely to get at least 83 seats, with the UNM taking up to 67. The GD lead is higher than expected, firstly because most polls conducted in the weeks preceding the elections pointed to a UNM lead, and secondly due to fears, not least expressed by the GD itself, that the UNM’s superior access to administrative resources and broadcast media as well as its alleged capability and will to manipulate the elections in its favor would have a decisive outcome.

With the benefit of hindsight, those fears now appear unfounded. The preliminary verdict of the OSCE/ODIHR international observer mission notes several problems in the pre-election process, including instances of intimidation, disproportionate media reporting favoring the UNM and the selective application of campaign finance legislation against GD. However, the election process itself received a largely positive assessment with only minor violations and the elections were termed “an important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, although certain key issues remain to be addressed.”

The UNM’s defeat can be attributed to several factors. First, the ruling party has been in power for eight consecutive years, and a large part of the Georgian population apparently developed a certain fatigue, making many willing to consider a credible alternative. President Saakashvili’s often non-deliberative style of governance may have contributed to this trend. Second, while the UNM’s time in government has provided for significant improvements of Georgian state functions as well as important aspects of the country’s economy, such progress has failed to translate into jobs and improved living standards for large parts of the population – unemployment and poverty remain among the chief concerns among Georgian voters. That said, the approval ratings of Saakashvili and leading UNM figures have been relatively high, suggesting that these factors were not sufficient in tilting the election.

Third, during these elections the UNM faced serious competition for the first time since its advent to power. In spite of representing a broad array of political parties ranging from liberal Europeanists to nationalists, the GD managed to present a united front to the electorate under Ivanishvili’s leadership. The GD’s success can in large part be attributed to the capability of its portal figure to match the UNM’s funding and access to administrative resources by funding a comprehensive political campaign across the country and securing access to nationwide media.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, the release on September 18 of video footage disclosing abuse and sexual assaults on prisoners in a Tbilisi detention facility appears to have played a decisive role in tilting public opinion in the opposition’s favor, especially among undecided voters. The images became a graphic illustration of the opposition’s narrative of the government’s allegedly violent and authoritarian rule. The government’s attempts to repair the damage by dismissing the ministers of interior and corrections, among other measures, proved insufficient.

IMPLICATIONS: Georgia has successfully conducted its first truly competitive elections and there are few doubts that the outcome reflects the will of a majority of Georgian voters. This is a significant political development in Georgia, where the previous two transitions of power since independence, the ouster of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January 1992 and the Rose revolution in 2003, took place through a brief civil war in the first instance and a peaceful but unconstitutional takeover of parliament in the second. The fact that Saakashvili as leader of the losing party publicly conceded defeat is another novel feature of the process – the tradition in Georgia has otherwise been for unsuccessful candidates to focus on bitter contestation of election results based on both distrust in the legitimacy of the vote and a disregard for the political process.

While the elections themselves have frequently been termed a litmus test for the capacity of Georgia’s political system to consolidate and democratize, the country’s political institutions now face an even greater test in managing the cleavage between two significant forces in Georgian politics. The responsibility for Georgia’s democratic deficit has frequently been placed on the Georgian government, not unreasonably so considering its virtual monopolization of power in the years since the Rose Revolution. Yet, this critique has frequently obscured the deeper needs of Georgia’s political system: the lack of sufficiently strong democratic institutions capable of peacefully managing political conflict and exercising checks and balances on political power, and a robust party system based on ideologies and political programs rather than charismatic and popular personalities.

While the virtually uncontested rule of the UNM has so far been an obstacle to the evolution of institutions and a party system, change is more likely to come about as an effect of genuine political contestation and compromise than through top-down reforms. In this perspective, the current political situation in Georgia certainly holds some room for optimism. While the country now faces a time of political uncertainty – the GD certainly has numerous questions to address regarding domestic and foreign policy as well as the restructuring of ministries and government agencies – Georgia now has two broad and powerful factions in parliament.

Yet, it is still early to tell what this new situation will imply. Assuming he becomes Prime Minister, Ivanishvili will now embark on a cumbersome process to assign ministerial duties among his coalition partners – while not necessarily being able to assign key ministries such as Interior and Defense, which may remain under the President’s prerogative. Ivanishvili has hinted that GD could break up into several parliamentary factions, an indication that it may prove difficult to hold the coalition together although Ivanishvili’s personal wealth and the joint purpose of defeating the UNM has so far provided a motivation for continued cooperation. The new government will also be forced to cooperate with Saakashvili, who remains president until the presidential elections next year. While this situation may well hold positive implications as outlined above, there is also a considerable risk of a Ukraine-scenario – a political stalemate stemming from animosity and obstructionism between the President and Prime Minister.

Georgia will hence face an uncertain and vulnerable political situation in the coming year. It is of immense importance that Georgia’s international partners, primarily the U.S. and EU, engage closely with both sides in the post-election environment in order to mediate in conflicts that will inevitably emerge, facilitate cooperation and ensure that Georgia’s transition of power takes place within the framework of the constitution and political institutions.

CONCLUSIONS: The stakes in the months ahead should not be underestimated. The UNM’s electoral defeat and Saakashvili’s concession give the lie to the oft-repeated allegations of Georgia’s authoritarian nature, which have frequently been used by skeptical forces in Europe and the U.S. to keep the country at arm’s length. If Georgia’s leading politicians succeed in taking the country forward in an orderly democratic process, it will be very difficult for anyone to maintain roadblocks on Georgia’s path to European integration. Should they fail, however, and Georgia descend into Ukrainian-style chaos, the critics arguing that Georgia is an immature country that does not really belong in Europe will have been vindicated.

In this sense, while foes domestically, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are now joined at the hip since both now effectively represent the official governing institutions of Georgia in its interactions with the world. In at least some respects, their legacies are now intertwined. If they succeed in achieving a modus vivendi with one another, Georgia will succeed. If they fail to cooperate, it is not just they but Georgia that will fail.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Niklas Nilsson is Research Fellow and Svante E. Cornell Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Associate Editor and Editor, respectively, of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. Nilsson is currently a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at IERES, George Washington University.