By Johanna Popjanevski (10/04/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The outcome of Georgia’s recent parliamentary election through which the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), appears to have lost its post-revolutionary grip on power, fundamentally changes the political dynamics in the country. The incumbent elite, under the leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili, now has to form a new government that prominently incorporates representatives of its main opponent, the Georgian Dream coalition, and the two sides will have to find avenues for cooperation and political reconciliation. The success of this process will depend not only on the policies of the two parties but also on continued support from Georgia’s Western partners in fostering political dialogue and pluralism in the country.

BACKGROUND: On October 1 the Georgian people went to the polls in what would turn out to be the most competitive parliamentary election since the one that triggered the Rose Revolution in 2003. As the preliminary results emerged on October 2, incumbent President Saakashvili went on national television and conceded defeat against his party’s main opponent, the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GD), headed by business tycoon and multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Mr. Ivanishvili, who entered the Georgian political scene in October last year with an articulated ambition to bring the rule of the incumbent government to an end, later made a public call for Mr. Saakashvili’s resignation and early presidential elections, currently expected to be held in October 2013.

While the final numbers are yet to be announced – and challenges to the results are expected in several single-member constituencies - GD is expected to gain at least 83 seats in the 150-seat strong Parliament, while the corresponding number of seats for the UNM is estimated at 67.

According to the Georgian constitution, the new parliament should be seated within 20 days of the election, which also constitutes the deadline for the Central Election Commission to announce the final results of the election. While the constitution does not explicitly state that parliamentary elections must be followed by a change of government, constitutional amendments passed in 2010 call for the nomination of a new cabinet within 17 days after the first 2012 parliamentary sitting.

The outcome of the election caught many by surprise, as international polling results had suggested continued majority support for Mr. Saakashvili and his party. The ruling party, too, appeared confident throughout the election process that it would secure a continued parliamentary majority through winning at least two thirds of the majoritarian seats. As such, the process of establishing a government that reflects the new political realities in Georgia is likely to be a daunting task for the ruling elite.

The constitutional amendments that decrease the powers of the executive branch do not come into force until 2013, hence the task of forming the new cabinet remains in the hands of the Georgian president. Following the first parliamentary session, the president has 7 days to nominate a Prime Minister, who then nominates the ministers by consent of the president. The nomination is then subject to a vote of confidence in the parliament, requiring support by a majority of its members. Seemingly, however, this procedure excludes the appointment of the Interior and Defense Ministers, which remains at the direct discretion of the president – a key provision that is likely to generate much confusion and controversy, given the key role of the Interior Ministry in Georgia.

The parliament may reject the nomination up to three times, after which the president may still appoint the proposed cabinet, but consequently has to dissolve the parliament and call for extraordinary parliamentary elections. Notably, however, such elections may not take place within six months after an ordinary parliamentary election or within six months prior to a presidential election, making new elections a next to impossible outcome over the next year. In practice, the only means for the new Georgian parliament to challenge the appointment of the new cabinet would be through an unconditional non-confidence declaration, which requires a three-fifth majority vote (90 votes). At present, neither of the camps have the sufficient number of seats to achieve such a declaration.

While this leaves room for Mr. Saakashvili to push through his own choice of government, it is an unlikely scenario given the current political context. However, it is relevant to the assessment of the extent to which the ruling elite will be willing to share governance of the country with Mr. Ivanishvili and his allies in the coming year.

IMPLICATIONS: The outcome of the parliamentary election and, indeed, the legal context of the post-election process, give rise to a number of important questions over the coming months.

First, Mr. Saakashvili will face a difficult task in deciding on the composition of the new government, which will inevitably need to include members of the opposing camp to reflect the new realities of Georgian politics. Mr. Ivanishvili’s role in the ruling structures will be a particularly problematic issue to address in this regard. While it appears as a plausible scenario that Mr. Ivanishvili assumes the post of Prime Minister in the new government, the Georgian legislation is in fact ambiguous on the right for non-Georgian citizens who have not run for office to hold official posts in the government. The current legislation gives EU-born citizens who have lived in Georgia for 5 years the right to vote in and run for elections, but explicitly requires that civil servants are Georgian citizens. 

This may raise the contentious issue of Mr. Ivanishvili’s right to regain his Georgian citizenship, which was revoked by the Georgian authorities last fall due to his simultaneous holding of French and Russian passports. For Mr. Ivanishvili, this would again require taking court action to challenge the revocation, or apply directly to Mr. Saakashvili for a presidential waiver, a procedural option that the billionaire has refused throughout the pre-election process.

While the appointment of a more politically diverse government in Georgia is a natural and positive step in Georgia’s democratic process, it is likely to come with a range of controversies given the already highly agitated relationship between the parties. The division of ministerial posts will require far-reaching compromises on both sides and will likely entail a battle for the power posts of Interior, Defense and Justice Ministers. Should GD succeed in gaining important seats in the new cabinet, it is still likely to have problems securing loyalty within the ministry structures, which are largely staffed by the ruling party. Ultimately, the process may result in the emergence of a highly polarized cabinet with the consequence of impeding decision-making in the year to come.

Second, the failure by either camp to gain a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament will require lobbying from both sides to achieve important decisions, including any changes to the constitution, over the next parliamentary term. For the UNM as well as for GD, this will entail the challenge of staying united in the parliamentary structures and avoid the emergence of internal factions. As such, the next few months will test the solidity of the UNM as a political party rather than a group kept together by its unchallenged grip of power in the post-revolutionary era. This, in turn, will require that the UNM consolidates its party identity and develops coherent strategies for the parliamentary term to come.

Equally, Ivanishvili will face a challenge in keeping together the ideologically diverse GD coalition to secure strength in the new Parliament. The coalition, which comprises parties ranging from the ultra-nationalistic National Forum party, headed by Kakha Shartava, to the far more liberal and Western-oriented Our Georgia – Free Democrats, led by Irakli Alasania, has so far largely failed to present a common political agenda other than the ambition to remove President Saakashvili and his party from power. In this light, the coalition risks gradually dissolving over time, or divide into parliamentary factions which may be more or less open to cooperation with the UNM. Indeed, Ivanishvili has recently referred to the future break-up of the coalition as a natural development. However, just like it did for the UNM after the Rose Revolution, the coalition’s new-won power is likely to constitute a strong factor in keeping the coalition united, at least in the medium term.

CONCLUSIONS: The following months will be crucial in setting the tone for Georgia’s future political path. The challenges posed by the recent changes in the power dynamics will inescapably require identifying means for increased dialogue and cooperation between the two rivaling political camps. As such, while the domination of one party and the polarization of the Georgian political scene in the pre-election process constituted impediments in terms of democratic consolidation, the recent developments have equally brought with them an opportunity to enhance cooperation across the party lines and, importantly, will force both sides to develop more clearly defined political positions and objectives. In this process, Georgia remains dependent on its Western partners to support a more balanced political scene, rather than one marked by distrust and personalized antagonism.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Johanna Popjanevski is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and currently based in Tbilisi. She was an observer in the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections.