Election Georgia’s Parliamentary Elections A surprise to most observers
The results of Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections came as a surprise to most observers, the ruling United National Movement party (UNM) and likely to the leaders of the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GD) opposition coalition itself.
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 10, 2012
The results of Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections came as a surprise to most observers, the ruling United National Movement party (UNM) and likely to the leaders of the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GD) opposition coalition itself. As the vote tabulation proceeded, it quickly became apparent that the GD had won a majority of the 77 parliamentary seats appointed through proportional party lists. However, it was widely expected before the elections that even in such a case the UNM would be able to win most of the 73 seats appointed through first-past-the post competition in single-mandate constituencies and hence to retain a majority in parliament. Yet, GD proved successful also in the majoritarian constituencies and will hence form Georgia’s new parliamentary majority. The preliminary statement of the OSCE/ODIHR international election observation mission gave the elections a largely positive assessment, stating that the elections “marked 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.”
According to Georgia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), as of October 5 GD has received 54.9 percent of the votes cast against 40.4 percent for the UNM. The results in seven majoritarian constituencies are still contested and may be altered through appeals, but the CEC does not estimate that this will result in any major changes to the overall result. The result will likely translate into at least 83 seats for the GD and 67 seats for the UNM. Hence, GD will neither be able to form the two-thirds majority (100 votes) required for adopting constitutional changes or the three-fifths majority needed for a vote of non-confidence in the government – which explains the stakes involved in contesting the majoritarian seats. The results imply that Georgia now features a parliament dominated by two large parties, as none of the smaller parties in the political spectrum acquired enough votes to clear the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament.
The election was preceded by a highly polarized election campaign, in which the UNM and GD have traded accusations implying that Georgia’s survival as an independent state would depend on their respective victory. The UNM has sought to depict the GD’s leader Bidzina Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge, referring to his stated foreign policy objective of improving relations with Russia as a danger of increased Russian influence in Georgia. Ivanishvili personal wealth is estimated to 6.4 billion dollars, corresponding to about half Georgia’s GDP. The fact that he made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and was able to sell off his assets, including large shares in Gazprom, at competitive prices upon his decision to enter politics, have been cited as evidence of his undue connections with the Kremlin. Another frequently used line is that the election of Ivanishvili and his associates, several of which have a background in the government of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, would roll back the reforms conducted over the last several years and throw Georgia back into its past of corruption, crime, and conflict.
The government has also sought to use legal means to impede Ivanishvili’s chances. Shortly after he announced his decision to form a political party, Ivanishvili’s Georgian citizenship was revoked on the ground that he also held Russian and French passports, which is prohibited by Georgian citizenship law. A later constitutional amendment temporarily allows EU citizens to vote and run for public office provided they have lived in Georgia for the last five years. In order to curtail the advantage provided by Ivanishvili’s significant wealth, the State Audit office have applied laws on campaign financing in a manner termed excessive and selective by election observers, by fining Ivanishvili and his associates tens of millions of dollars for illegal campaign financing.
For its part, the GD has depicted the Georgian government and the UNM as an authoritarian regime on par with its most repressive post-Soviet counterparts and claimed that Georgia and its democracy can only survive through a change of government. While lagging in polls until less than two weeks before the election, GD claimed to have the support of a vast majority of Georgian voters and that the elections would be fraudulent regardless of the official result. At times, the GD has seemed more geared toward staging street protests after the elections themselves than on securing an actual victory. In this heated climate, there has been little room for issue-based political debate and contestation based on actual platforms.
In the weeks ahead of the elections, most opinion polls had anticipated a strong lead for the UNM. Yet, these polls also featured a large proportion of respondents who were undecided or declined to answer, and apparently most of these votes were given to the opposition. The GD’s success can be attributed to several factors. Over its eight years as Georgia’s ruling party, the UNM has conducted several popular reforms to improve Georgia’s state functions, including a comprehensive overhaul of the patrol police and drastic reductions in everyday corruption and crime. However, the ruling party’s virtual monopolization of political power has also been associated with a lack of transparency in decision-making and arrogance in the face of dissenting views, apparently giving rise to a desire among large parts of the electorate to see new people in power. Reforms of the Georgian economy have been conducted in accordance with a strongly libertarian approach, aimed at reducing red tape and paving the way for foreign investment. However, while such approaches have provided for considerable GDP growth, they have not substantially translated into jobs and reduced poverty levels, which remain among the chief concerns of Georgian voters.
Under the UNM’s rule, the political opposition has been marginalized by various means, including the UNM’s control of national broadcast media, disproportionate access to party financing, and occasionally by intimidation and violence (the November 2007 crackdown on protesters in central Tbilisi is usually quoted as the most significant instance of such practices). Yet, during these elections, the UNM for the first time faced an opponent capable of matching the government’s access to administrative resources in the election campaign. Under the leadership of Bidzina Ivanishvili, GD has been capable of campaigning throughout the country and has gained access to national media, which was helped significantly by the introduction of “Must Carry, Must Offer” provisions to the electoral code, obliging cable networks to also include opposition-oriented TV channels in their distribution lists.
Yet, a decisive factor in determining the GD’s victory was likely the release on September 18 of secretly shot videos from the Gldani detention facility in Tbilisi, depicting inmates being physically and sexually abused by prison guards. While the deplorable conditions in Georgian prisons have been known for a long time, the release of such footage less than two weeks ahead of the elections served to reinforce the GD’s campaign message of the government’s brutal and autocratic rule and is a likely explanation for the large amount of undecided voters eventually voting for GD. The government’s attempt to repair the damage through dismissing the penitentiary and interior ministers among other measures, proved insufficient to repair the damage.
Georgia now faces an uncertain political situation. President Mikheil Saakashvili retains the extensive powers imbued in the presidency by the Georgian constitution. A new constitution enters into force after the presidential elections in October next year, which transfers many of these powers to the Prime Minister. Yet, until then the president retains the right to appoint the Prime Minister, who then appoints a government and submits it to parliament for approval. The president can also fire the key ministers of Interior and Defense and dissolve parliament. In this perspective, the president retains significant opportunities to influence the formation of a new cabinet. While GD’s election victory would logically suggest that Ivanishvili is appointed Prime Minister, this would require that his citizenship is reinstated. Assuming Ivanishvili is indeed appointed, the coming year will hold considerable room for political conflict, as he and Saakashvili will be forced to cooperate in managing the transition of power. It is indeed easy to imagine a situation resembling that of Ukraine following the Orange revolution, where personal animosity and obstructionism between the President and Prime Minister provided for a political stalemate.
Another question concerns the future constellation of parties in the Georgian parliament. While the election result provide for a division of seats between two large party factions, there are no guarantees that this situation will last. The GD is composed of six diverse political groupings ranging from liberal and western-oriented parties such as the Free Democrats and the Republican Party to the right-wing nationalist National Forum. These parties have during the election campaign been capable of uniting around the common agenda of deposing the UNM, and around the opportunity presented by Ivanishvili’s considerable wealth. However, it is a distinctly conceivable scenario that the GD could break up into smaller factions once in parliament. The same could be said for the UNM. While its grip on power has so far constituted the glue ensuring a reasonable degree of unity, the UNM itself resembles a broad ideological movement rather than a political party. Several defections to the opposition have occurred in recent years and it cannot be excluded that UNM MPs may now be tempted to join ranks with the new parliamentary majority. Georgian political parties are in general formed around the personalities and popularity of their leaders, rather than around political platforms and grassroots organizations. New constellations of political parties have generally emerged ahead of each election and there is a clear possibility that Georgia’s political landscape will look quite different ahead of the next parliamentary elections – or even the presidential elections next year.
The above said, developments in the first week following the elections provide room for optimism. As it was becoming clear that the opposition had won the elections, President Saakashvili conceded defeat on October 2, and said that the UNM would now go into opposition. As president, he pledged that he would cooperate in facilitating the transfer of power to a new government, nominated by GD. After initial meetings held between representatives of the UNM and GD, both sides have expressed their satisfaction with what they have termed a “positive and businesslike” process. On October 9, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili held an initial meeting, after which both pledged their commitment to an orderly transfer of power within the framework of the constitution.
While such adherence to the “rules of the game” would be routine practice in any West European democracy, it is a unique occurrence in Georgia’s history since independence. The first previous transfer of political power took place through a brief civil war in Tbilisi around New Year 1991/1992, when Georgia’s first post-independence President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was deposed and forced to flee the country. The second occurred through the non-violent but unconstitutional Rose revolution in 2003, when the opposition led by Saakashvili and his associates engaged in street protests following a flawed election, which ended in the opposition’s takeover of parliament and the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
In this perspective, if the October 1 parliamentary elections indeed constitute the first step in a constitutional transfer of power to the opposition, this can be considered a milestone in Georgia’s political history. The fact that today’s Georgia is a post-Soviet country where a ruling party can actually lose elections and where the ruling elite proves ready to accept defeat indicates that the country has indeed come a long way since independence. While it has at times been speculated that Saakashvili would seek to stay in power as Prime Minister after the end of his second term as president – in resemblance of the Russian model – this option is now excluded if it was ever a realistic scenario. Rather, Saakashvili’s and the UNM’s behavior seems more focused on the future for the time being. The UNM is a young party and most of its senior front figures are in their thirties and forties. There is hence ample room for a political continuation for the UNM and its leaders in future elections and displaying virtuous behavior upon defeat serves to protect the party’s legacy as much as it could lay the foundations for the UNM’s credibility as an opposition movement.
There is a clear risk that the process will not continue in the seemingly smooth manner by which it has been initiated. As the two dominant political forces in Georgia will now be forced to cooperate over the nomination of a new government and over decision-making in domestic as well as foreign policy, the coming year will hold much room for friction and conflict. Georgia’s western partners will have an important role to play in mediating between the two sides in order to keep them committed to the political process. However, it should also be pointed out that some of the frequently mentioned shortcomings in Georgia’s political system, such as weak democratic institutions and an immature party system, will more likely be addressed through a long-term process of contestation and compromise between reasonably strong political forces than through top-down reforms by one dominant party.