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Election Landslide victory for the Georgian Dream in Georgia’s parliamentary elections

The low turnout is one of the most worrying signals in these elections. Only 51.6 percent of the electorate went out to vote. The incumbent party the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GD) did win a striking mandate with 115 of the total 150 seats in the Georgian Parliament. The party will now be able to govern without support from other parties, and it also passed the 113 seats required to make constitutional changes.

Published on balticworlds.com on november 8, 2016

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On October 8 Georgia held parliamentary elections. With a second round of voting completed on October 30 results show that the incumbent party the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GD) did win a striking mandate with 115 of the total 150 seats in the Georgian Parliament. The result can be compared to the 85 seats the six-party GD-coalition received in the 2012 parliamentary elections. In 2016 GD campaigned on its own, without joining a coalition. The United National Movement (UNM), the main oppositional party, received only 26 seats, and the conservative-populist party the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (APG) received 6 seats. The Industry Will Save Georgia-party and the independent candidate Salome Zourabichvili won one seat each in the second round. The results imply that the GD will have a majority strong enough to make unilateral constitutional changes.

On a positive note, Georgia has showed that the small country situated in the South Caucasus continues a trend of holding competitive and, according to most international observers, relatively free and fair elections. For a country without a strong democratic tradition, and with increasingly authoritarian neighbors like Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Georgian development looks promising. More challenging is the decline in voter turnout, 51.6 percent in 2016, compared to 60 percent in the previous parliamentary elections in 2012. This makes it the lowest turnout of a parliamentary election conducted in modern Georgia. Moreover, there is a potential risk that Georgia with a strong GD majority may return to its tradition of one dominant-party rule.

The parties – two leaders without formal power

Georgia has a mixed electoral system with in total 150 members of parliament. 77 seats are elected in a single-round proportional representation system, with a five percent electoral threshold. The remaining 73 are single-seat constituencies, elected in a two-round majoritarian system. 25 parties and blocks, and 816 majoritarian candidates participated in the 2016 elections.[1] In reality, however, only a handful of these parties are influential.

Georgia’s richest man, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, founded GD in 2012. With a promise to put an end to former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s time in power, Ivanishvili was elected prime minister in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Yet, only a year later Ivanishvili resigned, and was succeeded by his close colleague Irakli Garibashvili. To complicate things even further, the current party leader Giorgi Kvirikashvili replaced Garibashvili as prime minister in December 2015. The combination of Ivanishvili’s wealth and his decision not to continue as prime minister has been causes of concern both in Georgia and in the West, since Ivanishvili’s de facto political influence remains nontransparent.

GD’s main rival the UNM is still by many associated with its founder Mikheil Saakashvili. The charismatic but controversial former president has been a governor in Odessa, Ukraine, but announced on November 7 that he would resign from the position.[2] Saakashvili who is wanted by Georgian authorities, charged with abuse of office during his presidency, has therefore refused to return to Georgia, and has become a Ukrainian citizen.[3] Instead, Davit Bakradze has led the UNM-campaign in Georgia. These developments resulted in a rather odd election campaign. Neither of the main figures of GD or UNM, Ivanishvili or Saakashvili, were on the ballot, but both campaigned intensively for their respective party. This was especially the case during the last weeks of the campaign. Saakashvili, for example, said in a video address the day before the elections that a GD-majority would be a threat to the Georgian state.[4]

APG was the only smaller party that reached the five percent threshold. Opponents have accused the conservative-populist party and its leader Irma Inashvili for being pro-Russian. APG has, in contrast to GD and UNM, been openly against a future Georgian NATO-membership. Moreover, the party has said it seeks “a common language” with Russia over Georgia’s breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions are today under Russian control. Yet, APG has also said that Georgia cannot turn away from the Association Agreements the country signed with the European Union (EU) in 2014.[5]  Another NATO-skeptic Nino Burjanadze and her party the Democratic Movement – United Georgia only received 3,5 percent of the votes, and thus failed to pass the electoral threshold.

Worth noticing is also that the Free Democrats (4.6 percent) and the Republican Party (1.5 percent), two liberal parties popular in the West, did not make it into parliament. Both parties took part in the winning GD-coalition in 2012, but left the coalition in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The results were a blow to former defense minister and leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, who immediately announced that he would take a break from politics. David Usupashvili, a main figure in the Republican Party and former speaker of parliament, announced he would leave his party.[6] Another party much talked about beforehand, but that failed to pass the threshold, was the State for People party (3.4 percent) led by opera singer Paata Burchuladze.

A polarized campaign – but less so than in 2012

An old truth about Georgian politics is that the political scene is centered on personalities and events, rather than on ideological differences. Although still a relevant point, the 2016 elections were a little less personality-oriented, compared to the battle fought between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili in the 2012 elections. Nevertheless, both GD and UNM highlighted the need for increased economic development, a continued pro-Western direction, security, a decrease in unemployment, and improvement of rule of law. Even though the parties have somewhat different ideas how to reach these broad aims, it is not always clear to the average voter how the parties differ ideologically. These vague substantial differences instead called for a confrontational tone in the campaign. On the one hand GD accused the UNM for trying to radicalize the campaign and pointed to what GD sees as authoritarian behavior by the UNM, when Saakashvili still was in power. UNM, on the other hand, argued that GD had failed to keep its promises to improve the economy, and criticized Ivanishvili for being an informal and unsuccessful leader.[7]

International observers described campaigning as overall competitive and largely calm. Yet, on October 4 a car bomb exploded in Tbilisi. The owner of the car, a UNM member of parliament, was not seriously injured, but the incident raised some concerns.[8] Dramatic incidents close to elections, like the prison scandal in 2012, have previously affected election results in Georgia. There are still no indications, however, that dramatic incidents had any major influence on the 2016 election results, which is a positive sign for Georgia’s democratic development. Television was the main communication channel in the campaigns and according to OSCE/ODIHR multiple points of views were presented to the voters, although in a rather polarized environment.

Opinion polls have been unreliable instruments for predicting the 2016 elections. Polls have showed significant variation depending on the responsible organization. International media has generally described the election as a tight race between the GD and the UNM. This inaccurate prediction is likely related to the high amount of undecided voters in the polls. Many undecided voters, however, apparently decide to stay at home on election day.

The elections – mostly free and fair but a low turnout

Most international observers described the parliamentary elections in 2016 as overall free and fair. OSCE/ODIHR, for example, stated that the elections were: “competitive, well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected”[9]. Nevertheless, isolated incidents were reported on election day. Violence affected the voting process in four polling stations in Marneuli, Kutaisi and Zugdidi.[10] Although the incidents affected the counting process in these four polling stations, the overall assessment by international observers like OSCE/ODIHR, EU and the United States is that the will of the Georgian people was respected in these elections.[11] Several UNM-leaders, however, criticized the elections and even considered to boycott the second round, even though they eventually decided to avoid a boycott. [12]

The low turnout is one of the most worrying signals in these elections. Only 51.6 percent of the electorate went out to vote, which makes it the lowest turnout in any parliamentary election in modern Georgia. Over the last couple of years it has become clear that many Georgians have low confidence in their elected politicians. Even though many Georgians may be skeptical to the GD, they also see the only realistic alternative at the moment – UNM returning to power – as unacceptable. Moreover, small ideological differences, a polarized rhetoric, and the inability of both UNM and GD to deal with issues important to the Georgian people, like unemployment, are probably parts of the explanation to the low voter turnout in the 2016 elections. To have legitimacy from the population is just as important as it is to have a functioning electoral process. Therefore, these signals must be taken seriously both by the GD, and by the opposition parties.

The low turnout and Georgia’s complicated electoral system (which tends to boost the numbers for the largest party) taken together has led to a situation in where GD received approximately 25 percent of the votes in the proportional system, if the whole electorate is included (48.7 percent of the 51.6 percent that voted). With the majoritarian constituencies added this support has been translated into the GD receiving 76 percent of the seats in the parliament. The result is in accordance with the rules, but also shows that the GD now has a great responsibility to work for an inclusive Georgia.

The future – will Georgia return to one party rule?

GD’s win gives the party 115 seats in the parliament. The party will now be able to govern without support from other parties, and it also passed the 113 seats required to make constitutional changes. What will this result mean for the coming years in Georgian politics?

As we have seen the result reflects the will of the Georgian people according to electoral observers. Hence, these elections demonstrate that Georgia continues its positive democratic trend. In a neighborhood with increasingly authoritarian countries like Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia’s democratic path is important to highlight. Moreover, having a robust majority opens up the possibility for GD to undertake and implement crucial reforms. This stands in contrast to the paralyzed governments seen historically for example in Ukraine, where oppositional forces and infighting have stopped much needed reforms.

Looking back at Georgia’s modern political history, however, the country has had a tendency to return to unhealthy one-party rule. Having one dominant party in power has sometimes been successful, as when the Saakashvili-government implemented anti-corruption reforms after the Rose Revolution. Nevertheless, the same Saakashvili also became increasingly criticized for overstretching his presidential mandate. Although history does not repeat itself the strong GD-mandate in combination with an apparently weak opposition may provide a challenge for Georgian democracy.

Something to watch in the coming years is how power will be distributed within the “power-triangle”, thus between Prime Minister Kvirikashvili, President Giorgi Margvelashvili, and the informal leader Ivanishvili. With a change in the Georgian constitution implemented in 2013, presidential powers were reduced, and prime ministerial powers strengthened. Margvelashvili who was Ivanishvili’s candidate in the 2013 presidential elections has taken a more independent role than most Georgian watchers did expect. Kvirikashvili is less attached to Ivanishvili than his predecessor Garibashvili was. Yet, Ivanishvili’s involvement in the 2016 elections, and his economic power, makes the relationship between Kvirikashvili and Ivanishvili something to keep an eye on.

Another interesting lesson to learn from this election is that experienced and well-known politicians like Saakashvili, Burjanadze, Alasania and Usupashvili have not been able to attract Georgian voters. Will Saakashvili give up Georgian politics and let a younger generation take over, or will he continue to lead UNM from abroad? Will a new liberal party be formed to replace the Republican Party and the Free Democrats? No matter how things turn out, Georgia will need a vital opposition to balance the GD in the future.

Continued Euro-Atlantic integration?

Finally, will Georgia continue its current path towards integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions? After GD came to power in 2012 it has kept the pro-Western course taken after the Rose Revolution in 2003. Should the loss of two liberal pro-Western parties in the parliament, now replaced by the APG, be seen as a new trend? Not necessarily. First of all, APG will not have any direct influence over Georgian political decision-making. The parliamentary seats will, however, be useful for APG to communicate its political ideas. Second, Georgia’s path will more likely depend on if integration is successfully linked to concrete results visible for ordinary Georgians, for example visa-free travels into the EU and economic growth. Third, with Russia still occupying 20 percent of Georgian territory it will be very difficult for any Georgian leader to push for close ties with Russia. Therefore, the most likely scenario is that GD will continue the Euro-Atlantic track. Perhaps more important in this regard, and mostly outside Georgian control, will be EU’s political approach in its Eastern neighborhood in the coming years.

Results of the Georgian Parliamentary Elections 2016
Party Proportional Constituency Seats
  % Seats Seats Total
Georgian Dream 48.7 44 71 115
United National Movement 27.1 27 0 27
Alliance of Patriots of Georgia 5 6 0 6
Free Democrats 4.6 0 0 0
Democratic Movement – United Georgia 3.5 0 0 0
State for People 3.4 0 0 0
Labour Party of Georgia 3.1 0 0 0
Republican Party 1.5 0 0 0
Industry Will Save Georgia 0.8 0 1 1
National Forum 0.7 0 0 0
Independent (Salome Zourabichvili) 1 1
Total 77 73 150
Voter turnout % 51.6

Source: CEC Election Administration of Georgia http://cesko.ge/eng

 

References:

[1] OSCE Election Observation Mission 2016, 30 October report. Accessed: 161104 http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/georgia/278146?download=true

[2] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty 2016. Saakashvili Resigns As Governor Of Ukraine’s Odesa Region Accessed: 161107 http://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-saakashvili-resigns-governor-odesa/28101338.html

[3] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty 2014. Georgia Puts Saakashvili On Wanted List. Accessed 161104 http://www.rferl.org/a/georgia-saakashvili-wanted-list/26532004.html

[4] Civil.ge 2016. Saakashvili Addresses Voters on the Eve of Elections. Accessed: 161104 http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29497

[5] Civil.ge 2016. Alliance of Patriots Forms 6-Party Bloc for Elections Accessed: 161104 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29218

[6] Civil.ge 2016. Leading Members Quit the Republican Party. Accessed 161104 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29588

[7] Civil.ge 2016. Saakashvili Addresses Voters on the Eve of Elections. http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29497

[8] OSCE Observation Mission 2016, 8 October report, p. 7.  Accessed: 161104 http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/georgia/273221?download=true

[9] OSCE Observation Mission 2016, 8 October report, p. 1.  Accessed: 161104 http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/georgia/273221?download=true

[10] OSCE Observation Mission 2016, 8 October report, p. 14.  Accessed: 161104 http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/georgia/273221?download=true

[11] European External Action Service 2016. Accessed: 161104 https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/11459/statement-by-high-representativevice-president-federica-mogherini-and-commissioner-johannes-hahn-on-the-parliamentary-elections-in-georgia-_en .The White House, United States. 2016. Accessed: 161104 https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/10/31/statement-nsc-spokesperson-ned-price-parliamentary-elections-georgia

[12] Civil.ge. 2016. UNM Weighs its Options for ‘Political Struggle’ as Saakashvili Calls for Boycotting MP Runoffs. Accessed: 161104. http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29526.

  • by Per Ekman

    Per Ekman is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Uppsala University. He studies political autonomy in Georgia and Ukraine, and has previously worked in Georgia.

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