October 21, 2016

Elections in Georgia: the Country Remains on a Steady Course

AFP PHOTO / Vano Shlamov
An elderly woman reads her ballot paper at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi on October 8, 2016.
An elderly woman reads her ballot paper at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi on October 8, 2016.

Large and small Georgian political players share their principles of the state’s democratic framework.

On 8 October, Georgia held its eighth consecutive parliamentary election since regaining independence. The last elections in 2012 saw the first peaceful transfer of power from the United National Movement (UNM), led by then President Mikheil Saakashvili, to Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG), an election coalition established and led by Bidzina Ivanishvili; the recent elections were to demonstrate how well Georgia has managed to achieve democratic stability.
Overall, observers deemed the elections to have been free and fair, in what is the most democratic state in the region. However, the tensions that emerged between the two most influential political parties (UNM and GDDG) during the period leading up to election day have not been clearly resolved, and the new parliament is likely to witness the continuation of the current polarisation rather than significant compromises.
Despite politicians repeatedly urging people to vote, the turnout remained relatively low—only 51.63% according to the Central Election Commission of Georgia. As expected, the majority of the votes went to the major two political parties1. The elections were won by the current ruling Georgian Dream party (48.67% of the votes) led by current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. The United National Movement (in an electoral alliance with the small and lesser-known European Georgia party), with State Minister of Euro-Atlantic Integration Davit Bakradze as its leader, received 27.11% of the votes. The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, which consists of six smaller parties and is thought to be pro-Russian, was the third party to secure a representation in parliament, albeit by a hair’s breadth (5.01% of the votes). The success of the latter is thought to be partially due to a large number of voters making their electoral decision at the last moment.
As the Georgian electoral system is mixed, the final composition of the parliament will not be revealed until mid-November. 77 representatives to the 150-seat parliament will be elected proportionally on the basis of party lists and 73 from single-member constituencies. Following a recent change in legislation, the candidate in a single-member constituency has to garner at least 50% support (previously 30%). As this was not achieved in 50 constituencies, a second ballot will be held in October between the two candidates who received the most votes. Georgian Dream is likely to gain the largest number of seats and could therefore achieve a constitutional majority in parliament.

Political party landscape

The fact that the elections featured a total of 19 parties and six electoral alliances, the majority of which achieved election results that remained firmly below one per cent, indicates the continuous fragmentation of the Georgian political party landscape. The situation seems to adequately reflect the confusion among a great number of Georgians: changes are desperately needed, yet the two major parties have not fulfilled expectations. Both UNM’s Saakashvili and GDDG’s Ivanishvili, neither of who ran in the current elections or hold a formal position in the public sector, have remained influential within their parties; instead of unifying their membership and electorate, however, their actions have been divisive. While Saakashvili is reproached for transgressions during his tenure (authoritarian rule, suppression of protests, losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008), the billionaire Ivanishvili is mainly criticized for his potential influence on governmental decisions. Even though Ivanishvili has officially withdrawn from politics, his involvement in government activities continues to anger members of GDDG and instils caution in voters.
In keeping with past practice, this year’s elections in Georgia also featured a number of new parties, two of which – Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and the State for the People – we will discuss here.
The former, established in 2012, is a pro-Russian party with populist tendencies; even though pre-election polls indicated that it would make it into parliament, its success (though narrow) was nevertheless regarded as unexpected. How can this be best explained?
Pro-Russian powers have increasingly been gaining support in Georgia over the past number of years. The reason may lie in the inability of distinctly pro-Western governments to solve various socio-economic problems, such as the high unemployment rate, inflation, recession and rural poverty. An equally significant role is played by frustration over the Russia-occupied areas in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with its residents having to relocate to Georgia and live in poor conditions. Since the territorial reunification of Georgia on the basis of current policy seems increasingly more unlikely, the situation calls for alternative solutions. The Alliance of Patriots does not oppose the West but instead promotes neutrality in the country’s foreign policy, and it stresses that improvement in the relationship with Russia might boost the Georgian economy and facilitate dialogue with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Another explanation for the support shown towards the Alliance of Patriots may lie in its conservative value policy (orthodox religion, patriotism, traditional Georgian culture, opposition to same-sex partnerships, etc.), which has won the approval of the recently resurgent nationalists. Despite that, the Alliance of Patriots holds only six seats in parliament; however, it does hold work alongside the two other parliamentary parties, giving it the opportunity to be more visible to its voters.
Even though there are more small parties with unclear sources of income that favour a more positive foreign policy towards Russia, they have not gained ground among the electorate. Consequently, there is no reason to discuss a Russia-related breakthrough in Georgian domestic or foreign policy.
State for the People, led by former opera singer Paata Burchuladze, emerged as recently as spring 2016. When introducing his views, Burchuladze remained rather superficial and used sound bites until the very end, simply promising to put the state in order, ensure various freedoms and back the ongoing Euro-Atlantic integration. The party was considered unlikely to make it into parliament, as its credibility plummeted due to internal struggles, which undermined it running in some constituencies. The fact that State for the People came second in the aforementioned list of donations to parties, essentially raising 2.3 million lari in just a few months, poses serious questions about the party’s sources of income and the people behind them. After his failure in the elections, Burchuladze has promised to decide soon whether he will remain active in politics.

Pre-election tensions

Election campaigns have been frenetic times in Georgia before: one may recall the Gldani prison scandal that broke shortly before the 2012 elections or the Rose Revolution in 2003 driven by the falsification of election results by the ruling parties at the time. As a result, the atmosphere before the current elections was bubbling with anxiety and tension.
The campaign did not pass entirely without incident. When OSCE and other international observers drew attention to ‘isolated cases of violence’ at the post-election press conference, the comments referred to the representatives of different parties jostling both on live television and at campaign events, illegal eavesdropping, the emergence of incriminating videos and threats of protests. The most dramatic incident occurred shortly before election day in Tbilisi when a bomb placed under a car belonging to the UNM MP Givi Targamadze exploded and injured five passers-by. Even though a criminal investigation has been launched into the matter, the incident added fuel to the fire between the opposition and coalition who are accusing each other of undermining the elections and creating a climate of fear.
Fierce campaigning resulted in arguments and a clear polarisation between GDDG and opposition parties, especially UNM. This culminated in the last campaign events of both parties in Tbilisi city centre a week before the elections. The atmosphere was (perhaps a bit too) calm. There were speeches about electoral victory, flying flags and a demonstration of power in the form of a march along one of the city’s main streets, yet to an Estonian, UNM’s campaigning at the Rose Revolution Square may have looked like a mass protest. One of the key moments of the event was Saakashvili’s video message, in which he promised to return to Georgia after winning the elections.
In trying to find the key themes of these elections, one must admit that the campaigns failed to provide the electorate with sufficient information on the parties’ action plans for the next four years. According to data from surveys, the most important issues for Georgians are the economy and taxation, such as the improvement of living standards and economic recovery. The majority of the parties had liberal economic action plans that promised to reduce taxes or bureaucracy and promote entrepreneurship. However, instead of dealing with substantial issues, the parties concentrated on convincing voters by smearing their rivals, something that was also illustrated by the fact that the media was void of any debates between party leaders or representatives, as are common in the rest of the world.
There is some truth in saying that GDDG held an advantage in the elections. When it comes to financing, Georgian legislation clearly favours the party in power. In addition to receiving a greater amount of state funding than the other parties, GDDG also raised over 10 million lari (four million euros) in donations in the first eight months of this year, which is almost twice the amount of donations received by the seven opposition parties combined.2 Furthermore, the Georgian electoral system underwent reform only a year before: first, the boundaries of constituencies were redrawn, which may have helped GDDG in the elections according to both the opposition and analysts; second, the aforementioned new 50% threshold for winning in a single-member constituency was introduced, which increased the likelihood of a ruling party being elected in the second round due to its local power base.

Is democracy taking root?

The Georgian political environment has been clearly improving over the past twenty-five years and its policy is becoming more stable. The recent elections can be regarded as successful, since, with a few exceptions, the campaign and the election day itself were relatively calm and orderly. Only a couple of serious incidents that interfered with the voting procedure were reported on election day (for instance, clashes between the representatives of different parties and, in one case, a direct attack on a polling station).
On the one hand, peaceful elections undoubtedly strengthen Georgia’s political climate. When all the parties accept the election results, the government can channel its energy into reforms and much needed improvement of the economic situation. However, the pre-election polarisation between the two major parties has made it almost impossible for them to interact with each other. As in the previous parliamentary term (2012–2016), political strife may once again take up time, which would anger the people and reduce the capacity of the parliament to work effectively. The immediate reaction of UNM was to consider boycotting the election results, but it later changed its position and promised to continue the election campaign in the parliament, thereby going against its ‘godfather’ Mikheil Saakashvili’s video message that urged it not to recognise the results. This is a very important decision for both the political future of the state and the party itself. The non-recognition of the election results or treating them as falsified would undermine the whole political system and risk its destabilisation.
One very positive observation with regard to these elections concerns local observers. The elections were observed by hundreds of local and international observers, who mainly provided positive assessments on organisation of the election. The attention of local civil society organisations to every stage of election planning and the organisation process proves that Georgian civil society is truly active and developing successfully. There was a large number of representatives from local monitoring organisations at the polling stations and the mutual exchange of experiences certainly increased their interconnection and cooperation.

International dimension

Successful parliamentary elections support the Georgian government’s past foreign policy decisions regarding the European Union and NATO. A stable political system and the peaceful transfer of power are significant characteristics of a democratic state and show Georgia’s international partners that the country has dedicated itself to respecting democratic values. Georgia has signed an Association Agreement with the European Union along with a free trade agreement, which constitute the closest possible cooperation agreements with countries that have not joined the European Union. The political and economic integration shaped on the basis of these agreements will support Georgia’s long-term development and foreign policy.
Shortly before the parliamentary elections, the European Union also made a step towards establishing a visa-free regime for Georgia, which has been discussed since last winter. Visa liberalisation would be a mutually beneficial measure: on the one hand, it would provide the necessary impulse for Georgian citizens to support the government’s future reforms. On the other hand, it would increase the influence of the European Neighbourhood Policy in both Georgia and other Eastern partnership countries.
Free and fair elections also support Georgia’s efforts in joining NATO. Georgia’s considerable contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere have shown that it shares the values of the other member countries.
The Georgian election results can also serve as a compass for neighbouring countries and increase stability across the whole region. Therefore, it is also important to see how the new government changes or develops foreign policy towards Russia.
In terms of the current parliamentary elections, it is essential that all of Georgia’s significant political players accept and share one democratic framework. Admittedly, Georgia has a great deal of scope for political growth, but another fair and peaceful election is an accomplishment worth noting.
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1 Information on the election results approved by the Central Election Commission of Georgia: results.cec.gov.ge/eng/ 2 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29440

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