19 October 2016
analysis

Georgia's elections - what's next?

Author: Tornike Zurabashvili / Source:
Photo: Guram Muradov, Civil.ge

Georgia’s October 8 Parliamentary Elections has ended with an overwhelming victory of the ruling party. The Georgian Dream - Democratic Georgia has garnered 48 percent of votes and 44 mandates out of 77 contested in a nationwide proportional, party-list contest. The major contender – the United National Movement – finished with 27 percent, getting 27 mandates.

The Alliance of Patriots, the third party to enter the parliament, has narrowly cleared the five percent threshold and obtained six parliamentary mandates. No other potential entrants have gotten close to the five percent threshold, except the Free Democrats who ended up 6650 votes short of passing the target.

GDDG has also secured an outright victory in 23 single-seat electoral districts and is expected to sweep the absolute majority of runoffs in the remaining 50. GDDG needs 46 wins to claim a constitutional majority of 113 seats in the parliament.

Pro-Western Parties in Retreat

Despite some allegations of unlawful campaigning, several incidents of violence and the dubiously delayed vote counting process, the Election Day was mostly peaceful, the voting process was orderly and the fundamental freedoms were generally observed. And with nearly all contestants honoring the results and with no international organization questioning the overall legitimacy of elections, the Saturday parliamentary polls can be considered as yet another passed test for the durability of Georgia’s democracy.

The political consequences are, however, worrying. The liberal and moderately liberal pro-Western political parties performed particularly badly. After an unexpected defeat, Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Free Democrats, announced that he would be "temporarily quitting” politics. Although Alasania has claimed that the party would continue its work, several senior party officials have also left the Free Democrats. The Republican Party, once an influential member of the Georgian Dream coalition, has failed to enter the parliament with just 1.55 percent of nationwide votes. It also remains unclear, whether Paata Burchuladze’s "State for the People” party, that won 3.45 percent, will survive this defeat.

While much of the pro-Western group’s failure had to do with their ineffective campaigning and their extreme fragmentation, the election results speak to the growing anti-Western sentiments in the society. The results of the elections for the 21-member Supreme Council in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, held along with the parliamentary elections, is particularly telling. Here, just like nationally, the proportional contest was dominated by GDDG and UNM with 45 percent and 30 percent respectively, and the third and the fourth best results were scored by the two EU- and NATO-skeptics - the Democratic Movement and the Alliance of Patriots with 5.9 percent and 5.7 percent respectively.

Who is who in the Parliament of Georgia?

While much is still dependent on how the majoritarian contest unfolds, it is unlikely that the runoffs will radically alter the parliamentary configuration. Given the initial reactions from senior opposition politicians, the opposition is unlikely to rally their supporters behind non-GDDG candidates. Therefore, in all likelihood, this will be a three-party parliament with dominant GDDG, UNM as its major challenger and the Alliance of Patriots as an opponent to the latter rather than the former.

The largest of the three, the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia, was established in February 2012 and served as the senior partner in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Despite its leading position however, the party has failed to establish itself as an ideologically consistent political union. The contradictions are on the surface: GDDG has joined the Party of European Socialists (PES), while its chairman - Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili - is a self-proclaimed economic liberal. Like any other post-soviet catch-all ruling parties, GDDG is an amalgamation of leftists and rightists, social conservatives and progressives, businesspeople and artists. This seemingly incompatible palette of philosophies and personalities, is tightly glued together by the massive wealth and popularity of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party founder and the Prime Minister of Georgia in 2012-2013.

Despite its weakly formulated ideological platform, the party has effectively mobilized its supporters and won a comfortable majority. Three main reasons contributed to GDDG’s electoral success:

First and foremost, this had to do with the incumbency advantage. With power come the financial resources, guaranteed media coverage and the administrative instruments. GDDG has effectively employed all three. The party was particularly successful in securing the donations: from June 8 to October 1, GDDG fundraised 16 million GEL, while UNM had the donations worth of 1 million GEL only. This, combined with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s lengthy and widely broadcasted appearances in regional media outlets and the concerted last-minute repairs of municipal roads, water supply infrastructure and gas pipes across the country, has contributed to GDDG’s electoral success.

No less important was the relatively high approval rates for the Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who has been in charge of the Cabinet since December 2015, well within the honeymoon period for the standards of post-Soviet politics. Kvirikashvili’s relatively short tenure as the prime minister and his reputation as a balanced politician and an experienced manager, coupled with the recruitment of some of his personal allies on the party list, allowed him to face the voters with his political capital largely intact.

This holds true for the party mandate as well. In many ways, the Saturday poll was a continuation of 2012 Parliamentary Elections. Back then, when the Georgian Dream (GD) unseated the incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), the executive burden was disproportionately skewed towards the two junior members of the Georgian Dream coalition - the Free Democrats and the Republicans – despite their relatively minor parliamentary representation. Moreover, the year-long period of acrimonious cohabitation between President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili, was widely presented as an obstruction to GD’s reform agenda. As a result, for most of its time in office, the party was immune to political responsibility for the government’s policy failures, allowing the party leaders to appeal for a fresh political mandate four years after its first inauguration.

Last but not least, the 2016 parliamentary elections was as much about the GDDG as it was about the United National Movement and most notably, its leader and the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili. Just days before the Election Day, secret audio recordingof Saakashvili and several senior UNM officials, was uploaded to internet, purporting to prove their plans for upheaval. The government’s constant accusations of UNM-planned destabilization coupled with Saakashvili’s vows to return to Georgia after the elections, has catered the fears of ruling party supporters and won the vote of the undecided electorate, despite the latter’s overall disapproval of GDDG’s performance.

The United National Movement, the second largest parliamentary party, has already obtained 27 mandates and will be facing the ruling party in 44 majoritarian runoffs on October 30. Despite UNM’s statistically rather unimpressive performance, the 27 percent is not seen as outright electoral failure considering the party’s defeat in previous parliamentary elections and its mediocre results in 2013 presidential (22 percent) and 2014 municipal elections (22.5 percent).

The party mobilized all of its resources for the electoral race. UNM tried to redefine itself as it emphasized on its renewal and favored relative political newcomers to lead the party lists. It also attempted to capitalize on its image as a political force that "gets things done”. Short on cash, UNM has also widely deployed door-to-door meetings and ran an innovative campaign through social media platforms.

Things seemed particularly optimistic for UNM at the beginning of the electoral campaign. The polls have consistently predicted a tight race between the two leading parties:in International Republican Institute’s March opinion survey, the difference between GDDG and UNM was just one percent, whilein National Democratic Institute’s August opinion survey, the difference stood at four percent.But closer to elections the party has suffered from sustained attacks of the government. And the initially positive campaigning has quickly turned into a tug of war between the two, putting UNM on defensive and stripping the party of its chances to win over the undecided voters.

Still, few would have predicted the gap to as wide, let alone that the ruling party would end up so close to securing a supermajority. So when the early results showed GDDG in decisive lead, UNM leaders and supporters gatheredin front of the Central Election Commission and accused the administration of manipulative vote tabulation.

The intra-party crisis ensued, with Mikheil Saakashvili questioning the overall legitimacy of elections and calling for boycotting the results and with most Tbilisi-based party leaders preferring to enter the parliament and the majoritarian runoffs. Saakashvili lost the debate and the party optedagainst the boycott. UNM is heading to majoritarian runoffs hoping to mobilize the voters around the idea of preserving democracy and depriving the ruling party of a constitutional majority. UNM’s prospects look rather bleak this time, considering the party infighting and the reluctance of other oppositional parties to endorse its candidates.

The Alliance of Patriots, the third party to enter the parliament and the youngest of the three, was established in 2013 by Ivanishvili-sympathizers, who broke with the Georgian Dream coalition on the grounds of their disagreement in dealing with the United National Movement. The party claims credit for obtaining and publicizing the prison torture videos, an important contribution to UNM’s defeat in 2012 Parliamentary Elections and is still seen as the most ardent opponent to UNM and Mikheil Saakashvili. The party’s populist, nationalistic and anti-immigration ideology resonates well to the country’s conservative and religious segments, while its fiercely anti-UNM rhetoric accommodates the concerns of disgruntled GD-voters.

Since its establishment, the party has gradually increased its electorate; in 2014 Municipal Elections the Alliance of Patriots won an unexpected 4.72 percent of aggregate votes. This time as well, the Alliance had all it takes to score big in the polls: nonstop media coverage through the party-affiliated Obieqtivi TV and radio stations, private and business donationsworth as much as that of the United National Movement and the partial endorsement of Bidzina Ivanishvili. To further consolidate its niche voters, the Alliance of Patriots teamed up with five small socially conservative political parties ahead of the elections.

What’s next?

Now that the dust has settled and the contours of parliamentary make-up have become much clearer, a closer look at the election results might hold the key to understanding the politics of Georgia in coming four years. Two questions are of particular interest: what will Georgia’s foreign policy look like and how will the new parliamentary configuration affect its democratic credentials.

The western orientation will continue, despite the fact that the two ardently pro-Western political parties – the Free Democrats and the Republicans - will no longer be in the Cabinet. The Euro-Atlantic integration will remain GDDG’s top priority as underlined by Giorgi Kvirikashvili on numerous occasions before and after the elections. This is not to say that there will be no anti-Western sentiments in the ruling party. Like in the Georgian Dream coalition before, anti-Western voices will be present in the background but they will remain insignificant in shaping the policy.

With Russia, dialogue will be pursued but no major breakthrough is expected. All other things being equal, Russia and Georgia have come to a dead end on the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The memory of the Russian invasion and Russia’s continuous support for the Abkhaz and South Ossetian de facto administrations is so painful for Georgians that it is highly unlikely that any Georgian government would attempt to re-establish the full diplomatic relations with Russia.

The political consequences might be worrying however. The hopes for a multi-party parliament have been effectively dashed. Instead, the parliamentary elections has produced a highly polarized parliamentary configuration, where the level of political confrontation will be muchmore intense than in the previous four years. The pre-electoral expectations for a close race between GDDG and UNM appeared to be largely overstated as well; UNM trails far behind in the proportional contest and will most likely fail to narrow this difference in the majoritarian runoffs.

With no institutional checks and balances and with the absence of a clear parliamentary counterweight, GDDG government might be tempted to abuse the power and leave Georgia’s nascent institutional democracy in a highly vulnerable state. Some alarming suggestions have already been made, including the abolition of direct presidential elections and stalling the plans for reforming the electoral system’s majoritarian component. With a nativist and Russia-sympathetic Alliance of Patriots in the Parliament and the more progressive parties outside, it is also inevitable that the political agenda of the newly-elected parliament will be more isolationist and more socially conservative.

 

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