Georgia: A Low-Key, but Pivotal Presidential Contest

Eurasianet Commentary

The upcoming Georgian presidential vote may not match last October’s parliamentary elections in terms of intensity and the political stakes involved. But the October 27 balloting could still mark an important milestone the country’s democratization process.

Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili is expected to edge United National Movement candidate Davit Bakradze for the presidency. The election itself, while not perfect, is shaping up to be reasonably free-and-fair, according to most observers. The main questions are whether or not there will be a runoff, and what percentage of the vote Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker, will get.

Two other issues have moved to the forefront of Georgian politics in the absence of a heated election campaign. These are the question of whether or not the Georgian Dream coalition will hold together, and what the impact on Georgian politics will be if Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili steps down shortly after the election, as he has indicated he will do? The general feeling with regards to these questions is that both of these possibilities would threaten the democratic advances Georgia has enjoyed over the last year or so.

Worrying about what will happen if the ruling coalition falls apart, or if the prime minister steps down, underestimates the strength of Georgian democracy. It also betrays a poor understanding of democracy altogether, particularly in the context of recent Georgian history.

Since its independence from the Soviet Union, the democratization process in Georgia has encountered several significant obstacles. One of the biggest has been a cycle of one-party dominance, followed by collapse, followed by another omnibus ruling party coming to power. Another major obstacle has been the evolution of a strongman-type system, in which both formal and informal power is concentrated in one larger-than-life figure. Ivanishvili occupies that role now, before him it was outgoing President Mikheil Saakashivili. Before Saakashvili. Former President Eduard Shevardnadze also played that role.

If the Georgian Dream coalition does not hold together, there will be more political parties, with different views on issues, as well as on questions of which individuals should have more power, vying with each other in the legislature and in the media. This scenario may appear less stable or predictable, but it would also be better for the democratization process. The presence of several parties that agree on the legitimacy of the government, but not policies or direction of government is good for democracy. It is, in fact, much better for democracy than governance by one ruling coalition, where policy is debated internally rather than publicly.

One of the key moments when the Rose Revolution’s democratic promise began to fizzle was when its three leaders decided to merge their two parties and run as one in the 2004 parliamentary elections. This led directly to the one-party system that eventually strangled the democratic hopes of the Rose Revolution. But if the current ruling coalition comes apart, a similar development in the near future would be precluded.

Ivanishvili’s possible departure from politics raises concerns from some who believe that it would be undemocratic for Ivanishvili, who was widely understood to be the Georgian Dream’s choice for prime minister heading into last year’s parliamentary elections, to leave politics and turn his office over to somebody chosen by him, rather than the people. However, it should be noted that it was parliament, not the people, who voted for Ivanishvili. Although, everybody understood he was going to be the next prime minister if his party won, Ivanishvili himself was not on the ballot in any way. Additionally, although Ivanishvili can make recommendations for who he thinks should be his successor, it is parliament that must approve this recommendation. It is difficult to imagine parliament rejecting Ivanishvili’s recommendation, but that body is the one that legally chooses the prime minister.

Some have also suggested that, given the unique and serious problems facing Georgia, Ivanishvili should not introduce any more instability into the system by leaving office. There is, however, no way for Georgia to move away from a strongman system, unless the strongman leaves office. It is certainly true that Ivanishvili, even out of office, could still be the locus of power in Georgia. But if he does not leave office, Ivanishvili will inevitably become the focus of even more informal power. It is also true that should Ivanishvili leave office, there may be greater instability in Georgian politics. But observers always have to keep in mind that a central tenet of democracy is that laws and institutions are indispensable, but people are not.

Ivanishvili, if he leaves office, would be betting that Georgian democracy is strong and not dependent upon him. If he is right, his departure would be an important step for Georgia’s political development. If he is wrong and his departure ushers in instability, it might still be, ultimately, a positive event. The possibility of a brief period of instability, albeit one in which there is a new president and a parliament that may well be more competent and democratic than at any time in at least a decade, is a small tradeoff for the hope of what would amount to a major shift in the nature of Georgian politics.