The United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s former ruling and now opposition party, has been in a difficult situation since losing the parliamentary election of 2012. They have seen much of their support evaporate within days of the results of that election being announced, struggled to remain competitive politically, and made very preliminary efforts to redefine and rebrand themselves. Rebranding, indeed reinventing, a party is not easy, but for the UNM it is critical. A strategy of simply waiting for people to get tired of the Georgian Dream (GD) government and come back to the UNM is not likely to work because dislike for the UNM among many Georgians remains strong. According to public opinion research done by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), during the last year consistently fewer than 15% of Georgians have named the UNM as one of their two most liked parties. The UNM's task is made more difficult by the series of prosecutions, arrests and indictments that some view as efforts by the new government to bring justice to Georgia, and others see as political harassment.
The UNM has always, like most omnibus ruling parties, been a complex party made up of many different constituent parts. While in power there were elements of the party that were criminal, even thuggish, but there were also many in the party who were dedicated patriots and reformers. Some party members were unabashed in their liberal and western orientation, but others preferred a much more traditional society for Georgia. On economic issues the party included libertarians who would have fit in well at the Cato Institute, and social democrats who made sure that spending was increased as elections approached. Moreover, despite losing a relatively close election in October of 2012 and less close elections in both 2013 and 2014, the UNM still has a strong activist base in Georgia and, equally significantly, a very strong base of support in Washington, Brussels, many European capitals and numerous right wing think tanks.
It would be good for Georgian politics, despite what many in the government may feel, for the UNM to contribute to a real multi-party democracy, particularly if the GD coalition begins to break apart. It is also probably true that the UNM is more likely to remain relevant, not by trying to become an omnibus ruling party again, but by consolidating its position as a western leaning, economic liberal party, reflecting the positions of many of its most dedicated supporters and filling a significant ideological niche. Determining how to do that, and how to get there from here may be more difficult than it seems at first glance, but in the bigger picture it is the way forward for both the UNM and Georgia.
The UNM is currently Georgia’s biggest opposition party. They hold more than 40% of the seats in the parliament, have substantial presence in many local legislatures around the country and are the only party outside the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition that has any significant impact on policy making, legislation or political debate more broadly. There are also signs of the UNM’s decline. For example, the party received 40% of the party list vote in the last parliamentary elections, which occurred while they were still in power, but have not come close to that level of support in the 2013 presidential election where they received 22% of the vote or in local elections earlier this year when they received 26% of the vote in the party list election and 28% in the runoff for Tbilisi mayor.
In part because of the number of UNM leaders who are well known and well liked in the west, there is a lingering tendency among western observers to see the UNM as an opposition party that has a chance of coming back to power if the ruling party makes mistakes or is unable to get the economy moving. While this cannot be ruled out entirely, it is unlikely that the Georgian people will send the UNM back to power unless the party changes substantially.
There are, however, two issues that could have a big influence on the UNM’s future and are somewhat out of their control. The first is the question of whether or not the GD coalition remains together. If the GD continues to run as a coalition, the status of the UNM as the most relevant minority party in Georgia is likely to remain unchanged. Although if the GD coalition stays together the UNM will have an extremely difficult road back to power, they are all but guaranteed to be a visible opposition party with somewhere between 20-40% of the seats in the legislature, more than any other non-GD party following the next election. This is a useful, but limited, role for the UNM as it ensures that they remain an important party and can maintain their international ties that are so important for them.
If, on the other hand, the GD coalition begins to fall apart, it is possible that in the not very distant future, the UNM could be an important force in a coalition government and an attractive coalition partner. If the GD turns into three, four or more parties, the UNM, if it can hold its roughly 20% of the vote, will be able to explore possible coalitions. They will, however, only be able to do this if they can break from the worst excesses their past and demonstrate that they are not the same party from the Saakashvili era.
The second issue is that UNM is, of course, facing an enormous political challenge because of the criminal prosecution of many of their leaders. Recently, former Prime Minister and leader of the UNM Vano Merabishvili, was found guilty of abuse of power and fraudulent actions and sentenced to a total of 5.5 years in prison. The arrests, trials, indictments of so many high level party officials and former officials makes it very difficult for the party to function. This should not be understated. The inability to plan or rebuild the organization because of the real possibility that more prosecutions will occur, for example, is very significant. Additionally, much of the party’s time, resources and energy is almost certainly being expended in preparation for trials, helping the families of those who have been arrested and the like.
There is, however, another aspect to these prosecutions. They have helped keep the UNM in the spotlight in the west, which has long represented their political base. The prosecutions have given the party something to discuss when meeting with western diplomats, politicians and NGOs, and has, in large part due to the frequently ham-fisted approach of the Georgian government, made it easy for the UNM to present itself almost exclusively a victim of political revenge at the hands of the new government. One of the great ironies of recent Georgian politics, is that prosecutions of the previous government have allowed that previous government to avoid having to confront, particularly in its dealing with international actors, the legacy of criminality that was part of their years in power. The arrests, indictments and trials of UNM leaders have overshadowed, for many, the alleged abuses, crimes and brutality that led to those arrests, indictments and trials. This has made it possible, even easy, for the UNM to remain important to their supporters outside of Georgia.
In the eyes of the international media and political classes, and some people in Georgia the view is that the current government is acting vindictively and threatening an otherwise democratic process. For many others in Georgia, the story is that the government is trying, perhaps too slowly, to bring rule of law back to Georgia. The truth lies somewhere in between these notions, but these competing explanations make it easy for the UNM to avoid the tougher, but critical, questions facing their party.
Continuing to seek international support by presenting themselves as the target of politically motivated persecution, is a good UNM strategy in Washington, Brussels, Vilnius and other western capitals, but will not increase their support in Georgia. In order to become more than just an important minority party in Georgia the UNM will either have to win many more votes or make themselves an appealing coalition partner to part of a fractured GD coalition in the future. They will be unable to do that unless and until they break decisively with the worst legacies of 2004-2012. In order to break decisively with that legacy, the UNM will also need to move away from their current identity as simply the party that is suffering at the hands of a vindictive Georgian government. Thus, the paradox for the UNM is that in order to have a relevant future, they need to abandon what is currently their biggest tactical asset.
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