The Georgian local elections concluded with runoffs in Tbilisi and twenty other cities and municipalities around Georgia earlier this month. The election was generally evaluated as free and fair suggesting that Georgia is continuing down the road to democracy. There is some truth to this. Georgia today is freer than in recent years. There is also more debate both within the legislature and between the various branches of of government than there has been for years. The elections themselves were characterized by a multi-party environment, relatively little intimidation of voters or candidates and a clear, but less than resounding, victory for the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition.
There are also still signs that Georgian democracy faces significant challenges before Georgia can become a fully consolidated democracy. Some of these challenges stem from a government that, while more liberal than its predecessor, is still vulnerable to abuses of power and excesses, including rhetorical ones, with regards to its treatment of the opposition. These issues, however, can be overstated. The subject of GD intimidation of the opposition is an issue of partisan positioning rather than a large-scale problem of democracy. It may however, in some cases, be a symptom of the structural challenges facing democracy in Georgia.
The two major, and related, structural challenges facing Georgian democracy are the cyclical nature of dominant party consolidation and collapse, and the absence of pluralism. The cyclical nature of Georgian politics is hard to miss. Since the late 1980s, including the last years of the Communist era, Georgia has been by five different single party systems. These single party systems have varied in degrees of dominance and liberalism, but with few exceptions, for most of the last three decades Georgia has been governed by one party that controls almost all of the institutions of politics and government.
The pattern of consolidation of power, followed by gradual erosion of support and then regime collapse explains much of post-Soviet, and perhaps even late Soviet era, politics in Georgia. It has also contributed to the rise and fall of omnibus governing and opposition parties. The Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), United National Movement (UNM) and GD have all been parties of power with vague ideological foundations. Accordingly, people who want to be close to power joined those parties. The CUG and UNM were also defeated not by ideological parties, or parties drawing on a few segments of society for most of their support, but by broad opposition parties whose main appeal was that they could defeat the party in power.
The cyclical nature of one party dominance in Georgia also leads to periods when Georgia may appear more democratic than it is, and when that appearance can contribute to more optimistic projections than might otherwise be appropriate. This generally occurs when a new party has come to power and has not yet consolidated its one party rule. In the 1990s, this occurred when the late Eduard Shevardnadze first returned to power. This phenomenon was next seen in late 2003 and early 2004 when the excitement around the Rose Revolution and the as yet unconsolidated Saakashvili regime made it easier to see Georgia as freer and democratic, if only for a brief time.
The question for Georgia now is whether or not it is currently is a similar phase where more competitive elections, greater freedom than in the last years of the previous regime, and better elections are a residue of the moment where a yet to be consolidated undemocratic regime appears more democratic. Alternately, Georgia could be simply moving towards democracy. There are reasons to think that either of these scenarios could be true. The GD maintains control of virtually all aspects of government with most decisions and deliberation occurring internally, former government officials have been arrested and harassed, and the ruling block has held together despite internal differences. These are often signs of an ascendant one party dominant system. However, the GD has now been in power more than 18 months and despite occasional rhetorical missteps by its leadership seems comfortable with a vibrant opposition, has shown more restraint than many in the west would like to recognize in prosecuting former UNM government leaders, and has made little effort to crackdown on media and civic freedoms comparably to how the UNM did in its first six to twelve months in power.
This cyclical dynamic also contributes to the absence of pluralism in Georgia. Politics, in the Georgian system, is about government and opposition rather than about competing policy positions, ideologies or visions for the country’s future. The UNM and GD have both won elections on platforms of increased integration into western institutions, strengthening democracy and developing Georgia’s economy. Neither party offered much description of how they would achieve these goals, but that was not necessary as both came to power because support for the previous ruling party gradually evaporated.
Pluralism is defined by organized interests, generally with economic or ideological foundations, competing through and political institutions. With very few exceptions, this has never occurred in Georgia. This is not due to an absence of interests in Georgia. Georgians, like people everywhere, have a broad range of preferences and interests. Additionally the usual gamut of existing and potential political cleavages, between rural and urban, wealthy and poor, different regions, or secular and religious exist in Georgia. These cleavages, however, are not primarily expressed through the political discourse of the legislature or elections in Georgia. Instead, these interests tend to compete either behind the scenes through personal ties to various government agencies or within the ruling party.
The result of this is that politics in Georgia have, for many years, been largely about competing views of the competence, achievements, or loyalty of the government and opposition, rather than about issues, interests or visions. This is beginning to change, but slowly and in a way that is often outside of formal government institutions. In recent months we have seen healthy debate around issues such as relaxing Georgia’s draconian drug laws and treating LGBT citizens equally. However, because of the continued dominance by one party, most of this debate has either occurred through civil society organizations, public demonstrations or internal party discussions rather than parliamentary debate linked to competing political parties and their visions.
Georgia’s democratic development is in a more fragile state than many recognize. Over the last 25 years the default setting in Georgia has been one party rule. That is the state to which, barring pro-active decisions by the government, Georgia may return. The absence of pluralism compliments the potential for one party rule by making it more difficult for parties whether inside or outside of governments to anchor themselves to different parts of society by representing interests and legislating accordingly.
The GD government has seen its support decline each of election since their breakthrough victory in 2012, winning 62% of the vote in the presidential election in October of 2013 and 51% in the recent local elections. This may not be good news for the GD, but it is a good sign for Georgian democracy, indicating that the GD is open to the possibility of losing an election or sharing power sometime in the not too distant future. The GD is also probably buoyed by the reality that the UNM has proven unable to break the 25% threshold in either of those elections. Nonetheless, the crux of the issue of Georgia’s democratic future lies in what the GD will do if their support continues to wane, and whether they see their continued rule as sufficiently essential to Georgia’s future that they will break the rules of democracy to stay in power. This is what each of their recent predecessors have done, but it just possible that the GD will take a different approach. If the latter scenario occurs, Georgia’s path to democracy will be much smoother and the cycle will be broken.
The next natural development if the GD allows their one party rule to erode will be the breaking down of the ruling coalition. This will be enormously important in Georgia’s endeavor to become more pluralist. The presence of several parties that are supportive of the government, but differ on a range of issues will make it possible to approach the election in a more nuanced way and for Georgia to develop a more interest based approach to representation and democracy.
There is clearly a path forward for Georgian democracy, one in which the country would consolidate the gains of the last 18 months, but there are also many ways Georgia could fall off that path. The next months will be a critical time for Georgian democracy. With no elections on the immediate horizon, the governing party might address its declining popularity by limiting democracy and putting Georgia back on the path to one party rule. However, the GD might also seek to consolidate Georgia’s democratic gains while its opposition is still weak, thus moving Georgia further on the road to Europe and the west. Continued media freedom and diverse views in parliament and on the streets will be a strong indicator of the latter, while efforts to demonize any opposition as treason, strengthening the once powerful surveillance state and limiting freedoms of some or all Georgians will be harbingers of the former.
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