Will Real Multi-Party Democracy Emerge in Georgia?

Georgia’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for sometime in the fall of 2016, but there is reason to believe those elections might be moved up a year and occur in the fall of 2015. Parliamentary elections are either roughly eight or twenty months away-not a lot of time in either case. These elections are, perhaps inevitably already on the minds of many in Georgia, not least Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Free Democrats (FD). Alasania, the recently dismissed Minister of Defense, commented last week that the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition has little chance winning a majority in that election. Alasania may be prescient, or he may simply be trying to rally support to his party, but in either case his general point that election will not be an easy one for the GD, is probably right.

The next parliamentary election will build on 2012 to deepen Georgia’s post United National Movement (UNM) dominated party system. Currently, the Georgian government is characterized by a two party system with the GD block holding a clear majority, but with a pesky opposition UNM party that has a significant minority presence in the parliament, and that generally polls between 20-30 percent in national elections. It is, however, possible that at the next parliamentary election a multi-party system will develop as the GD will no longer be as dominant, and voters unwilling to support the UNM will look for other options.

All recent Georgian elections have occurred on two simultaneous dimensions. The first is the question of how many votes and seats each party will receive. The second is the extent to which the election will be conducted in a democratic manner. The answer to the second question can only be determined through election monitoring and observation, but recent Georgian history suggests that elections are getting better and while not perfect, are reasonably democratic. This could change in the next parliamentary election, particularly as it is likely to be more competitive than the 2013 presidential election or 2014 local elections were, but it is also possible that Georgia has finally turned a corner with regards to elections, and that the government will either be unable or unwilling to commit widespread fraud on Election Day, or to intimidate parties, limit media and repress freedoms in the period leading up to the election.

If the next election is held in a democratic manner, it is a very good possibility, Mr. Alasania’s claims notwithstanding, that the GD could win a plurality of voters. It is much likely that they will win a majority or even a large plurality of votes. Thus, the next election could lead to a genuinely multi-partisan Georgia, one where a variety of parties, representing a range of opinions, visions and outlooks could be represented in the next parliament and have a say in questions of governance. There is, of course, no guarantee that this will occur as many things, from election fraud to harassment of opposition parties, to a sharp improvement in governance and the economy bolstering the fortunes of the GD, could prevent this from occurring. Nonetheless, it is not hard to see that the combination of a ruling party that is less popular than it was in 2012 and the strengthening of democratic institutions could lead to this outcome.

In 2012, Georgia experienced a change of power following an election, but that change of power also was, at least in substantial part, due to regime collapse. That 2012 election was substantially about the differing interpretations of the years of UNM governance. The GD ran, and has since governed, based on the view that the UNM was an authoritarian government that was setting democracy back in Georgia. Upon winning, the GD sought to sweep out the UNM and break radically with the past. In that respect, 2012 looked a bit like the Rose Revolution of 2003 that also brought about the end of a period of one party dominance.

Georgia, therefore, may have experienced an electoral transition, but that has not yet led to true democratic consolidation. The next parliamentary election will offer the opportunity for Georgia to reach a different level of democratic development, one where a genuinely multi-party legislature emerges and where governance is driven not by one block implementing their wishes and policies, but by a constant process of compromise, negotiations and deal making. This is clearly a significantly more advanced kind of democracy, and one that has never been achieved in Georgia.

For this to happen, however, there needs to be a broad consensus that there are many political views and opinions that are legitimate. This recognition has to come primarily from the government, but also from other political parties, as well as from Georgia’s allies and friends. That is the crux of democracy, but it has been elusive in Georgia over the last quarter century. For example, the FD could emerge as an opposition that, unlike the UNM, while disagreeing with the GD, and being critical of their governance, do not dispute the basic legitimacy and patriotism of the regime. The FD are not quite there yet, but they can move in that direction. Similarly, the GD needs to recognize that the UNM is fundamentally no longer a threat to destroy their regime, but despite being unpopular represent a segment of the Georgian population, and that the FD, while critical of the government, are also a legitimate part of the political process. 

Western supporters of Georgia, particularly those in Washington and elsewhere who have begun to view Georgia as mostly a two party system dominated by the GD and the UNM also need to accept that the political space in Georgia is also occupied by other, less appealing to the west, forces, and that those forces could become enduring parts of Georgia’s political landscape. For example, in the last presidential election Nino Burjanadze, running on a platform that was essentially sympathetic to Moscow, got 10% of the votes. Burjanadze did not come close to winning the election, but demonstrated that she represents a non-trivial minority of voters. 

Similarly, although the GD has been soundly scolded the west for indicting and arresting leaders of the previous government, and has been generally criticized for focusing too much on the past, there is a block of voters in Georgia who believe the GD has moved too slowly in this regard. Those voters with this view are currently largely supporters of the GD. They might stay in the GD coalition, but it is also possible that some of them could break off from the GD, perhaps forming an alliance with conservative supporters of the Georgian church. Georgia’s western allies have little interest in opposition parties that are either sympathetic to Moscow or believe the GD has not been aggressive enough in prosecuting leaders of the UNM government, but if these views exist in substantial number in the Georgian electorate, than the west must recognize their essential role in the country’s party system.

It is too early to know with any certainty what will happen in the next Georgian election; and given recent Georgian history the question of whether the election will be democratic with opposition parties being allowed to compete on a more or less equal basis with the government also remains unanswered. However, if this does occur, it is very possible that Georgia could break out of the government-opposition dynamic that has characterized all recent elections and move towards a meaningful, if complicated multi-party system.

A truly multi-party system in Georgia would mean that the GD would no longer be a dominant party as they remain today. It could mean coalition government, but at the very least would entail a slim majority in parliament and the possibility of a genuinely competitive, in the sense of not knowing months in advance who the winner will be, presidential election in 2018. It would also lead to a party system where the parties that are not governing offer distinctly different visions both from the government and from each other, rather than simply competing with each other to see who can be the most outspoken in their criticism of the government. Georgia has had some of that at specific moments in the past, but never in an enduring or cohesive manner.

For at least a decade, elections in Georgia have been seen through the prism of tests of democracy as foreigners seek to evaluate the state of Georgian democracy based almost solely on the one dimension of how fairly the election is conducted. That approach has proved decreasingly useful over time. The next election will, if democracy continues to evolve in Georgia, reveal not so much the state of election fairness of in Georgia, but the extent to which Georgia is genuinely becoming a multi-party democracy. Approaching the coming election in this context will lead to a better understanding of Georgia's political struggles.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research and analysis for your business, government or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.