What Will the Parliamentary Election Be About?

The parliamentary elections, scheduled for fall of this year, are now only a few months away and will define much of Georgian politics this year. As the election approaches, there will be even more talk about who will win and what that might mean for Georgia. For several months now, most discussions I have had about politics in Georgia have included a query about what will happen in these elections. The answer to that is, at this point, unknowable. Moreover, because it is a parliamentary election, winning and losing is not a simple question. Questions of how many parties will get into parliament, whether any party will in an outright majority, who might be in the winning coalition and the relationship between seats and votes are among the issues that cannot be determined until after the election.

Rather than trying to prognosticate possible outcomes to the election at this time, a more useful approach might be to explore the several different frames through which this election, like most previous Georgian elections, can be analyzed. Exploring this framework will help draw focus to some big picture questions about Georgia as well as some things to look for in the early pre-election period. 

Broadly speaking, four different approaches can be employed to frame this coming election: 1) demonstrations of Georgia’s progress, or lack thereof, with regards democratic development; 2) a referendum on the ruling party; 3) regime change or collapse; and 4) aggregating preferences and choosing governments. It may be useful to explore each of these in some greater detail.

Progress Towards Democracy: For at least fifteen years or so every election in Georgia, as well as in many other non-democratic counties, has been described as a test of democratic development. This is a flawed analytical approach because while it has some elements of truth, it also overstates the importance of elections for democratic development, and often overlooks that in a non-democratic environment, elections are a reflection of those conditions, even if they run smoothly. Nonetheless, this has been a frequent prism through which Georgian elections have been seen. If this election is viewed, from the outside in particular, as simply another of the never ending tests of Georgia’s democratic development, it will be evidence that Georgian democracy is stalled, or is at least is perceived as stalled by those on the outside. 

Referendum on the Georgian Dream (GD): To some extent all elections are referenda on the party in power. When the government is seen by voters as doing a good job, they are reelected; and when they are not, they lose. This is true in all democratic systems, but less so in non-democratic countries. Additionally, in many countries with an overwhelmingly strong ruling party, the governing party rarely loses, but uses its relative support in the election as a way to gauge their support and adjust accordingly. Currently, the GD does not enjoy the kind of support needed for this to happen. However, it is also not hard to imagine that their soft support returns while the United National Movement (UNM) remains unable to grow beyond its base as other opposition parties draw some votes, but not enough to vie for power. If this occurs, the GD will be chastened by a significantly less impressive victory than it had in 2012, or even the presidential election of 2013, but will remain in power easily. However, this kind of an election is generally not rich in substance as the dominant issue is simply what people think of the governing party.

Regime Change or Collapse: Twice in recent Georgian history a parliamentary election has led to regime change or regime collapse. In both 2003 and 2012, the government in power lost the election badly. In 2003, the government tried to hold on to power through election fraud, but in 2012 the UNM conceded defeat. In both cases what followed was the collapse of the previous regime and radical, if not quite revolutionary, changes in government. It is increasingly apparent, at least from the rhetoric of its erstwhile leaders, that this is the hope of the UNM for 2016. This outcome is unlikely, but cannot be ruled out entirely. More significantly, despite UNM efforts, there is little appetite for this kind of change in Georgia. While there is ample dissatisfaction with the GD, that does not translate into either a desire for the regime to collapse entirely or for the UNM to return. 

Aggregating Preferences and Choosing Governments: This is, of course, what elections are about in most democratic countries. The 2016 election has the potential to play that role in Georgia as there will likely be several competing parties with distinct visions for and programs. If this election is primarily about aggregating preferences and choosing between competing visions of governance, Georgian democracy will have moved to a different and new level. However, for this to happen, the political discussion in Georgia needs to change substantially over the next few months. Both the UNM and the GD continue to speak of their opponents as illegitimate and borderline criminal organizations. The UNM often portrays continued GD rule as an existential crisis for Georgia, while the GD, for their part, has not yet let up in its efforts to inflict punishment on the UNM leadership. Until this changes, it is unlikely that the primary focus of the coming election will be simply competing message and forming a government. Nonetheless, despite the obstacles currently facing Georgia, if the election is more driven by aggregating preferences and choosing between competing visions of governance, the news for Georgia will be positive. 

The 2016 election will almost certainly be some kind of hybrid of these four models. That was, in some respects, the case in 2012, when the election, a year or so in a advance, looked like it would be another test for Georgian democracy, but then with the emergence of the Georgian Dream began to look more like a referendum on the UNM. Ultimately, that election proved to be about regime change and regime collapse.

While each of the parties in Georgia faces their own specific challenges: the GD needs to consolidate its soft support and win back some of the voters it has lost over the last three years; the UNM needs to grow beyond its strong base; the Free Democrats need to find a way to break through and become a major political force, and other various other political forces need to turn substantial but sometimes vague support in society into votes, the broader challenge for all of Georgia is to make this election about aggregating preferences and choosing governments, rather than any of the other three frames. This is the only way Georgian democracy can make meaningful steps towards consolidation. 

That may be a reasonably obvious conclusion, but it is similarly apparent that not all political forces share this motivation. The GD would benefit from an election that is primarily a test for Georgian democracy. This test would not be difficult to pass, but it would also be a framework that would allow enough political manipulation or fraud that they would be able to win handily while still passing this alleged test. That reflects the flaw in the test of democracy approach to framing elections. All the incumbent government has to do to pass the test is make that magical step forward, rather than conducting fully free and fair elections. Similarly, the UNM appears to be seeking regime collapse as that, rather than again being a small but vociferous minority in the legislature, would be much better for them. 

It is, however, also far to early to pass any definitive judgements about this election. While the GD, for example, may have a short term motivation for electoral shenanigans, in the longer term, they will benefit from fully democratic elections, even if this leads to a substantially smaller minority, or even just a plurality, of parliamentary seats for the GD. The cycle of one party consolidation always looks good for the ruling party on the way up, but recent Georgian history also tells us there is always a rough ride down. That is something the GD would like to avoid, and can only do that by making the country more, not less, democratic. On balance, they have done that so far, but doing that in an election year while their popularity may continue to wane is a different challenge altogether.

The 2016 election will, therefore, occur on two different tracks for Georgia. The first will address the question of what the election means and what it is about. The second, the more straightforward questions of who will win and what the new parliament will look like. The significance of the horserace numbers and related kibitzing as the election approaches, for example, will depend heavily on the extent to which competing visions of governance rather than simply a referendum on the GD, or UNM efforts to promote regime collapse, are driving those numbers. Similarly, treating this elections as just another test of Georgian democracy will overlook the emergence of a nascent pluralist system that could contribute to deeper democratic development in Georgia. Fully understanding this election requires thinking about both of these frames throughout the election period.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.