Prisoner's Dilemmas, Moving Beyond Regime Collapse and Georgia's Coming Election

Since independence, particularly in the 21st century, elections in Georgia have either reinforced the existing party structure of one party dominance, or all but destroyed it. Examples of the former category include parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2008 as well as presidential elections in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2013. Examples of the latter category include the parliamentary election of 2003 and, to a lesser extent, the parliamentary election of 2012. In 2012 the United National Movement (UNM) survived an election defeat, but it is not yet clear whether the combination of deep distrust from the Georgian people and prosecutions from the Georgian government will allow them to become genuinely relevant again.

This dynamic has contributed to the instability and inconsistency of Georgia’s democratic development. Party systems that do not last more than a decade make it difficult for voters to hold politicians and political parties accountable. This, in turn, leads to a party system that is more personalized and patronage based, where political parties stay in power until voters are completely exasperated with them, thus facilitating Georgi’a boom and bust like cycle of one party dominance, and limiting the development of more meaningful kinds of democracy. 

In 2016, it is possible that either of these scenarios could occur. Despite their low numbers in recent polls, the Georgian Dream (GD) has ample room to grow, a fair amount of soft support and, of course, access to both administrative resources and the personal wealth of Bidzina Ivanishvili. Those advantages, particularly if new Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili proves more politically deft than his predecessor, could contribute to a significant win for the GD. If that occurs, the UNM will face even more difficulties and likely be even more marginalized. Several other parties, including the Free Democrats (FD) and various less western oriented political forces could also win seats in the parliament in this scenario, but not enough to meaningfully diminish GD dominance.

On the other hand, the GD could continue to be bedeviled by a poor economy, political missteps, lack of strong support in the west and a UNM that has, despite limited popular support, proven itself a savvy and aggressive opponent. Moreover, if the new Prime Minister does not work out or, like the President, clashes with Bidzina Ivanishvili, the governing block could be forced to make more changes and find itself in increasing disarray as the election approaches.

Neither of these scenarios is good for Georgia. Strong one party dominance or yet another regime collapse would weaken democracy, push Georgia further away from integration into NATO and the EU and do nothing for Georgia’s struggling economy. Nonetheless, the precedent for these two outcomes is quite strong in recent Georgian history. While there is no precedent for an election that leads to meaningful pluralism or sharing of power between competing political parties, there have been hints of that in the past. Therefore, for Georgia, getting to that unprecedented pluralists place from here will be very difficult, but not impossible.

This pluralist outcome would require the GD to remain in parliament, probably as a large, perhaps the largest, block, but without either an outright electoral majority or being only a few back benchers from other parties or independently elected MPs away from that majority. A genuinely multi-party Georgia would require discussions and negotiations between parties after the election, rather than within the party before the election, to determine how the new government would be constituted. Of equal significance, once the government was formed, discussions within the constituent parties of the governing coalition, as well as occasional efforts to build multi-party agreements with the parties outside the coalition would be essential.

In this environment, governing would be very difficult. Policies based on vague goals such as economic development, territorial integrity or NATO integration would no longer suffice as disagreements about how to achieve these goals would be a vibrant part of the debate. Neither side would be able to hide behind the hackneyed theatrics of calling those who disagreed with them unpatriotic, enemies of the state and the like. Moreover, compromise, arrived at more or less publicly, would be essential to achieve anything. This would mean that both in parliament and in the government the ability to negotiate, strategize and build consensus would become more important than the ability to grandstand, articulate bold, but often vague, goals and mobilize a political base. This would mark a radical evolution for Georgian politics, one for which it is far from clear the politicians are prepared.

Both of these dynamics would represent uncharted political territory for Georgia, but also mark the distinction between a surface level of democracy characterized by reasonably free and fair elections, and a deeper democracy characterized by ongoing debate, negotiations and political give and take. The latter is obviously much more difficult to create, but if Georgia does not move in that direction, the likelihood of returning to the cycle of regime consolidation and collapse will grow after the parliamentary elections.

A multi-party parliament could include a broad range of foreign policy outlooks, with the FD and UNM staking out the most pro-west position and the GD block also being strongly pro-west, but with several other forces, such as the Alliance of Patriots being more sympathetic to Moscow. Additionally, a similarly broad range of economic views from strongly liberal parties like the UNM to more social democratic parties the the GD would also be represented. The word for this cacophony of political opinions in one legislature is democracy, and many countries have done fine with a similarly broad range of parties in their national legislature.

The particular obstacle for Georgia is that the now entrenched cycle of regime consolidation and collapse means that for major parties, viewing political opponents as anti-state and therefore disqualified from participating in government is the default political setting. Transitioning away from this framework will not be easy, but in a multi-party legislature with no party having a clear or permanent majority, that level of distrust and rancor all but precludes a functioning government.

For the parties involved, there is a clear cost for moving away from this longstanding approach to politics. A pluralist system with parties, in one way or another, sharing power means that no party can control everything and that no political opponent, or enemy, can be completely politically destroyed. There is also a clear benefit for the parties, including for the GD who now enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament. A system where sharing power is recognized as unavoidable means that each election is not a do or die proposition for each party. That does not mean elections won’t be important, but simply that losing an election will not result in a party collapsing or being portrayed as an enemy of the state. Since 2012, some progress has been and in this direction as the defeated UNM has remained politically relevant, but the arrests of UNM leaders and some statements by GD leaders indicate that particular transition has been partial.

The one potential dynamic that could make this election different than previous ones in Georgia is that while the parliament is currently characterized by a clear government-opposition dvision, the political party environment is not-and is unlikely to move in that direction in the next months. In most recent elections, the opposition has unified behind a single candidate, like Levan Gachechiladze in 2008, or a coalition such as the GD in 2012. In 2003, while the opposition had several different components, such as Labor, the New Rights and the National Movement, in the election, the post-election scenario saw three major opposition parties united and the rest minimized. 2016 is likely to be different, anti-western political movements are extremely unlikely to unify with either the governing party or the leading opposition party. Similarly the FD, while ideologically similar to the UNM would be forfeiting their one comparative advantage, that they are the untainted pro-west force, by aligning with the UNM.

Accordingly, as the elections approach the major political parties, as well as some of the minor ones, find themselves confronting something of a prisoner’s dilemma. If all the parties ratchet down the rhetoric and recognize that neither one party dominance nor regime collapse is either likely or in Georgia’s interest, the country, and in at least some real sense, the parties, will be better off. However, if only one party makes this recognition, and the other major party continues operating consistently with the paradigm that has characterized previous elections, the latter party will get the better of the former. Sadly, this may lead both major parties to continue doing what they have been doing, thus minimizing their chance of losing out as well as Georgia’s chances of moving forward. Moving past this is the crux of making democracy function. It is the collective leap of faith and belief that oneself and one’s opponents will listen to their better angels, that is both implausible and essential for any democracy that goes beyond the surface of political life. The next months will provide another chance for Georgia to get there from here.

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