The resounding victory of the Georgian Dream in the recently concluded parliamentary elections have led many analysts and observers to raise concerns about the ruling party's constitutional majority. These concerns, while drawing attention to a potential problem, often have a subtext that the majority itself is evidence of GD wrongdoing. It seems obvious, but is somehow worth stating, that this majority came from winning a broadly free and fair election in which other parties made a series of bad political decisions that undermined their support. It is true that the electoral system has distorted the seats to vote equation in Georgia, and that some of the ideas about constitutional reform floated by the GD are not inspiring with regards to democracy or public policy, but the parliamentary super-majority is not, on its own, evidence of GD wrongdoing.
Today, one party governance in Georgia is a political reality not because of political chicanery but due to both the will of the Georgian people and the quirks of the electoral system. Conflating that with consolidation of a one party system or a rollback of democracy in Georgia would be at the very least premature, but more accurately a condemnation of the GD record that is based more on grinding political axes than on observed phenomenon.
The focus on whether the constitutional majority will undermine the gains the Georgia has made with regards to democracy and freedom in recent years is important, but should not be overstated. The GD, after all, had big majorities most of the last four years and Georgia became more, not less, free. It seems like it is reasonable to at least wait and see what happens before tarring the government as rolling back democracy simply because they won an election.
Additionally, there are other issues that have arisen from this election and that will frame how the GD will govern during the next years that deserve some attention as well. The first of these is that with this election victory, the GD not only demonstrated their popularity and that they are by far the most powerful political force in Georgia, but they also pushed the United National Movement (UNM) period deeper into the background. While this will come as good news to supporters of the GD, it also means that the days of blaming the UNM period for the problems and obstacles Georgia faces today are over. This does not mean that the UNM legacy does not still have an impact in Georgia; it does. However, from a political perspective, a party that has just been reelected by a wide margin can no longer plausibly blame problems on its predecessor. Moreover, to continue to attribute problems to UNM misrule is an implicit admission, on the part of the GD, that they are ineffective and unable to address problems. This is obviously not the kinds of messages the GD would like to send about themselves.
One of the reasons that the GD was able to blow open a race that many, particularly outside of Georgia, thought would be much closer was because residual fear and anger towards the UNM is, as many in the GD expected, still quite strong. Within a few years it is likely that one, or both, of two things will happen that will make more difficult for the GD to benefit from that dynamic. First, the memory of the UNM period will fade or recede in the coming years. GD attempts to keep this memory alive will be more difficult and perhaps even seem more craven with each passing year. Age replacement will be a part of this too. A 25 year old voter in 2020, for example, would have only been 17 years old when the UNM lost power in 2012. Second, there is no guarantee that the next Georgian election will have the same dynamic as this one. It is very possible that a new force will emerge as the major opposition party, one that does not have a strong relationship with the UNM years in power. It is also possible that the UNM will successfully rebrand themselves, break from the personality of former President Saakashvili, who remains toxic for many voters, or otherwise move beyond the government that was so widely disliked during the 2010-12 period. Thus, it is almost certain the 2016 election is the last one the GD will win in large part by reminding people of the failings of the UNM.
This means that the GD will have to work harder both to deliver progress in economic and other fields, but that they will also have to be more active and effective in getting credit for the things they accomplish. The GD economic narrative, that the country is creating global, not just regional ties, tourism is increasing and there is more investment in infrastructure can be a convincing, but not always compelling, storyline if it is communicated strategically and backed up by at least some improvements in ordinary people’s lives. The latter has already begun to occur, but there needs to be more growth and a better approach by the GD to telling these stories.
A second issue is that despite the unambiguous election victory, it is apparent that while many UNM critiques of the GD, for example that they are Russian stooges, are now laughed at by most Georgians and by most foreigners who pay attention to Georgian politics. However, the charge of informal governance, specifically that former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili remains the most powerful man in Georgia, the prime mover behind the GD and, indeed, the government, continues to resonate. The term “informal governance” is a bit misleading as the UNM period, where proximity to Saakashvili was the key to power and where legislative niceties were often ignored altogether, was also run informally, but Saakashvili was, of course, the President at that time, although most people recognize he frequently overstepped the constitutional boundaries of that office.
Ivanishvili has also been considerably less visible, and according to most accounts less visible behind the scenes as well since current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkishvili took office at the very end of 2015, but his behavior during the election season made it clear that he is still very influential in the government. The paradox the GD faces, if they genuinely want to phase out Ivanishvili as the major leader of the party and government, is that while it is easy to show when he is involved in politics, it is much more difficult to show when he is not being involved. In other words, it will be tough to prove the negative that Ivanishvili is not running the show. Thus, even if Ivanishvili were to genuinely retire to the his Elba of Chorvila and focus his attention on his art collection and yoga practice, opponents of the GD would still speak darkly of his influence; and the GD would be hard pressed to produce evidence that they were wrong.
Despite this, if Ivanishvili continues to reduce his role in Georgian political life, Georgia will function better and become more democratic. As that happens, the reduced role of Ivanishvili will become apparent to all but his most ardent opponents. However, the GD must wrestle with the conundrum that reducing role and convincing both foreign and domestic audiences that they have done this are two separate but overlapping tasks requiring some strategic thinking.
The most straightforward way to address this is not simply by having Ivanishvili restate his intentions to leave politics. HIs critics would not believe that. Similarly, having Ivanishvili be less visible and do less media would help, but nobody in the GD has the ability to make that happen, accept of course Ivanishvili himself.
There are, however, some approaches that might work, One example would be that if there are changes to the government, silence from Ivanishvili would send a distinct message. Similarly, appointing people who are identified with the PM and with few, if any, ties to Ivanishvili would also help send this message. This would not make an enormous difference, but it would be a step in the right direction. More importantly, without a concrete strategic approach to changing realities and perceptions, even if Ivanishvili removes himself from political life, few will believe it.
The key question that for Georgia now is not whether there is one one party governance-there is. Rather, the question is whether the GD will use that position to weaken democracy. In many respects that is the path of least resistance. Rushing constitutional and even widespread legislative changes, slowly limiting opposition voices and the like is easy; and there is precedent for it all over the world. It is not, however, inevitable. The Georgian government can spend these years continuing to make Georgia freer, facilitating some deliberation both inside the parliament and with civil society and recognizing that competitive politics are better for democratic development. It is not yet clear which path the GD will choose, but it is still too early to condemn their intentions just because they won an election.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.