The decision of the Republican Party to run separately from the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition in the fall parliamentary elections is significant for several big picture reasons. First, it means that the GD that presents itself to the Georgian voters in October will be shorn of the two most western leaning members that were part of its coalition when it was catapulted into government in a resounding 2012 election victory. The Free Democrats (FD), the other unambiguously pro-west party in the GD coalition, preceded the Republicans out of the governing block by leaving in 2014. A second, and very important, development, is that the Republicans, despite announcing they will go their separate way from the GD in the fall of 2016, were not immediately expelled from the governing coalition. Thus, key Republican leaders such as Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili and Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, will remain in power through the election. That, of course, could change over the coming months. Lastly, the latest fracturing of the GD electoral coalition further jumbles an already crowded political field as the elections approach.
The reasons for the Republicans leaving the GD coalition seem apparent-the Republicans have staunchly pro-west views and a commitment to liberal economic policies in a coalition that does not share such unambiguous views on these two key issues. Moreover the raison d’etre for the GD coalition was the defeat of the previous government led by the United National Movement (UNM). Once the UNM was defeated, that raison d’être inevitably faded, thus highlighting the substantive policy differences among constituent parts of the GD coalition. However, there have also been compelling reasons for the Republicans to remain in the GD coalition. The most obvious of these is that as a unitary political party, the Republicans chance of getting into government are not strong. Even if they get the required five percent or more of the votes, they would likely just slip by the threshold and be in a diminished bargaining position when the government is formed.
It is tempting to see this further breakdown of the GD coalition as evidence that the government, and indeed democracy, is weakening in Georgia, but there is another side of that story as well. Omnibus governing, or opposition, coalitions are necessary in some particularly cases, but over time hinder the development of meaningful democracy. In these coalitions, governments are formed and in many cases decisions are made internally among coalition members behind closed doors, and before the election. A more democratic approach is to wait for the voters to have their say and then for the parties elected to parliament to seek to form a government. A GD coalition without the Republicans moves Georgia closer to that ideal, as the negotiations around forming a government are now more likely to occur after the election and be based more on who got how many votes, rather than who wins the favor of the leadership of the GD coalition. The obvious danger for the Republicans is that if they do not meet the five percent threshold, with the possible exception of a few MPs who win single mandate races, they will be left out of those discussions entirely.
The political impact of this decision will reverberate throughout Georgia’s political parties. The GD are still likely to get a plurality in the coming election, but probably a smaller one. More significantly, the GD will have a more difficult time presenting themselves to the Georgian people and international actors as a strongly pro-west party. Much of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili who has thus far appeared to have made a very positive impression on western leaders. In this regard, Kvirikashvili is now even more indispensable to the western aspirations of the GD government.
Another beneficiary of this development will be the UNM. This allows the former ruling party to further their narrative that the GD is insufficiently pro-west, while at the same time appealing to potential Republican voters on the grounds that the Republicans will not make it into parliament, so casting a vote for the UNM is the best way to express a pro-west sentiment. Cleary, this appeal will only resonate among those with short memories, but it may well get some traction.
Casual, and perhaps not so casual, observers of Georgian politics might assume that the Republicans and the FD would be logical coalition partners. The rationale for this is not difficult to see. Both are economically liberal pro-west parties that were critical of the UNM government and were part of the GD coalition in 2012, but ultimately left that block. Additionally, the two parties are similar in temperament and style, and count among their leaders some of the most competent government officials in Georgia. Because neither party is guaranteed to get into parliament on their own, the benefits of an alliance are unambiguous. An FD-Republican coalition, even if it only got nine percent of the vote, could be extremely influential in a multi-party parliament. The leadership of the two parties, however, are riven by rivalries and competition. So the question of whether or not they would form a coalition seems to be one that pits political logic, that of like minded parties joining together, against individual motivations and concerns, because the leaders of both parties are very ambitious.
Given recent Georgian history, it cannot be a surprise that the latter approach seems to have won out, at least for now. The announcement that the Republicans would not run with the GD coalition had barely been made before FD leader Irakli Alasania made a Shermanesque statement ruling out any possible collaboration with the Republicans in the coming election. “There have not been and won’t be such talks…As far as electoral cooperation or an election bloc is concerned, that’s ruled out…Free Democrats party is running in these elections independently,”
Alasania’s statement is, in some respects, reasonable. It would be foolish for him to suggest that his party is rushing to form a coalition with anybody, or that he is not confident that his the FD can make it into parliament on their own. However, by immediately taking such a hard line position, Alasania made it more difficult to get to the negotiating table with the Republicans in the not very difficult to imagine circumstances where that would be helpful. Another result of this statement is that by ruling out cooperation with the political party that with regards to substance and ideology is most similar the FD, Alasania, deliberately or not, has exacerbated a view of his party that many Georgians have shared with me on recent visits and correspondences, that the FD is more sympathetic to the UNM and could end up in either an overt coalition or a more nuanced mutually beneficial relationship with them based on shared pro-western views and disdain for the GD. There is no reason yet to believe this, and the FD has told me this is not the case, but these statements, which indicate that the FD is not interested in working with the Republicans, certainly make it easier to see how an FD-UNM cooperative relationship could get stronger as the election approaches.
As the election is still about six or seven months away, the decision by the Republican Party to leave the GD coalition is likely not the last major political event of the pre-election period. It is possible that coalitions will be formed, that the GD coalition will fracture further or that new parties could emerge. The immediate challenge facing the Republicans is how to ensure that they get back to the next parliament. In many respects, it is also in the interests of the GD to allow that to happen. If the Republicans do well in the coming election, their votes will take support away from the FD and the UNM more than from the rump GD coalition. A parliament with more Republicans and fewer UNM and FD members is very much of the interest of the GD; and there are many ways that the GD government can help the Republicans do better in the coming election.
The treatment by the GD of the Republicans over the next few months will also reveal much about the GD government. A government marked by maturity and a commitment to building democracy would understand that the Republicans were never going to be a permanent part of the GD coalition, but would also recognize that the GD can benefit a lot from cooperation with the Republicans. If Republican Party members are allowed to remain in their positions, continue to have input into the governance of the country and are allowed to campaign and build their party free of harassment it will be evidence that the possibility of a truly pluralist system, rather than one dominated by a powerful ruling party still exists in Georgia. If, however, the Republicans are pushed out of government and have obstacles placed in their way by the GD, there will be great concern about the future of Georgia’s democracy.
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 email@example.com.