The most recent NDI poll was made public last week. It does not tell us who will win the October election, but it reveals, or perhaps more accurately, confirms, several things about the political environment in which that election will occur. The data in the NDI poll indicate that the election will be very close, neither of the two major parties have widespread support, and the electorate is frustrated with their options.
According to the poll, United National Movement (UNM) and Georgian Dream (GD) are neck and neck. The first horserace question shows the GD winning 16-15. That difference is an equally close 20-19 GD lead when second choices are included. When the universe of voters is limited to those who are decided and likely to vote, the GD have a very narrow lead of 29-27, that goes to 33-31 when second choices are considered. Again, this is extremely close. Interestingly, the proportions of voters who claim they would never vote for the UNM, 20 percent, and GD, 19 percent, are almost the same. Additionally, fully 60 percent of the voters are currently undecided. Among likely voters that number only declines slightly to 52 percent. These numbers indicate both that the election will be very close, but that many voters are disenchanted with both major parties.
In most circumstances, an incumbent party with numbers as bad as those of the GD would have little chance of winning. However, given that the GD have not been in power more than one term, and that their chief opponent is a party that was in power for about a decade before that and is still well known and widely disliked, that is less likely to be the case in Georgia in 2016. It is apparent from the data, that there is room for other parties to break through, a finding of which all of those parties are acutely aware. However, most of the parties in Georgia are reasonably well known and not entirely beloved. This is a main reason why the proportion of undecided voters remains stubbornly high.
The data from the NDI poll is consistent with qualitative and anecdotal evidence from Georgia as well. Many people with whom I have spoken on recent trips to Georgia indicate they are dissatisfied with the GD, but not anxious to give power back to the UNM. Despite this, the election will happen and either some party, most likely the GD, will strengthen themselves substantially between now and then and win an outright, but probably narrow, majority, or a coalition will have to be formed after the election.
The election campaign will be significant and will generate a lot of media attention, but a larger challenge for Georgia’s democratic development may occur after the election. Although elections in Georgia are still far from perfect, concerns about election fraud have declined in the years since 2012, so the election itself will likely be relatively free and fair. Of course, there is no way to know that for certain until the election, so domestic and foreign election observation remains important.
Regardless of who wins the election or which parties make it into parliament, Georgia’s political parties will be faced with the twin challenges of both forming a government and building the Georgian people’s confidence in that government and the process by which it was selected. There are several immediately apparent obstacles to this. First, the election might not be conducted freely and fairly. Although elections have generally been improving in recent years, there is little precedent in Georgia for elections that are free, fair and competitive. This election will be competitive, providing an incentive for the government to conduct it less freely and fairly. Additionally, whoever loses this election, precisely because it is likely to be the closest national election in Georgian history, will have an added incentive to claim they are the victims of election fraud even if they are not. Thus, the need to make this election free and fair, and to persuade the electorate that it is being conducted that way are of almost equal political importance.
The task of forming a government, even if the election is perceived, and is, free and fair, will be an unprecedented challenge for Georgia’s political parties. Forming governing coalitions in an at least somewhat transparent post-election environment as opposed to in the backrooms within a dominant ruling block, as has been the case in most of Georgia’s recent elections, is important in a country that aspires to greater democracy, but that does not mean it will be easy.
The question of who will be in that coalition cannot be answered until after the election, but at first glance the most likely scenario is that the Free Democrats (FD), who are in third place in the recent polling would be the coalition partner for either the GD or the UNM. In that scenario, the FD would be the junior partner, but they would have a great deal of leverage that would allow them to make considerable demands. This would be particularly true if, as is certainly possible, those are the only three parties to make it into parliament. In that case, the two larger parties would never work together in a unity type government, leaving the FD as the only potential coalition partner. The FD leverage would be even stronger because they have a number of proven and well respected people who can work in high levels of government, thus making them additionally valuable to both parties, but particularly the GD.
A successful post-election negotiation requires more than simply cutting a deal between the leaders of political parties. That coalition must be stable enough to endure while allowing its component parts to maintain their differences and individual identities. The breakup of what was the omnibus GD coalition over the last few years has, on balance, been a healthy development for Georgian democracy, but similar schisms in an coalition with a smaller majority that was forged after an election would represent a political crisis for Georgia.
Central to the task of moving Georgian democracy forward, and of breaking the cycle of regime consolidation and collapse that has defined Georgian politics in recent years, regardless of what the new governing coalition looks like, is moving beyond punishment and reprisals for whatever party or parties are left out of the governing coalition and the recognition that opposition parties, regardless of who they are, are an essential voice in Georgia’s political life. This will be difficult to accomplish because if the new coalition is led by the UNM, there will be some within the UNM who will want to treat the defeated GD leaders as the GD defeated former UNM leaders. The presence or extent of illegal activity on the part of the GD will be of peripheral relevance to that faction within the UNM. Similarly, a narrow GD victory may reenergize the GD desire to finally destroy the UNM. For this reason, guarantees and agreements on this issue that can be made now may be an important step towards achieving post-election stability.
In 2012, post-election demonstrations loomed as a possible scenario and, indirectly, made it harder for the government to commit and get away with election violations. In 2003, that scenario came to pass and brought down the government. That kind of post-election scenario is possible, but less likely in 2016. The more likely post-election scenarios, the inability to build an enduring coalition that can govern, or continued reprisals towards whomever loses the election, may be less dramatic but could have a very damaging effect on Georgia’s development.
The seeds of either a smooth or rocky post-election period will be sown during the next months. If the campaign is extremely nasty with intimidation, unfounded personal attacks, Russia baiting or false accusations dominating the campaign, any necessary coalition talks following the election will be difficult to conduct and characterized by great mistrust. In that environment, parties will be less likely to believe the promises and agreements made by their potential coalition partners and be tempted to simply stay in the opposition until new elections are called or whatever shaky coalition emerges from the negotiations collapses. Similarly, a nasty campaign of this kind will provide further impetus for post election reprisals regardless of who wins.
There are still over six months before the election; and, given the enormous number of undecided voters, there are a lot of possible outcomes to this election, but none of those outcomes will strengthen democracy if the the aftermath of the election is botched or poisoned by an extremely rancorous campaign.
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.