Leaving Big Man Politics Behind

The fall election in Georgia is likely to be very competitive with the real possibility, although no certainty, of a parliament with four, five or even six parties and a governing coalition that is formed after the election. Despite this, the election is still seen by many through the lens of Bidzina against Misha. The former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, holds no office but is broadly understood to continue to play a role in the Georgian government as well as in the governing Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. The former President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has now moved to Ukraine, become a Ukrainian citizen and taken a position as governor of Odessa. Nonetheless, he is still seen as the major figure within the opposition United National Movement Party (UNM) and has occasionally indicated that he plans a triumphant return to Georgia after the election in October.

Reducing the election to simply Bidzina against Misha is tempting as it captures much of the feeling among the political class in Georgia, but it is also inaccurate and a disservice to the Georgian people. Most recent polls indicate that fewer than half of the voters in Georgia are at the moment likely to vote for the GD or the UNM. From that perspective, it looks like the voters are not so much divided between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili but that they have a similar view of both political giants-they don't see either of them as key to solving Georgia's problems.

Both the GD and UNM would benefit from crafting an image that is less tied to that of these larger than life, divisive and controversial individuals. This is difficult because both parties, therefore, benefit from strengthening those links with regards to their opponent. Thus, the UNM has framed their election appeal as one that is centered around opposition to Ivanishvili, while the GD raises the specter that a UNM victory would mean a return to power of Saakashvili, or at least his most loyal cronies. The UNM does not spend a lot of time with attacks on the GD Prime Minister and official party leader Giorgi Kvirkishvili because they know he does not galvanize their base the way the mention of Ivanishvili does. Similarly, the GD spends little time attacking David Bakradze, the leader of the UNM in parliament and the person likely to become Prime Minister should the UNM return to power.

While the GD and UNM have a political incentive to differentiate themselves from Ivanishvili and Saakshvili, the two powerful political figures may have the opposite incentive. A GD victory in which Ivanishvili plays a minor role and is not visible will push him further into the background and make it more difficult for Ivanishvili to play a significant role in the post-election government. This is what Ivanishvili has said he would like to see occur, but the role he plays in the election will be an indicator of the sincerity of those views.

For the Governor of Odessa the stakes are even higher. The UNM would clearly be a stronger political party if it could put the Saakashvili period firmly in the past; and the best way to do that is to move forward without Saakashvili himself. However a strong showing by a UNM with decreasing ties to the former President will make it harder for Saakashvili to continue to be relevant in Georgian politics. 

In 2012 even though as President he was not on the ballot, Saakshvili was a central figure in the election. The GD campaign was focused on him and a few high profile people in his government, rather than on the individuals on the UNM party list. This was particularly true because of the widespread assumption at the time that if the UNM won, Saakashvili would have remained in power by moving from the presidency to become prime minister in the new constitutional system where the latter had more power.

As that election progressed, Saakashvili, once the political sun around which politics in Georgia and the UNM rotated, began to be a liability to his party. The UNM, when faced with their first genuinely formidable electoral opponent, in the form of the GD in 2012, found themselves spending valuable time and political capital not presenting a vision of reform and economic development to the voters, but cleaning up the political and governance messes that Saakashvili himself created with increasing frequency during the later years of his presidency. This included things like the then President’s bizarre promise to build a brand new city called Lazika in western Georgia, his refusal, at the time, to unequivocally rule out remaining in power as Prime Minister after the election, and his occasionally erratic behavior.

There is a lesson in that for the GD as they move towards this election. Ivanishvili, without whose leadership and resources the GD election victory in 2012 would have been all but unimaginable, may not be quite the same asset this cycle. The more this election is about Ivanishvili’s continued role as a behind the scenes power, controversial development proposals, or reacting to his infrequent but controversial comments to the media, the more difficult the GD’s task will be. Ivanishvili probably will not become a liability for the GD comparable to what Saakashvili was to the UNM in 2012, but it is clear that from an electoral perspective, he will not have the same unambiguously positive impact on the GD that he did in 2012.

Despite the role that Saakashvili and Ivanishvili continue to play in their respective political blocks, particularly in the eyes of their opponents, Georgian politics is moving beyond them. The large number of people who, according to all recent polls, are not, at least for the moment, supporting either of their parties is evidence of this. Thus, while political elites continue to want to rehash the politics of the 2010-2013 period, the voters have declining interest in this paradigm. Calling Ivanishvili a Russian stooge is political red meat to the UNM base, while reciting the abuses committed by the UNM during their time in power has a similar impact on the GD base, but for many voters this is yesterday’s news, and yesterday’s battle.

It is necessary for both the UNM and the GD to move beyond this Ivanishvlii-Saakashvili political frame, but it will not be easy. Both parties will continue to try identify their opponent with their most prominent former official. Moreover, while it is possible that Ivanishvili wants to become less involved in politics, the same cannot be said for Saakashvili. The former President seems unable to help himself from replaying the politics of 2012 in a kind of public rumination, not least because a Georgia whose central political story is no longer about Ivanishvili and Saakashvili is one where there is little room, from a political perspective, for Saakashvili . 

Additionally, for both major parties, the 2010-13 political dynamic remains to a significant extent their political raison d’etre. Absent the issues and conflicts from that era, both parties would struggle to forge a new identity and electoral appeal. The UNM has had some partial success with this as, at least at the elite level, they have crafted a position as pro-west and liberal. However, that is currently a crowded a political space in Georgia as the Free Democrats, Republicans and others have similar positions on economics and western orientation. The GD have always been a broad party who have transitioned from a broad coalition dedicated to defeating the UNM to a somewhat less broad coalition seeking to govern, but with little basis in shared vision or ideology. For the other parties competing in this election, the Misha-Bidzina frame is less central but still significant. These parties will have to struggle to both convince voters that they are truly independent of both of the major parties as well as to provide messages that get beyond the Saakashvii-Ivanishvili dynamic.

The inclination among political elites to consistently return to the Saakashvili versus Ivanishvili paradigm is also facilitated by an electorate that does not have significant issue based cleavages and a political system rooted in a government-opposition dynamic rather than one of competing vision and interest representation. This political environment contributes to the impressively enduring nature of strongman politics in Georgia. Getting beyond Saakashvili and Ivanishvili is a crucial next step for Georgia, but it will not happen absent a change in the incentives for both parties and an alternative approach that is both compelling and plausible to party elites and ordinary voters.

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.