Lessons from Georgia's Parliamentary Elections

The 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia have come, and for the most part, gone. Although they are not quite over, as final vote tallies must be completed before proportional seats can be allocated, and several runoffs must occur before all the single mandate winners can be determined, it is possible to make some general conclusions, particularly with regard to who won and who came up short. With slightly more than 99% of the precincts counted, the Georgian Dream (GD) had won 48.61% of the vote. The United National Movement (UNM) was in a respectable second place with 27.04%. The Alliance of Patriots (AoP) and Free Democrats (FD) appeared to be just short of the five percent threshold with 4.99% and 4.59% of the vote respectively.

In general, these elections were not conducted perfectly. There were incidents of violence, some partisan, some unexplained in the months and days leading up to the election, as well as a smattering on election day itself. There is, of course, no place for that in a democratic election, but in most other regards, such as media freedom, the ability of all parties to campaign and the use of administrative threats and resources, these elections were considerably better than previous Georgian parliamentary elections and continue the upward tick in the quality of elections there.

Who Won and Who Did Not

The unambiguous winner in this election was the incumbent GD. Shortly after the polls closed on Saturday even the exit polls by Rustavi Two, a television station closely aligned with the opposition UNM, had the GD winning by a margin of eight percentage points over the number two UNM. This was the closest margin of any exit poll, PVT or vote count, and was not viewed by many outside the UNM as a credible source.

The soft support that many suspected was out there for the GD to take turned out to be one of the main stories of this election.

It is most likely that the GD victory was built on a perception among many Georgian voters that, while there is still a lot of work to be done in their country, in general, the curve over the last four years has been in the right direction. The soft support that many suspected was out there for the GD to take turned out to be one of the main stories of this election. Most of these voters looked around at the options and figured that four more years of the GD was better than going back to the days of the UNM or turning to one of the pro-Russia parties or even the other western leading parties. The GD victory was brought home by a campaign that is better described as workmanlike and broad rather than slick and ultra-modern.

The explanations for the GD’s solid, if unspectacular, victory are not difficult to understand. The failure of so many western observers to see this coming is much more puzzling and reflects broader problems of how Georgian politics continue to be perceived in the west. Clearing up these problems is essential not only for Georgian democracy, but for the ability of counties like the US as well as many multi-lateral organizations and international NGOs to continue to effectively help support the further consolidation of Georgia’s democracy.

The biggest problem for the UNM in the aftermath of this election is, not its vote tally, as that was actually quite respectable, but that they underperformed the expectations they had created for themselves, particularly in the western media, as well as the manner in which they did this. The UNM did well enough in this election, solidifying their position as the number two party in the country and soundly drubbing also rans including the Alliance of Patriots, who appeared to have just missed making it into the parliament, and the Free Democrats who, for the moment, also seem likely to be on the outside of parliament looking in.

The UNM’s not very close second place finish is not, in itself, an insurmountable barrier for the former ruling party, but coming on the heels of months of bizarrely overconfident promises of victory and largely unfounded accusations of widespread election fraud perpetrated by the GD led government, it raises a more difficult political challenge. The UNM is now in the position of having to explain why they did so poorly in this election as well as to redefine themselves in the face of what is now their fourth consecutive electoral drubbing going back to 2012.

While many in the west failed to see how the GD could build a big majority for this election, there was equal misreading regarding the UNM among many western observers, analysts and kibitzers of Georgian politics. This, at least reflects some consistency, as too many in the west have been eager to accept the optimistic predictions of the UNM for too long. 

The final vote tally indicates that, contrary to what was assumed to be the case in spring, there will not be a coalition government, because the GD will easily get a clear majority of seats in parliament. However, the question of whether two or three parties will pass the threshold still might be open. In the addition to the UNM and the GD, it seems the Alliance of Patriots (AoP) is on the cusp of passing the five percent threshold on the party list portion of the ballot. 

The AoP represents a bloc of voters who are both socially conservative and more favorably disposed towards Russia, rather than the west. The inclusion of the AoP in the next parliament, if that should occur, may be considered a victory for the long and expensive Russian endeavor to influence or manipulate Georgian politics, but it should be noted that this party will have a voice, but little else, in the new parliament. They will be the third largest bloc, with a small number of MPs and little governing experience. On balance, they will add diversity to the views represented in parliament, but will not have enough power to influence outcomes. That is not a bad outcome for Georgia. Moreover, democracy means that all voices that have a constituency among the people should have a voice, even if many of us in the west do not like the AoP platform or goals. 

Several other parties failed to break the five percent threshold, the most notable of these were the Free Democrats (FD) and the Republicans. The absence of these two parties from the next parliament is, in many ways, unfortunate. The FD and the Republicans were the favorite parties of many in the west. They combined the unambiguously pro-west rhetoric of the UNM with immeasurably cleaner records on question of democracy and human rights. Their leaders include people like Tina Khidasheli and Davit Usupashvili (Republicans) and Irakli Alasania and Buka Petriashvili (FD) who were well liked and well respected in the west. These types of people were seen as the moderate and rational voices of Georgian politics. Unfortunately, the rational decision to run together, which would have brought a coalition between the two parties past the threshold to make it into parliament, somehow eluded them. Usupashvili absence will be perhaps the biggest loss for the new parliament. He served as Chair of that Parliament since the GD came to power in 2012 and more than any other individual was responsible for that institution becoming a relevant partner in Georgia’s governance again. 

What The Elections Were About

This election was defined not simply by a fight between the two major parties, or even a fight between two major parties with significant policy differences. Rather it was defined by a fight over how to define the election. The major division between the two biggest parties was that the GD ran a typical incumbent’s campaign, while the UNM had another vision for the election. The GD sought to highlight their accomplishments, defend their record and frighten people about what would happen if the opposition came back into power-on balance a pretty standard incumbent strategy. The GD strategy proved to be a wise, if at times inelegantly executed, one. The governing party spent their campaign efforts burnishing their record, promising more growth and advances over the next four years and raising fears about the UNM. This was how they won their decisive victory, although they won only a very narrow majority of voters.

In this kind of a race, the typical opposition strategy is to try to tear down that record, stress the failures and shortcomings of the incumbent party and try to convince voters they could do better. The UNM, however, chose not to pursue that strategy. Instead, they built a campaign around calling for regime change. The reasons for that decision are not clear. Perhaps the UNM believed that was the only way to mobilize their base. Perhaps they actually believed the heated rhetoric they had been saying about the GD since the 2012 election. Perhaps they did not believe that a persuasion campaign would work with an electorate that was still reeling from the decade or so that the UNM ran Georgia. The reasons for this decision matter a lot less than the impact of that decision.

In thinking there was any appetite for abrupt change, instability or, in the favorite term of the UNM, revolution, the UNM miscalculated the feel of the Georgian electorate.

By making their campaign a vehicle to bring about regime change, rather than simply trying to persuade voters that the GD had failed in its four years in power, the UNM influenced the election in two important ways. First, this decision doomed their campaign before it got started. In thinking there was any appetite for abrupt change, instability or, in the favorite term of the UNM, revolution, the UNM miscalculated the feel of the Georgian electorate. There was discontent with what many saw as a stagnant Georgian economy, the slow pace of integration into western institutions and the ongoing Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For many Georgians, this might have been a reason to vote agains the GD, but it was not enough to support radical change and instability. The UNM’s inability to figure that out was baffling, and very damaging.

In addition to sabotaging their own campaign, running a regime change campaign elevated the tension in the pre-election environment and threatened to undermine Georgia’s still fragile democratic institutions. This was, of course, exacerbated by former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s frequent pledges to return to Georgia after the election because he was certain the only two possible outcomes were either a decisive UNM victory or widespread election fraud. In the event of the former, Saakashvili planned to return a vanquished victor. In the event of the latter, he intended to start a revolution. The former President’s hoped for revolution was always more of a coup attempt because it lacked any popular support and would have been a power grab. Ultimately, Saakashvili was wise enough not to come back after the UNM’s decisive defeat.

By mid-summer, this election had settled into the pattern that we saw play out on Saturday. It became a referendum on a governing party that sought to defend its record, while running against a competent opposition party that increasingly turned to angrier, more heated and less popular rhetoric. 

There was also something of a paradox in this campaign because on one hand, a very broad range of political ideologies and opinions were represented. Several parties, including both major parties as well as the FD and the Republicans advocated for a strong western course, while others such as the Patriots and the Burjanadze Democrats did not. Some parties, like the UNM, FD and Republicans, advocated for economic liberalism, while others such as the Labour Party had a much more leftward leaning economic vision and the GD appeared to be hybrid on economic issues.

Despite this wealth of choices presented to the Georgian electorate by the over 200 parties running for parliament, the election itself was not primarily about issues and issue differences between parties. This was largely because the two major parties, at least in most of their public statements, seemed to agree on the major issues. Both supported further reforms to the economy and a pro-western foreign policy course. It was also due to a political climate in which interest representation by constituency based organizations is still not well developed and where the legislature is not yet a place where competing economic or other interests wrestle over legislation and policy. Thus, the election easily fell back into the familiar struggle over who did what when they were in power and which party could best achieve the largely agreed upon goals. On those ground, the GD was able to win relatively easily.

The Georgian Elections and the West

This election, like most in Georgia, was monitored by numerous international NGOs and multi-lateral organizations as well as by domestic NGOs that received international funding. Western evaluation of this election is important, but as Georgia moves forward on its political path, this is also a good moment for the west to examine ourselves, the role we have played in Georgia’s democratic progress and even the mistakes and missteps we have made.

As has become usual for a Georgian election, there were a panoply of foreign election monitors who observed the election in varying degrees of depth. Additionally, the Georgian organizations ISFED, long a supporter of western donor funds, also monitored the election. The assessments of the election varied slightly.

NDI stated that, 

“Following a vibrant and competitive campaign, citizens were able to cast their votes freely and, in most places, counting proceeded in a calm and orderly manner… In some electoral precincts, however, counting was disrupted or terminated by unruly and, in some cases, violent crowds.
On a day that started smoothly, the vast majority of Georgian voters, poll workers, party activists, and candidates demonstrated their commitment to democracy by participating peacefully in the election process. NDI observed a voting process that included minor violations but polling station officials largely worked diligently over long hours to organize and execute proper election procedures.”

IRI’s statement was similar.

“(T)he International Republican Institute (IRI) concluded that Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary elections were ‘held in a mostly calm and peaceful environment, were well-administered, and appeared to reflect the will of the Georgian people.’ ‘In the face of political tensions at home and ever-present pressure from outside its borders, it was encouraging to see Georgians participate in these elections, whether as voters, candidates, party agents or election officials,’ said Ambassador Mark Green (ret.), president of IRI and chairman of the Institute's international observation team. ‘We hope that same approach and level of engagement will take place in the coming weeks.’” 

The Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE noted that,

“The 8 October parliamentary elections in Georgia were competitive, well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. The otherwise calm and open campaign atmosphere was, however, impacted by allegations of unlawful campaigning and some incidents of violence…Election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but tensions increased during the day and several violent altercations took place near and in polling stations, the observers said. Voting proceeded in an orderly manner, although counting was assessed more negatively, due to procedural problems and increased tensions.” 

The overall gist of these assessments was that the election reflected an improving political climate, and was, on balance, democratic, but that there is still work to be done in Georgia particularly around issues of electoral violence and the media. It is difficult not to agree with this general view.

There was, however, more to the western role in this election than that, both with regards to this election year and to the broader political relationship between Georgia and the west. There are many components of this, particularly of the latter, but there are some that are more important than others. 

First among these is the near obsession with polling. Both NDI, one of, the two most well known and influential US democracy promotion NGOs working in Georgia, polled this race extensively. IRI, the second of these NGOs polled the race once as well. The ostensible reason for this was so as to help the parties with message development and campaign strategy. Given that both the major parties had experience with leading western pollsters and were able to retain them again for this race, that rationale was not a strong one. 

Regardless of what the reason why NDI engaged in so much polling, their work had a strong effect on this election. To a great extent, it set the agenda, at least for many in the west, for the election. The notion that this race would be very close between the UNM and the GD initially got traction because of a spring poll by NDI. Similarly, the finding that many voters were undecided, something that was probably true in the spring, began to dominate western thinking about this race. The finding that somewhere between 50-60 percent of the electorate was undecided seeped into almost every discussion of the election.

The problem with both these findings is that while they had some validity, they also only told a small part of the story. For the rest of the story one had to go to Georgia and, you know, talk to people outside of a few neighborhoods in Tbilisi. NDI’s polling in particular has been very controversial in the past, particularly in 2012. The problem, however, is not that NDI is somehow being dishonest or making up numbers, but too frequently lies in their interpretation of their findings. In 2012. This manifested itself in an inability, or unwillingness, to recognize that in that political climate, undecided voters were going to vote against the government, but were not comfortable telling pollsters that. This year, it lay in letting the findings regarding the massive number of undecided voters go unprobed. Polls that explored what might have moved those undecideds, the degree to which they were open to voting for either party and the like, would have been helpful in this regard. Similarly, many of the undecided voters, predictably, did not end up voting. This may not be a great statement about Georgian democracy, but it suggests that the undecided numbers were lower than initially thought. A better screen for likelihood of voting might have solved that problem.

The political problems of the polling are somewhat secondary to the larger issue of why these organizations spent so much time and effort polling when for several years now it has become clear that these polls earn a few headlines in the Georgian news, get many talking outside of Georgia, but have little meaningful impact on improving Georgian democracy. They have helped undermine the image in Georgia of organizations that do important and effective work, making it harder for NDI and IRI to have the kind of positive impact on Georgian democracy of which they are capable and which could be so valuable for Georgia now.

The elephant in the room of the last decade of Georgian politics, is the seemingly willful failure of many in the west to understand the UNM and its leader, former President Saakashvili, for what it, and he, is.

Polling is only one issue, but the elephant in the room of the last decade of Georgian politics, is the seemingly willful failure of many in the west to understand the UNM and its leader, former President Saakashvili, for what it, and he, is. A fundamental fact of political life in Georgia is that this organization, and its leader, is discredited and remains massively unpopular. Moreover, the UNM record during their last five years or so in power included significant backsliding on democracy and human rights abuses. This is absolutely axiomatic, but somehow eludes many in western capitals. The reasons for this are baffling. To suggest, as I have in the past, that it is still simply because of Saakashvili, and some of his associates, relentless charm and lobbying offensive, fluency in English and strong anti-Russian rhetoric, is almost an insult of the intelligence of many who work in foreign policy in the US and Europe. A more plausible, if depressing, explanation might be that after years of support for the UNM, accepting a different reality about who they are and what they did is simply something that powerful foreign policy elites do not want to do. Regardless of the reason, this election should be another reminder that the UNM is viewed very differently inside of Georgia than in the west.

Part of the collateral damage of the west’s collective misreading of the UNM was their corresponding inability to understand the GD. The GD government has ample faults. Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to wield significant power even after leaving office. The government was not able to turn Georgia’s economy around in four years Georgia’ s struggle to build strong democratic institutions remains a work in progress. However, Georgia is considerably more free than it was when the GD came to power. It is also closer to the EU and NATO, is drawing significant tourism and western investment and is no longer lurching from mini-crisis to mini-crisis as it did from 2007-2012. Western governments seemed to understand that, but this was largely lost on many in the think tank, NGO and related parts of the foreign policy establishments in Europe and North America.

Beyond Bidzina v. Misha

For several years, Georgia politics have been described by many as a political battle between two larger than life figures, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. In addition to being Georgia’s richest man, former Prime Minister and the founder of the GD, Ivanishvili is also widely regarded as the informal power behind the GD government. The Saakashvili v. Ivanishvili paradigm is appealing because it reduces Georgian politics to something very simple, suggests an equivalency between the two men and allows many to continue to avoid confronting the UNM record. Additionally, this conventional wisdom is almost cinematic. On one side, according to this frame, the former Prime Minister sits in his ultra-modern headquarters above Tbilisi sinisterly giving orders to the entire Georgian government, while the former President in exile a few stops on the L train into Brooklyn and later from his post as governor of Odessa, still continues to assert control over the UNM and, presumably, the affections and loyalty of many in Georgia.

In this election, however, Georgian politics moved beyond Saakashvili v. Ivanishvili. Naturally, these two figures remained involved in the election, but their rivalry was not the major force behind the election. Moreover, as the election approached it became clear that Saakashvili had become a drag on the UNM. A post-Saakashvili UNM would have been able to more easily break with their damaging legacy and present themselves as pro-west reformers. This would not have been enough for them to win a majority, but it would have allowed them to build beyond their base, something they proved unable to do in this election.

The loser in that scenario would have been Saakashvili as if that UNM had done well, it would have demonstrated that Saakashvili was definitively a figure from Georgia’s past. Given that Saakashvili’s Ukrainian adventure does not appear to be working out, he could not afford that perception to take root. Months ago, Saakashvili was faced with a choice, either try to bring meaningful reform, rather than just talk, to Odessa, or commit himself to rebuilding the UNM in Georgia. Saakashvili ended up trying, and failing, to do both, demonstrating the wisdom of the old Yiddish saying, “Mit eyn tokhes ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenes. (You can't dance at two weddings with one behind.)”

Ivanishvili continues to play a role in the GD and played a significant role in this campaign, but it is also apparent that Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkishvili is an increasingly independent political actor who is well liked and respected both internationally and domestically. Counterintuitively, Kvirkishvili may have less leverage over Ivanishvili now that the election has come and gone. In the months leading up to the election, replacing Kvirkishvili would have been very damaging for Ivanishvili and the UNM as it would have made Ivanishvili look impetuous and unable to bring stability to Georgia, thus damaging the GD’s electoral chances. Now that the GD has won a big victory, that threat no longer exists. Therefore, there would be no electoral consequences for Ivanishvili if he were to outs Kvirikshvili.

Changing Prime Ministers, however, would be a big mistake. Moreover, following an election victory that in significant part belongs to Kvirkishvili, Ivanishvili may not even be able to replace the current Prime Minister. More significantly, there is little reason to think Ivanishvili wants to do that. The evidence from the last few months suggests that while he still wields significant power, Ivanishvili is becoming less, not more, involved with the governance of Georgia. That would be good for Georgia’s political development, but also further evidence that the battle between Misha and Bidzina is receding in Georgia’ s political life.

Where Does Georgia Go From Here

It is way too early to discern the greater longer term impact of this election, but it is possible to identify some of the questions and challenges raised by Saturday’s voting. First, this election demonstrates, pardon the mixed metaphor, that even in Georgia time moves on and political pages need to be turned. The Saakashvili v. Ivanishvili dynamic is receding into the past, and with it the UNM supported fiction that it was a somehow a fight over whether or not Georgia was pro-west. Given that, it is time for everybody, across the Georgian and western political spectrum, to retire the twin political fictions that the GD is aligned with Russia and that the UNM is a uniquely pro-western force in Georgia.

Similarly, the Rose Revolution is now almost thirteen full years in the past. That may seem like a relatively short time in the scope of Georgian history, but in this era it is a long time. That perspective should allow us to understand those events more as part of a cycle, or cycles, rather than sui generis democratic breakthrough in Georgia. This approach makes it possible to more fully understand modern Georgian political history and to place recent events in a more appropriate context.

With this in mind, two challenges that are raised by the outcome of this election should be very familiar to those who have been watching Georgian politics for a few years. First, the resounding GD victory may give them a constitutional majority in the new parliament. Even though this election was generally viewed as democratic and competitive, the result could well move Georgia closer to one party governance. Georgia has been in a cycle of one party government followed by regime collapse since the last days of Soviet Communism. It is not yet clear whether this election moves Georgia closer to or further away from that possibility. 

The GD been more liberal than its predecessor and has allowed more freedom for opposition political parties and civil society than the UNM did when it was in power. Nonetheless, the temptation to consolidate one party rule will be strong following this election. Doing that would be a mistake because it would accelerate the inevitable defeat of the GD, but more importantly it would further hamstring the development of Georgian democracy. 

A second, and related, point is that this election, while competitive, did not deepen pluralism in Georgia. Pluralism is a good hedge against one party dominance because if parties represent competing interests, rather than just competing claims on power, voters are less likely to move towards the winning party to gain influence or power. Rather, they will remain supportive of the party that reflects their interests.

Georgian democracy is stronger and deeper than it was five years ago. That was reflected in this election. However, obstacles to the consolidation of Georgian democracy continue. Some of these, such as the hostile presence and intervening by Russia, may be difficult to address from Tbilisi, or even Washington, but others are not. Building meaningful multi-party, pluralist democracy in Georgia requires deepening of interest based politics, the continued development of the Georgian economy and still greater freedom of media and assembly. Western democracies can, and should, play a role in this development, but to do so it is imperative to have a sound understanding of what has happened in Georgia’s recent past, and to be honest with ourselves about our own missteps.

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.