Can opposition parties survive in Georgia? Post-election report

October 30, 2013
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, right, hugs presidential candidate Georgy Margvelashvili, center, as they meet with supporters at the Georgian Dream coalition's headquarters in Tbilisi on Oct. 27.(Grigory Dukor/Reuters)
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, right, hugs presidential candidate Georgy Margvelashvili, center, as they meet with supporters at the Georgian Dream coalition’s headquarters in Tbilisi on Oct. 27.(Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

[Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, we are pleased to welcome the following post-election report on the 2013 Georgian presidential election from Queens College CUNY political scientist Julie A. George the author of The Politics of Ethnic Separatism in Georgia and Russia.  Our pre-election report on the 2013 Georgian presidential election can be found here.]

*****

Much to the chagrin of his patron and prime minister, Georgian Dream (GD) presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili won Sunday’s presidential election with “only” 62 percent of the vote, 40 points over his closest opposition, the former ruling party (and current opposition) United National Movement’s (UNM) Davit Bakradze. The dissatisfaction arose from the relative success of Bakradze, who won 22 percent of the vote. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili does not conceal his disdain for the Georgian incumbent president and UNM party leader, Mikheil Saakashvili and his party, both of which he considers unworthy of much attention or respect.

Ivanishvili’s disappointment comes from his surprise that Sunday’s contest was a close as it was. Ivanishvili stirred the pot last week by announcing that Margvelashvili would withdraw from the election if he did not muster the majority of votes required to avoid a run-off (amidst a field of 23 candidates). While Margvelashvili echoed the sentiment, holding out for an outright majority win or full withdrawal, others in the Georgian Dream party demurred, citing metaphorical speech. Indeed, GD members other than Ivanishvili must have little disappointment with Sunday’s voting outcomes. The share of votes for the Georgian Dream increased since the 2012 elections by 7 points nationwide, with even greater advances in many provincial districts, particularly in ethnic minority enclaves. Moreover, on the UNM side, the 2012 and 2013 electoral cycles indicate severe losses in both contests. Overall, UNM lost about 19 points between the 2008 parliamentary and 2012 parliamentary elections. It lost another overall 19 points again in Sunday’s contest. Moreover, Margvelashvili won the outright majority of the votes in all of Georgia’s electoral districts except three. Not all of the non-GD votes in those districts went to UNM; in fact, former Georgian interim president Nino Burjanadze, of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, garnered a surprising 10% of the overall vote.

Such electoral outcomes are not at all surprising. The question was never whether UNM would lose, but rather by how much. Since its loss in the parliamentary election last November, the UNM brand has faded. In the past year, several UNM luminaries have been arrested and convicted of crimes committed while they were in office. (Former interior minister Vano Merabishvili has been in pretrial detention since May,  and former defense minister and Minister of Prisons Bacho Akhalaia was recently convicted of inhumane treatment of prisons.) Politically, the UNM has struggled to maintain its legislative position amidst significant defections. Georgia has a mixed electoral system, selecting 73 members of parliament from single-member district seats and 75 from party lists. Several UNM parliamentarians on the majoritarian side abandoned the party. While they did not join the Georgian Dream outright (instead becoming Independents), they have voted in the past year primarily with the Georgian Dream bloc. Likewise, municipal officials, selected in the 2010 municipal elections that went overwhelmingly in UNM’s favor, began shifting their party identification once the GD was dominant. Such defections indicate the realities of often-cited personality based party politics in Georgia.

Yet Sunday’s electoral outcome and the pre-election atmosphere in Georgia also indicate some reason to think that there may be some way for the United National Movement to reemerge as a viable opposition party, despite its severe losses. First, electoral turnout was significantly lower than in previous elections, including recent municipal contests. The overall electoral turnout was 47 percent, the lowest of any election in Georgia since independence (see the figure below). Although past instances of electoral fraud may have increased electoral turnout significantly (particularly the 2000 presidential elections, among others), the most recent elections have been increasingly free and fair. The figure below indicates lower than usual electoral participation in both the 2012 and the 2013 elections. Also telling is the decline in turnout in the last two elections among the ethnic minority concentrated districts in southern Georgia. These districts have historically supported the party of power during electoral cycles (and, after being caught with high votes for UNM in 2012, have begun to switch loyalties) but despite such partisan shifting,  electoral turnout among these groups is lower than the turnout for the country as a whole. This downward trend is one to watch, since it offers a significant change in how we might predict electoral behavior in Georgia.

Overall and Ethnic Enclave Electoral Turnout in Georgia, 1992-2013 (Julie George/The Monkey Cage)
Overall and Ethnic Enclave Electoral Turnout in Georgia, 1992-2013 (Julie George/The Monkey Cage)

Second, Bakradze did better than expected Sunday. Recent polls had UNM support at close to 12 percent, not the 22 percent of the vote that Bakradze won. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) released a poll in September that reported considerable popular support for the Georgian Dream, but nonetheless a sensibility that the Georgian population considers the UNM to be a legitimate opposition force in Georgia, a sentiment that Ivanishvili seems to find either confusing or threatening. While 56 percent of survey respondents indicated that the GD coalition was either their first or second choice of party (50 percent said first), a mere 16 percent listed the United National Movement for either first or second. Nonetheless, 42 percent of respondents indicated that they considered the UNM to be the strongest opposition in Georgia; 81 percent of Georgians also expressed the opinion that it is important to have a strong opposition party in the country. Finally, despite the low numbers of Georgians that identify with the United National Movement, many more like Bakradze, who is a known force in Georgian politics. In the September report, 49  percent of Georgians indicated that they “liked” Bakradze, making him the fifth most popular politician in Georgia (Ivanishvili garnered 69  percent, in second place). In the September poll, respondents favored Margvelashvili (56  percen), but the previous survey in June gave the popularity edge to Bakradze, 48  percent to Margvelashvili’s 45 percent. Thus, although the Georgian Dream political team can be assured that the UNM party brand has diminished, its most viable members could still muster some real popular support.

Third, the NDI poll also indicated a lackluster response to the reform programs of the Georgian Dream, which has been slower than its predecessor in unveiling marquee programs. Although Saakashvili has recently conceded that his reforms came too quickly and had a high cost, many Georgians report little change in the last year. In the pool of likely voters noted in the NDI poll, 74  percent reported that their situation had remained the same since the 2012 elections. (Eleven percent said they were better off, 14  percent said worse off.) Among Ivanishvili’s most prioritized reform sectors, health care and agriculture, 50  percent of respondents indicated that Ivanishvili had done neither badly nor well (34  percent indicated well or very well, 10 or 11  percent indicated badly or very badly).

The dissonance between Ivanishvili’s perception of the UNM as irrelevant and illegitimate and Bakradze’s relatively high polling numbers might explain the hyperbolic statements by the prime minister and Margvelashvili about withdrawing in the case of a runoff election. Critics reasonably point out that the Georgian Dream has not brought the promised outcomes in increased economic investments, employment, and increased prosperity. (Others reasonably point out that Georgia’s structural problems are such that a one-year fix would be unlikely in any case.) Ivanishvili has responded to his critics in public and transparently, albeit in unusual ways. Lately, he has taken to lambasting his critics in nationally broadcasted and long-lasting conversations, calling out journalists and political analysts with specific and precise criticism and questions regarding their written work.

The good news on the Georgian election this year was its process. Observers reported few violations of procedure during the vote and count, and the violations that were reported were incidental rather than systematic. The Central Election Commission and its district bodies are fully professionalized (less so at the precint level, according to Transparency International Georgia). Bakradze was swift and diplomatic with his concession, breaking from previous Georgian tradition of the downtown mass mobilization to protest results.

More worrying is the overwhelming influence of Ivanishvili, whose commitment to his country is clear, but whose political demeanor indicates significant discomfort with opposition. Perhaps the clear personal enmity between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili unfairly showcases Ivanishvili as particularly intolerant. Ivanishvili unabashedly chooses loyalists to fulfill central positions, without clear merit-based criteria for their appointment (an oft-cited example is Kakha Kaladze, a former soccer star who is a Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy). Given Ivanishvili’s disregard for the opposition and the lack of transparency of personnel hierarchies in his party, some observers question Ivanishvili’s commitment to democratic ideals. At the same time, however, the GD has been notable in its transparency with civil society groups and has overseen the cleanest election in Georgian history. Moreover, while Ivanishvili may chafe at his critics, his method of dealing with them (inviting them for a personal and televised discussion over Georgia’s famous mineral water) is far different from the methods of his predecessors.

Looking forward, there are many unanswered questions for the trajectory of Georgian politics. I’ll voice two of them here. First, what does this election mean for the United National Movement and the role of powerful and competitive opposition parties in Georgia? Sunday’s results leave us with no clear answers. Bakradze did well enough for the UNM to stake a claim on real support in the population. A clever political strategist could rebrand the party (which has extraordinary infrastructural capacity and is quite media savvy) such that it can claim its successes while distancing itself from its past abuses. Saakashvili’s final presidential address indicates that thinking. But there are reasons not to be optimistic – big opposition parties have not historically found much traction in Georgian politics, so the UNM will be undertaking shift in political culture while atoning for its many sins. It could be too much.

A second, and more important, question is the extent to which Georgia can continue to develop accountable politics. This will be a test for Ivanishvili, who occasionally (but not always) seems to waffle in his commitment to contested political processes. The most important decision will come in the next week or so, when Ivanishvili chooses a prime minister. The Georgian Dream coalition counts among its members tested policymakers whose futures do not depend solely on Ivanishvili’s favor. Ivanishvili’s choice will indicate whether he intends to maintain a position as a hands-on, unaccountable behind the scenes player or whether he trusts his coalition partners to make the best decisions for Georgia without his personal interference (once he has returned to being a civilian).

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