How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
When Georgians go to the polls for parliamentary elections on October 8, they will have the luxury of choosing between candidates and parties that represent a real array of ideologies and visions: liberals, conservatives, Westernizers, Russia accommodationists, free traders, economic protectionists, and just about everything in between. For regional watchers, this is no small thing; Georgian politics have long been bruising and personality-driven, which makes the relative normalcy of this year’s multiparty contest all the more striking. There are still risks; Georgian democratic culture is still in its infancy and some rogue elements are potentially keen to stoke unrest, but there is a sense that Georgia’s upcoming elections are poised to represent yet another step forward.
Of course, it’s been a long road getting to this point, and the personalities and patronage haven’t entirely gone away—the open courtship of anti-Western and pro-Russian votes is perhaps this cycle’s chief novelty, and opera singer Paata Burchuladze’s political bid is almost entirely buoyed by his personal fame. But in a region that seems locked in cycles of authoritarianism and tumult (or both), the peaceful clash of competing policy platforms is a welcome sight. Indeed, compared to nearby Azerbaijan and Russia, which recently held their own deeply flawed polls, Georgia’s election season appears positively European—a standard that has also eluded neighbors Armenia and Turkey in recent years. Georgia’s democracy remains young and fragile, and the possibility for unrest and even violence is never out of the question, but Georgians can reasonably expect that their parties will be able to compete fairly, win or lose on their own terms, and live to fight another day.
Yet if the Georgian election process is mostly heartening, it is also leavened with a distinct sense of uncertainty. Pre-election polls have been consistent in their inconsistency, and the chance of an election day surprise is all too real. Most of the good money points to victory by the incumbent Georgian Dream (GD) party, which leads the now-ruling eponymous Georgian Dream coalition government. However, GD’s careening poll numbers and the very high levels of undecided voters puts a variety of scenarios within the realm of possibility.
For now, most local and international attention will be fixed on the fortunes of GD and the opposition United National Movement (UNM), which GD defeated to win power in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Despite some major fluctuations over the year, many polls indicated a tight race between the two parties.
An April 2016 poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed GD with a razor-thin edge over the UNM (19 percent to 18 percent) when the question included Burchuladze’s still-unformed State for People Movement. Without that party, the race was 20 percent to 19 percent. A July poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), meanwhile, gave GD a more commanding margin at 17 percent to 13 percent. A lower-profile but more recent September poll by the U.S. opinion research firm Wilson Perkins Allen (WPA) showed GD with a strong advantage over the UNM, at 25 percent to 12 percent.
The slight advantage for GD aside, the election is likely to be more complicated than a showdown between the two top parties. As GD and UNM jostle for position, a bevy of smaller parties and coalitions are looking to take advantage of the public’s indecision and set themselves up as potential coalition partners. NDI reports that 57 percent of the electorate is undecided, and the WPA poll shows that some 34 percent of voters are unsure or refuse to pick a party, which gives the smaller parties plenty of room to make a splash.
Not least among the smaller parties is the populist, anti-Western Alliance of Patriots, which took some observers by surprise by quietly emerging prior to the 2014 local elections and clearing almost five percent nationally. According to the WPA poll, the Alliance is registering a full 16 percent now, which could see it edge out the UNM as Georgia’s second-largest party. This likely overstates the Alliance’s political support, since such a high figure does not comport with any well-known poll results over the last several years, but the party’s reputedly strong ground game, anti-Western populist platform, and rumored links to Russia may be enough to net it in the high single digits or even low double digits. Further, if it combined with the openly pro-Russian ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze’s political faction, it could enter parliament in force with a mandate to undermine Georgia’s longstanding Euro-Atlantic consensus.
Another dark horse is Burchuladze’s State for People Movement, which has sought to position itself as a moderate alternative to both GD and the UNM by balancing a stated pro-Western orientation with populist, conservative policies. Burchuladze’s personal celebrity and independent wealth make him a potentially formidable political player, but the appetite for yet another multiparty coalition headed by a rich political neophyte is unlikely to be as large this year as it was in, say, 2012. Indeed, according to the IRI and NDI polls, the 12 percent support for Burchuladze’s unformed party in April dissolved to four percent in July. His party did not even make it into the September WPA poll. Although it would be a surprise if Burchuladze did not achieve any showing in the October vote, his theoretical appeal may also be his undoing: seeking to reach a broad swath of the electorate—both liberals and conservatives, policy voters and populists—Burchuladze may not succeed in winning over anyone. Indeed, Burchuladze is variously accused of being a proxy for the GD and the UNM. Yet if he can manage to hit the mid- to high single digits, his faction could also become a credible coalition partner in a variety of plausible configurations.
Translating perceived strengths into votes also bedevils some of the other pro-Western parties. Former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, who is regarded as having been unusually successful in that role, has had trouble parlaying strong personal popularity into electoral success for his Euro-Atlantic-oriented Free Democrats party. Despite garnering ten percent in a March NDI poll and a strong 13 percent in the IRI’s April poll, his party barely showed in the July NDI and September WPA polls.
Similarly, the European-style liberals in the Republican Party, which managed to achieve outsized influence in the ruling Georgia Dream coalition, looks unlikely to be a player in the next government without a lifeline from one of the bigger parties to participate in their coalition. As it is, both the Free Democrats and Republicans appear to be trying to gain from the same relatively narrow slice of the electorate: pro-Western, broadly socially progressive, policy-oriented voters who are dissatisfied with GD, unswayed by Burchuladze, and unwilling to back the UNM.
This liberal infighting might very well decide the upcoming election. No less than five nominally pro-Western parties—GD, the UNM, State for People Movement, the Free Democrats, and the Republicans—are locked in combat for the same voters, which can only benefit the pro-Russian and anti-Western parties that are looking to break through. Although the ideological and policy differences between these groups are for the most part genuine, their fragmentation was husbanded by the personality-driven political sniping that casts a pall over the broader cause of liberal politics in Georgia.
That fragmentation has helped anti-Western and overtly pro-Russian organizations and political factions put down roots. Although an outwardly anti-Western government remains a remote prospect, a sizeable cadre of less pro-Western forces in parliament could slow the momentum behind years of painstaking reforms—by both the GD and the UNM. Those parties could even potentially play the role of kingmaker in post-election coalition-building. And down the road, public disappointment with aborted or half-wrought reforms could further empower the Alliance of Patriots, Burjanadze’s disciples, or some other yet-unformed anti-Western party.
The rise of Eurasianist parties is not even the worst conceivable outcome. Despite the growing maturity of the Georgian political process as a whole, some segments of the UNM continue to see mass protests and even violence as legitimate avenues to power. The technocratic Georgian premier, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has openly warned the UNM to behave after members of a UNM-aligned youth movement publicly broke with their party over alleged plans by former Georgian President (and current governor of Ukraine's Odessa Oblast) Mikheil Saakashvili to instigate unrest in the aftermath of the election. Days later, audio surfaced of an alleged phone call between Saakashvili and his UNM lieutenants in Georgia detailing plans to use unrest to regain power.
Such claims are not unprecedented. In August, state security forces reportedly prevented the sabotage of a Russian-Armenian pipeline transiting Georgia, which some evidence indicated might have been orchestrated by Saakashvili’s camp in Ukraine. And in late 2015, amid a political slugfest over the fate of the pro-UNM Rustavi 2 television station, Saakashvili and his allies in Tbilisi were caught planning to use the showdown as a means to foment violence, presumably for political advantage. The embrace of upheaval, even violence, not only endangers the integrity of the Georgian political process but also of the UNM itself—which, under the collegial Davit Bakradze, has sought to divorce the party from the excesses of its latter period of rule.
Still, despite ruinous political clashes and the shadow of Russia lurking in the background, Georgia’s elections look set to be a largely smooth affair and a success story for the wider region. Perhaps more to Georgia’s credit, neither the United States nor Europe can claim to be much of a steadying influence. With NATO or EU membership still decidedly unlikely, Georgians are marching forward almost exclusively on their own. This speaks to the surprising durability of the young democracy Georgians have created. However, the West should do more to consolidate and expand Georgia’s gains by restoring and expanding incentives for Euro-Atlantic integration—and there would be no better opportunity than in the aftermath of another successful, democratic national election.