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On October 8, Georgia held what may have been its freest, fairest, and most competitive elections in its independent history. The vote proceeded more smoothly than many observers had expected, given the rising tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and the chief opposition party, what was once the ruling United National Movement (UNM), and the brief spike in political violence in the days leading up to it.
The vote marked Georgia’s third consecutive round of free elections since 2012, when a GD-led coalition overcame the odds to push the entrenched UNM out of power. Today, Georgia can certainly be called a democracy; it is home to a relatively open and competitive political and electoral environment. Yet whether the country’s democracy is a liberal one is less of a settled matter: the victorious GD may yet seek to mold the constitution to its own advantage, and hard-line factions within the UNM continue to agitate for GD’s ouster through extrapolitical means.
The parliamentary elections were a victory for constitutional centrism.
Georgia’s ability to consolidate its political institutions around a durable democratic culture is uncertain. In that quest, the seeds have only just been sown. As recent trends in the United States and Europe suggest, democracy is a garden in need of constant tending—and that is especially the case in Georgia.
HOW THE UNM HANDED IT AWAY
Preliminary results suggested a strong victory for GD, which took some 49 percent of the vote, compared with the UNM’s 27 percent. In Georgia’s mixed proportional-majoritarian system, which awards about half of Parliament’s 150 seats based on national vote shares and the rest through single-district mandates, those results should translate to 67 seats for GD and some 27 seats for the UNM. The remaining majoritarian seats will be allotted based on second-round voting, which will take place in late October. Having already won 23 majoritarian races outright, in addition to its 44 proportional wins, GD needs only nine more seats to achieve an outright parliamentary majority and 46 more for a three-fourths parliamentary supermajority, which it could foreseeably attain in the second round. Only one small party—the Patriotic Alliance (PA), a neo-Mkhedrioni and anti-Western populist bloc (the Mkhedrioni was a 1990s political and paramilitary group often described as a Mafia) that preaches Orthodox Christian nationalism, economic protectionism, and accommodation toward Russia—will enter Parliament, with six proportional seats.
Amid partisan bickering and ideological posturing, the parliamentary elections were a victory for constitutional centrism. More than they did for any particular party, Georgian voters checked the box for evenhanded governance and incrementalism rather than massive change. Indeed, it was the public’s appetite for moderation and stability that first shepherded GD and its billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, into power in 2012. GD cultivated a similar image to elevate the respected technocrat Giorgi Kvirikashvili to the premiership last December. Over the past four years, GD officials have quietly assembled a string of successes that have produced real improvements in the lives of ordinary Georgians: the implementation of a popular universal health insurance program, the broader strengthening of social welfare programs; and steady economic growth despite severe exogenous headwinds. In the foreign policy arena, meanwhile, GD oversaw the establishment of an association agreement with the European Union and accession to the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, unprecedented integration with NATO, dizzying growth in the country’s ties with China, and the gradual detoxification of relations with Russia.
The most important factor in GD’s recent victory, however, was not its recent successes but the UNM’s shortcomings. GD politicians tend to lack the charisma that UNM leaders projected during their years in power—but they have also abstained from the UNM’s predations and excesses, such as its routine forceful expropriation of private property. In many respects, GD’s comfortable victory was less an endorsement of the ruling party than a repudiation of the UNM. In fact, this month’s was the fourth consecutive electoral loss for the UNM and the third straight election that the UNM lost by over 20 points. Those dismal results should make UNM leaders reconsider their party’s political foundations and address its institutional problems.
The UNM’s postmortem of its recent performance should begin with an examination of the party’s attachment to Mikheil Saakashvili, the UNM’s founder and the former Georgian president, who now serves as the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. Saakashvili no longer holds a formal position in the UNM, but he remains the party’s symbol and its unofficial leader. In many respects, he is also its albatross: his record may have helped GD recast the elections as a referendum not on GD’s performance but on his own controversial tenure.
Other events leading up to the elections gave voters little reason to believe that the UNM had changed for the better since 2012. Indeed, in an apparent challenge to the pragmatic leadership of David Bakradze, the UNM’s head in Parliament, Saakashvili and UNM hard-liners embraced the role of disruptors with relish in the months before the vote. In October 2015, verified recordings (likely released by Russia) revealed UNM officials discussing the violent overthrow of the GD government. (The same elements within the UNM reportedly attempted to sabotage Georgia’s efforts to complete visa liberalization accords with the European Union this past spring.) Last month, an audio recording surfaced on YouTube that seemed to indicate that some UNM factions, anticipating a loss in this month’s elections, were preparing to use violence to foment unrest in a bid to regain power. As the preliminary results rolled in, a number of UNM operatives dubiously claimed that the vote was fraudulent and called for a boycott of Parliament, which the party’s leadership eventually rejected.
By most accounts, the UNM’s radical segments constitute a minority in the party, but they nevertheless retain significant influence. And so long as the UNM remains captured by these more extreme factions, it seems likely that the party’s electoral prospects, along with the liberal ethos the UNM claims to represent, will remain dim. That would be a shame for Georgia. As in any unconsolidated democracy, the institutionalization of one-party rule is a genuine possibility; averting that outcome will require a credible and relevant opposition.
The more immediate concern, however, is how GD intends to govern after its victory. If it manages to secure a parliamentary supermajority, the party will have the institutional levers to shape the constitution to its liking. That enterprise could inhibit the country’s progress toward democratization. Indeed, GD’s ongoing ruminations on constitutionally defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution (which would be redundant with existing laws anyway) appear to be an unnecessary foray into constitutional reform, which should be considered only as an option of last resort. Similarly, GD’s calls to have Parliament choose the president (rather than have him or her directly elected, as is currently the case) are unnecessary at best and an early bid to consolidate power at worst. More generally, Georgia’s first steps in this new era should be toward the development of the liberal features of its democracy: it is essential that Tbilisi avoid the tendency toward illiberalism that has arisen among some democratically elected governments in Europe in recent years.
Of course, the October 8 elections were not only about GD and the UNM. The PA’s entry into Parliament is a modest one, but it represents a notable toehold for a group that has been on the rise since 2014, when it first participated in local elections. Still, the party will have little influence over a chamber dominated by GD and UNM deputies. Indeed, its six-member delegation will have a smaller voice in Parliament than other anti-Western factions have had in the past.
The decline in support for anti-Western groups in the elections was significant, but thanks to the effects of Georgia’s five percent electoral threshold, it was less pronounced than the PA’s weak showing would suggest. Georgia’s anti-Western parties, including the small coalition led by the pro-Russian former parliamentary leader Nino Burjanadze and the ex-GD factions the National Forum and the Industrialists, received some ten percent of the national proportional vote. That was a reduction of about five percent relative to the 2013 presidential election and, more important, a strong reversal in what appeared to be a multiyear trend that saw pro-Russian parties growing in strength. Burjanadze group’s poor performance was particularly striking: it commanded double-digit returns in 2013 and 2014, but this year, it won only some 3.5 percent of the vote. In the past, Burjanadze’s electoral successes have coincided with an advertising blitz in the final weeks of the campaign cycle, often linked to influxes of Russian money. Her anonymity this year might be a sign that Russia has diverted the lion’s share of its attention and resources away from Georgia for now.
As for Georgia’s small pro-Western parties, they are in a remarkably similar position as their anti-Western counterparts. Together, the European-style liberal Republican Party, the centrist Free Democrats, and the newcomers in the organization led by the opera singer Paata Burchuladze also secured around ten percent of the vote; the Free Democrats, with some 4.7 percent, came the closest to passing the parliamentary threshold. In other words, around 20 percent of Georgia’s voters refused to back either GD or the UNM. That is a sizable proportion, and it suggests that there is room for one of the big parties to make further gains or for an enterprising third party to consolidate a position of its own.
Georgia’s democracy, like many of its political parties, is on the verge of a new era. The best outcome would be continuity rather than change‑and for democratic constitutionalism to become the only arena for Georgian politics rather than one among many. As states around the world deal with democratic backsliding and populist surges, this may seem a long shot. But Georgia’s history is a case study in long shots, and the country is already beating the odds.