Parliamentary Elections in Georgia

A few days ago, the Georgian population elected a portion of the 9th parliament since the country’s independence. In more than 50 single-member districts a second round of elections is scheduled.

A few days ago, the Georgian population elected a portion of the 9th parliament since the country’s independence. (In more than 50 single-member districts a second round of elections is scheduled.) The October elections were the first after the enactment of constitutional changes in 2013, which transformed Georgia into a semi-presidential republic - a system of governance where the prime-minister, who is elected by the parliament, holds a more influential position than the president [1].

In the October 8th parliamentary elections only three political organizations were able to cross the 5% threshold required for entering the parliament.  The ruling party, Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia is in the leading position, with almost 50% of the votes.  The ‘United National Movement,’ a party founded by the ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, managed to maintain the status of the strongest opposition party, with over 27% of the votes.  The third party to enter Parliament, with exactly 5% of the votes, is the three year old Patriots’ Alliance of Georgia. No other political entity was able to clear the 5% threshold. The voter turnout was about 51%, which is 8% lower compared to the turnout of the previous election.          

What are the ideological positions of the parties that now comprise the Georgian parliament? What were the reasons for the failure of the parties that did not make it into the parliament? What transformations can we observe and what challenges does Georgia face after the elections?

General overview of the political landscape and the parties that could not clear the threshold

The Georgian political landscape is especially fragmented. One sign of fragmentation is the quantity of political parties, united under various fractions, in the previous parliament. In the legislative body, elected in 2012, there were 7 such fractions. In addition to fragmentation, another characteristic of the Georgian political system is the orientation towards a strong leader. Political actors often change their preferences according to the decisions of specific charismatic leaders. Accordingly, the process of party reorganization is rather dynamic. It would be fair to say that, in Georgia, we encounter political groupings that are based more on charismatic leadership and cliantelistic approaches than on concrete ideologies and programmatic plans [2].

Another characteristic of the political life of Georgia is the instability of the party based system. For example, we can cite the fact that from 1992 to 2016 there have been 8 parliamentary elections in Georgia, and after each one those political groups came to power, which did not exist during the preceding election cycle.

From the economic standpoint, we can observe a near universalization of ideas amongst the chief actors participating in Georgian elections.  Amongst the top 5 parties in the election there is a consensus regarding deregulation of the economy, lowering of taxes, and the liberalization of legislation.  For the same top 5 parties the establishment of a progressive tax system and the regulation of large scale business enterprises constitute a near heresy.  The separation of parties along the political spectrum is made possible mostly through foreign policy approaches and the NATO-Russia dichotomy.   

What can be said about the parties that have cleared the threshold?

Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia

Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia was founded in 2012, by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. Party activists are united mostly in loyalty to its founder.  Since the 90s, mostly through his own bank and charitable foundation, Ivanishvili has been financially supporting numerous representatives from the fields of sports, sciences, arts and culture.  As a result, amongst the party supporters there is a noticeable presence of the representatives of the so called ‘intelligentsia,’ elite social strata created during the Soviet period, which survives to this day.  In the ranks of the party there are also significant numbers of medium and large business owners.  It is also noteworthy that prior to the elections many technocrats, mostly with Western educations, joined the party.  The leaders of the ruling party, the acting Prime Minister, Kvirikashvili, and Deputy Prime Minister, Qumsashvili, held white collar positions at Ivanishvili’s Bank, prior to entering the political arena.   

It could be concluded that almost half of the population of Georgia voted for a party of nomenclature, public servants, ‘intelligentsia’, medium and large businessmen, and technocrats – a party, which is held together through loyalty to its charismatic leader and the opposition to the government of the ‘Rose Revolution.’

United National Movement

The United National Movement earned more than a quarter of the cast votes. It can be classified as the party of the former elite and nomenclature. During the active rule of the party (2003-2013) the basic ideological vectors of the UNM took shape.  On the one hand, the UNM passed the ‘Economic Freedom Act’, created the unregulated free market conditions for foreign investors, defeated corruption at the lower bureaucratic levels, aided in the creation of an effective public services sector, and on the other hand, it established the strictest form of social authoritarianism, a politics of ‘zero tolerance,’ and a politicized police force. During the party’s rule, Georgia was in one of the leading positions in Europe in terms of the number of incarcerated people in the country. The inhuman conditions and instances of torture in the penitentiary system went beyond critical levels. Another failure of the UNM is connected to the break-down of peaceful politics in the period preceding the war of 2008.  Despite such a past, the party of the ex-president manages to accrue dividends from the experience gained in the period of its rule and its pro-Western rhetoric. It is also noteworthy that after the political defeat in the 2012 elections the composition of party leadership has not changed.

Patriots’ Alliance of Georgia

The election of the Patriots’ Alliance of Georgia into the parliament caused a great deal of consternation for Georgian liberals. The alliance is an ultra-conservative and nationalistic force. The party could be considered a part of the same global trend, which includes Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pegida, and other right-wing populist movements. The success of the PAG can be partly attributed to the operation of the TV and radio station ‘Obiektivi.’  Since 2010, from the platform of this station, the leaders of the PAG have been addressing the Georgian population for hours, every day, with simple and direct language. This strategy can be termed as ‘Radio Evangelism [3].’ The idea, much like for the American TV/Radio evangelists, is to spread and promote their agenda within various layers of society. That the PAG represents a dangerous development can be substantiated with their rhetoric on the connection between genetics and politics, their anti-Turkish appeals, and vague positions regarding the foreign policy of the country.  It is noteworthy that the gender balance is observed within the ranks of this radical right-wing party. Of the 6 PAG parliamentarians 3 are women and 3 are men.

It can be said that of the three political forces, which have gained a seat in the Georgian parliament, the first is an eclectic party of uncertain aims, united through the charisma of its leader; the second is a party with a history of liberal authoritarianism, and the third is a party of a radical rightist discourse. Not a single liberal-democratic, leftist, or green political group will be represented in the parliament.    

What prevented other political actors from entering the legislative body?

On October 8th, two, traditionally liberal, pro-European parties, the Free Democrats and the Republicans, could not clear the 5% threshold, which will undoubtedly harm and impoverish the Georgian political landscape. The defeat of the liberal parties can be attributed to several factors:

  1. Both of the liberal parties used to be a part of the Ivanishvili coalition. Members of both parties were appointed to high ranking executive and legislative positions. In this period, they were often forced to compromise and overlook their own agendas, which led to a number of questions in the electorate.
  2. ‘Ideological twins,’ two parties with near identical priorities, were not able to overcome the tendency towards fragmentation, in order to unite and participate in the election with a joint list. Had they united, presumably, they could have cleared the threshold. (Free democrats received 4.6% of the vote and the Republicans – 1.5%)    
  3. The financial donations of the parties that could not clear the barrier were significantly lower compared to the parties that entered the parliament. Inequality of resources between political actors played a significant role in the results of the election.
  4. Almost 30% of the population of the country demands to be listed in the database of people living below the poverty line. It appears that the social programs of the liberal parties were either unclear or unacceptable for a sizable portion of the electorate. During their campaigns the liberal parties focused more on questions of state structures, national security, and foreign policy. In short, there was a failure in communication between the parties and the voters.   
  5. The two largest parties in the country (Georgian Dream and the United National Movement) and their leaders built their campaigns on fierce opposition to each other.  This strategy served to marginalize other political actors and effectively strengthened the creation of a two-party system in Georgia.

The main challenges of the post-election period

Georgia has a mixed electoral system typical for post-Soviet transitional regimes [4]. 77 parliament members are elected through proportional representation, while 73 members are elected in single-seat constituencies.  From 2003 to 2012, 95% of the single-seat members were representatives of the ruling party. In the years of the UNM rule, the party managed to reach a constitutional super majority due to the number of single-seat members. Today, Georgian Dream has a highly realistic chance of reaching constitutional super majority. The ruling party has already gained 20 single-seat positions, and is leading in the second round of elections in most of the districts that required run offs. A danger remains that the ruling party might follow in the footsteps of Saakashvili and Putin. (After the September Duma elections, Putin’s party also gained a super-majority through single-seat members.) Such a tendency could be observed immediately following the elections, when instead of commencing with a discussion on the merits of constitutional reform, the leaders of the Georgian Dream focused on limiting the power of an ‘unacceptable’ head of state, and brought up the possibility of doing away with direct elections for the position of the president. A serious risk, of having all forms of power concentrated within a single political camp, is emerging.                

If in the previous parliament there were about 7 independent political forces represented, in this parliament there are only three parties capable of forming a fraction.  It is worth noting one more time, that the parliament will lack leftists, greens, and liberals, who are unaccountable to Bidzina Ivanishvili.  The quantitative and qualitative reduction in pluralism is difficult to miss. 49% of the population did not participate in the elections. Parties that garnered the votes of 17-20% of participating voters failed to gain a seat in parliament. Naturally, such circumstances make it possible to question the legitimacy of the legislative body. Georgian Dream has a chance at obtaining a super majority at the expense of support from only a third of the total number of voters.       

Therefore, Georgia once again faces the dangers of the concentration of absolute power within the ranks of a single party, the failure of the political system to adequately represent the country’s population, and the possibility of a resulting crisis of legitimacy. However, it should also be noted that, compared to the last decade, Georgian society is much more experienced and capable of resisting antidemocratic tendencies.

We must keep in mind that Georgia is a post-Soviet state adjacent to the chaos of Syria, uncertainty of Ukraine, tensions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Shiite fundamentalism of Iran, authoritarianism of Turkey, and aggressive imperialism of Russia.  Despite all, Georgia holds a leading position in the region where the quality of democracy in concerned.     ___________________________________________________________________  

[1] Richard Stacey and Sujit Choudhry, Semi-Presidential Government in the Post-Authoritarian Context, 2014, Center for Constitutional Transitions at NYU Law, pp. 4-11

[2] Kitschelt, Formation of Party Cleavages in Post-Communist Democracies, 1995, SAGE Publications

[3] Radio Evangelism in Action, Various Authors, Ministry magazine,… (ბოლოს ნანახია 10.10.2016)

[4] Jack Bielasiak, The Institutionalization of Electoral and Party Systems in Postcommunist States, Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 2002), pp. 189-210