[Editor’s Note: This blog entry follows up on the author’s E-Note “Of Georgian Personalities and Politics: European Dreams, National Elections, and Future Days” that appeared on October 7, 2016.]
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) electoral bloc appears to have won a 49% plurality in the October 8 parliamentary elections. There will be up to 51 runoff elections—slated for probably October 30—for majoritarian candidates who failed to win 50%. While Georgian voter turnout declined from 61% in 2012 to 52% in 2016, barring unforeseen circumstances, the GD will likely achieve a constitutional majority, with or without the votes of the xenophobic Alliance of Patriots, Ivanishvili’s personally favored position. They hover around the 5% threshold at the time of writing, so they could qualify for a six-member faction. Misha Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) remains the main opposition party with 27% of the vote. In the autonomous region of Adjara, former Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze’s pro-Russian party, Democratic Movement United Georgia, will join GD, UNM, and the Alliance of Patriots on the governing Adjara Supreme Council.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, UNM has refuted the findings of domestic and international observation that the elections were adequately conducted in a competitive environment. Although a number of concerns were noted by both sets of observation groups, they were not deemed as sufficient to alter the election’s outcome, and the results aligned with the parallel vote tabulation (PVT) conducted by the International Society of Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED). If UNM limits its challenge of the results to holding party rallies, press conferences, and pursuing all procedurally and legally available avenues, then that is entirely within their purview as the leading opposition party in the country with significant electoral support. However, if UNM is to deny the legitimacy of the elections and refuse to sit in Parliament as the opposition parties did in 2008 (in defiance of international observation findings), or pursue actions to usurp duly elected government bodies (as GD did with municipal governments after the 2012 parliamentary elections, well ahead of the 2014 elections), that would be problematic because without UNM, there is no pro-West opposition to the GD—only the pro-Russian parties of the Alliance of Patriots and Burjanadze’s United Georgia.
Now that Georgian Dream has real potential to achieve a constitutional majority, the question of how they would use that power comes to the forefront. Perhaps the most immediate question is whether or not they will dispense with majoritarian representation in Parliament, the existence of which currently is the basis for their constitutional majority prospects. Majoritarian seats make up 73 of the 150 seats in Georgia’s Parliament. In 2015, the GD proposed a constitutional amendment to eliminate majoritarian seats in 2020, rather than in this year’s elections because according to party leaders, “while Georgian Dream is in power, the Georgian political system will achieve in coming years the level of development, which is necessary for prevention of difficulties associated with introduction of fully proportional electoral system.” Presumably, these difficulties included holding onto a parliamentary majority, which they cannot do without their anticipated majoritarian runoff victories. GD maneuverings around majoritarian seats last year clearly demonstrate that they knew they were in trouble at the time. These moves may have contributed to its disbandment as a part of an initial strategy to better absorb voters who had been disaffected from Bidzina Ivanishvili, but uncertain about voting for UNM. This further explains the GD relationship with the Alliance as well as possibly newer, anti-Western parties that withdrew as the election drew closer, then declared themselves for Ivanishvili/GD—possibly to undermine any effort of Shalva Natelashvili’s Labor party to cross the threshold and limit the potential of Burjanadze’s party. In conjunction with its constitutional proposal last year, GD also passed legislation changing the percentage necessary to win a majoritarian seat from 30% to 50%, which will add to its advantages going into the runoff elections. This proposal was opposed by fourteen opposition parties, except the Alliance. NGOs, such as ISFED, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), and Transparency International (TI), have also opposed this proposal. It should be noted that dispensing with majoritarian seats and moving to an all proportional system was opposed by UNM when they were in power.
The more immediate concerns in the aftermath of these elections are related to UNM’s protests. To what extent is UNM willing to push their grievances about the election results and what role will law enforcement play in the GD government’s response to UNM? The pre-election declarations of Misha Saakashvili—the UNM leader in Ukrainian exile—that the exit poll of Rustavi-2 television, which is editorially aligned with UNM, would be more accurate than the results of the Central Elections Commission heightened the potential for denying the outcome. Having set those expectations among their supporters, a solid quarter or so of all voters who have consistently backed UNM against GD in the three consecutive elections since 2012, may have its leaders in Georgia attempting to find a path that reassures those voters that they still have effective advocates for their interests.
Leading up to the elections, audio tapes of Misha Saakashvili allegedly speaking with UNM leaders about plotting a popular uprising were made public. While Saakashvili and UNM have denied the authenticity of those tapes, they came only months after a prior leak of tapes of a similar nature: Saakashvili instructing UNM party leader Giga Bokeria and Rustavi2 director Nika Gvaramia to use violence if necessary to protect the station from a possible court decision to change the station’s ownership, a case that even non-UNM supporters see as politicized. Two weeks before the audio tapes even surfaced on a Ukrainian website and three weeks before the election, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili accused UNM of planning to “radicalize [the] situation,” while insisting that he was under no obligation to provide any evidence of this accusation. In the aftermath of UNM MP Givi Targamadze’s car exploding in Tbilisi, injuring several bystanders and four days before the election, Kvirikashvili immediately implied that UNM was responsible. He made this statement before an investigation was launched, and then the day before the election, information was leaked to Imedi television, which has an editorial policy favoring GD, claiming that the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs had “solved” the case without providing details.
Under both, UNM’s and GD’s rule in Georgia, there has been a long history of suspicious cases, seemingly intended to further political narratives rather than reflect actual events. Many NGOs and international organizations were suspicious about UNMs involvement in the Kurcha shooting incident in 2008 and another pre-election alleged “terrorist attack” near the Abkhazia administrative boundary line (ABL) in 2012. Similar suspicious incidents have been pursued by GD with cases such as the allegation that UNM was responsible for the death of the Rapaliantsi child the day before the 2012 election, and the seemingly perpetual investigation based on the GD narrative that UNM killed former Prime Minister and Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution ally, Zurab Zhvania. GD MP Giorgi Zhvania, Zurab’s brother, and other GD leaders have repeatedly claimed that a new development will occur in the investigation despite the fact that the body was never exhumed to ascertain a cause of death other than the original determination of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The investigation originally arrived at this finding in part through assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. The Georgian government’s failure to take significant action following the Korskheli beatings of UNM leaders does little to increase confidence thus far that GD is interested in fundamentally discontinuing one of the worst elements of UNM’s legacy.
As Georgia moves onto the final phase of its parliamentary elections and beyond, possibly transitioning from the one party rule of UNM in 2008 to one party rule under GD, both major parties will have to find a way to transcend the bitter personal rivalry of Bidzina Ivanishvili (GD) and Misha Saakashvili (UNM) in order to achieve further progress towards the nation’s democratic and European aspirations. GD Party Secretary and incoming MP Irakli Kobakhidze has said that even with a constitutional majority, GD will seek consensus with opposition parties. Coming from a man who has likened UNM members to Fascists and given its titular leader’s expressed preference for anti-Western parties over UNM, this could either be a potential opening for an unprecedented collaborative process between the opposition and ruling parties, or the equivalent of a head fake in order to lay the predicate for empowering the Alliance and Burjanadze against their mutual enemy, the UNM. Regardless, Georgia’s ability to move forward and continue—if not possibly increase—progress tackling the difficult challenges that lay ahead: transcending zero sum politics, implementing further electoral reforms, de-politicizing judicial and law enforcement institutions, improving relations with Russia, and integrating itself more with the West may depend on what Prime Minister Kvirikashvili chooses to do and whether he can move away from the shadow of Bidzina Ivanishvili.