This article is part of the serie “Eastern neighborhood: the silent consolidation of authoritarianism”. Pieces on elections in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine can be found here.
Elections in Georgia surpassed expectations. The climate of polarisation that preceded election day laid the foundation for contested results and a prolonged stalemate. None of this happened. On the contrary, the ruling party admitted defeat and did not call demonstrations. Georgia’s parliamentary elections were won by the opposition (55% of votes, 84 out of 150 seats), incarnated by the Georgian Dream coalition. This came without violence, which is indeed unprecedented in Georgia since its independence. The de facto one-party rule in Georgia and the worrying authoritarian inclinations of the Saakashvili era came to an end. As such, elections in Georgia sent an important signal elsewhere in the Post-Soviet space and came to the great satisfaction of international organisations promoting democratic standards.
Why did the opposition stand the chance to win this time?
Elections did not come without irregularities and money played a critical role. The considerable flow of money in the campaign set the scene for unfair competition on the side of the opposition. However, without the Georgian Dream leader’s resources, it would be hardly imaginable that the opposition would stand a chance in the elections. In turn, the governing party effectively used state resources against the newly-united opposition.
In terms of campaigning, the ruling party relied on its anti-Russia rhetoric to discredit the Georgian Dream, however the latter’s promise to re-establish trade and cultural relations with Russia appealed to many. A turning point may have been the prison scandal - the release of video footage showing abuse and torture of prisoners - a longstanding issue in Georgia, which forced the prison officials and interior minister to resign. This put in evidence the gap between the image of a democratic and modern Georgia promoted abroad and the reality on the ground. Only time will tell how the multi-faceted Georgian Dream coalition will handle Georgia’s complex environment and whether it will eventually implode. In addition to domestic challenges, the coalition should work on establishing constructive relations with Russia, which will be critical for managing the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This would make a considerable difference comparing to predecessors and the West should provide its full support.
New leadership, a new Constitution and new challenges
The new Constitution, which moves Georgia from presidentialism to a parliamentary regime, was seen as a Putin-style reform and an attempt by President Saakashvili to cling onto power. Until the Constitution enters into force, a cohabitation between a strong President and a strong Prime Minister will pose a new set of challenges. Presidential elections should be held before the end of 2013 and the exact time is currently subject to intense bargaining. The cohabitation will not produce a clash of ideologies, as the election showed there are none, but rather fuel a temptation towards retribution. The line between accountability and retribution is indeed very thin. Perceptions in the West will continue to be based on the skillful communication efforts led by both sides. For this purpose, both sides will try to establish themselves as the sole protectors of Euro-Atlantic integration in the country. In this sense, the EU and US play a central role and they should use their strong leverage for the best.
As for elections, managing the coexistence of the new majority with the president’s party and preventing a descent into chaos will depend primarily on Western diplomacies. In this sense, one can praise the positive role played by the EU and the US prior to elections. However, the staunch defense of one party over the other will not prove to be in anyone’s interest. There is still a strong tendency to export Georgian politics abroad and to instrumentalise external actors for domestic purposes. Eventually, domestic and external actors will have a shared responsibility in making Georgia a success for the sake of national and regional stability. As President Saakashvili recently put it “Georgia is a laboratory for the region”.