By Joseph Alexander Smith (Independent researcher and former political candidate)
Georgia’s fractious parliamentary elections will be hailed as a milestone by some, but they also reveal a deeply troubled society that is struggling to stay on the narrow path of peaceful democratic transition.
Preliminary results are in
Preliminary results in Georgia’s parliamentary elections give the ruling Georgian Dream party a comfortable lead over their main opposition rivals, the United National Movement. With almost 90% of polling stations counted, Georgian Dream has 48% of the vote and is leading in most single-mandate constituencies, meaning they could end up with around 90 out of the unicameral parliament’s 150 seats.
The country’s main opposition bloc, headed by the United National Movement (UNM), has around 27% of the proportional vote. The party was founded by pro-Western reformer, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, and ruled Georgia from 2004 to 2012.
Last night TV viewers in Georgia were treated to the bizarre spectacle of both the ruling party and the opposition celebrating victory, as partisan exit polls gave the opposition a greater share of the vote. The UNM has rejected the election result and is planning a rally in central Tbilisi for Sunday.
Although voting went off peacefully in the vast majority of polling stations, there are significant discrepancies in the vote tallies in some precincts, with officials failing to report significant numbers of votes cast. Election watchdogs have criticized the country’s Central Election Commission for its poor administration and late reporting of preliminary results.
Recently-adopted reforms favoring proportional representation mean that nine parties are set to enter parliament, resulting in the most pluralistic composition in years. But parties are going to have to work closely together on legislative initiatives – something which runs counter to Georgia’s highly-personalized and deeply-divisive political culture.
Finally, violence between political actors – a persistent feature of Georgian elections – marred polling day in several districts, and one opposition candidate was widely criticized after he was spotted carrying a gun near a polling station.
Crisis of representation
The political legitimacy of Georgian Dream has waned over their eight years in government. Sweeping to power at the head of a broad-based coalition in October 2012, Georgian Dream’s victory put paid to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Western-leaning reformer Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
The party is a creation of Georgia’s richest citizen – the billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili – whose net-worth of up to US$ 5 billion is roughly equivalent to half of the GDP of this small, ex-Soviet republic. After serving as Prime Minister for a year after Georgian Dream’s victory, Ivanishvili retreated into the shadows, but continued to steer the party’s decision-making from behind the scenes, allegedly dictating ministerial and other key appointments.
2019 saw unprecedented, sustained protests against the Georgian Dream government which resulted in promises of electoral reform. However, it seems that the Georgian Dream has managed to hold on to power by radically dichotomizing political life in the country, depicting itself as the only viable alternative to the discredited – and often hot-headed – opposition.
As such, the electoral campaign for 2020 looked much like the campaigns of the last 8 years or so. Despite the emergence of several new parties – mostly right-of-center economic liberals – Georgia’s deeply partisan media has helped sustain the status quo – as Georgian Dream tightens its grip on the country’s institutions, civil service and informational environment, the opposition is pushed towards increasingly extreme forms of protest, which in turn feed into the government’s narrative.
Unsurprisingly then, there were few debates about policy or ideology ahead of the elections – even the Covid-19 pandemic, the government’s handling of which earned it international praise in the early stages, provided less stimulus for debates about public health than it did occasion to trade childish barbs about who could have done it better.
Although electoral administration is generally good in Georgia, widespread discrepancies in final vote tallies in this year’s polls raise serious questions for the country’s elections authority. There are also disagreements about the legitimacy of a commonly-practiced form of mobilization, in which party representatives carry lists of their potential voters to polling stations and arrange for those who haven’t turned up to come out and vote. While the government claims this practice is perfectly legal, some leading election NGOs claim it is not. In the absence of a clear and definitive ruling, opposition leaders continue to claim that the vote is seriously compromised and confidence in the results is seriously undermined.
Where is Georgian democracy headed?
Georgia’s foreign partners – including the US and EU – have shown a keen interest in this year’s poll, and many will point to another (relatively) peaceful election and GD’s foreign policy course, which balances Western integration with limited engagement with Russia. But despite their warm platitudes and gentle chiding, it’s worth remembering that democracy is about far more than the outcome or conduct of elections.
Liberal democracy fundamentally rests on its institutions and in Georgia, these have only been partially reformed. While GD deserves recognition for tackling torture in prisons and the criminal justice system, prosecution is still used a tool of political repression and the country’s opaque security forces seem increasingly willing to engage in violent confrontations with protesters. The country’s partisan media thrives on division, and all of this means spaces for legitimate, non-violent contestation among Georgian citizens are shrinking.
Where institutions fail, violent forms of resolving differences can become entrenched. In late 2017, Georgians were shocked when a school brawl in Tbilisi ended in the fatal stabbing of two teenage boys. The case attracted further controversy when it was revealed that a relative of two boys involved in the brawl – a former employee of the Prosecutor’s Office – had attempted to interfere with evidence. Last year, a 19 year old footballer was killed in a violent brawl. Serious questions remain around the circumstances in which a teenager, suspected by security forces of involvement in terrorism, was shot dead in his bed unarmed.
Ten days before the election in Georgia, an armed individual entered a bank branch and held hostages for several hours, demanding US$500 000 in cash and a clear escape route. While all of the hostages were released unharmed after police handed over the cash, the suspect managed to escape and remains at large.
Lest we be too distracted by the polls, it’s worth remembering that some of the most violent countries in the world hold elections. Between 2007 and 2014, more people died violently in Mexico – a vibrant, upper middle-income democracy – than in Iraq and Afghanistan . Georgia is nowhere near becoming the next Brazil or Venezuela, but many of the same structural conditions that dragged these countries into the abyss – impunity, polarization and political violence – are all present in Georgia in one form or another. Countries don’t become lawless overnight, but the gentle erosion of institutional checks on violence often catches observers unawares.
The challenge for Georgia’s rulers now is to address these fundamental dysfunctions in the judiciary, the Prosecutor’s Office and the security services. A sense of impunity must be tackled and political rhetoric against opponents must be toned down. With confrontation brewing over the election results and the ruling party accepting victory as reward for a job well done, it’s unclear whether Georgia is ready to meet the very serious challenges that lie ahead.