What Did UNM Do Wrong?

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“Saakashvili’s government betrayed ideals of the Rose Revolution.”

Anonymous democrat
 

“Saakashvili made many mistakes during those eight years. Why on earth have you now decided to correct those mistakes? Could you not make yet another mistake?”

Presenter of “The Vano’s Show” satirical program aired on Rustavi 2 TV

 

That the United National Movement (UNM) was defeated in the parliamentary elections must mean that it did something wrong. Right? Had it not made mistakes, it would have won the elections. Wouldn’t it? To answer those questions, we must now analyze UNM mistakes carefully so that the new government and the rest of us can learn valuable lessons for the future.

Hold on a minute. Let’s first specify which is more important to know for the future: What the UNM generally did wrong when it was running the government? Or what particular mistakes led the UNM to lose the elections and control of the government?

People often do not – or cannot – differentiate between those two questions. Perhaps that is because they think that a government that does everything right will always be re-elected by the people. But is that really so?

Ideological Criticism

In identifying what the government generally did (or did not do) “wrong,” each of us is influenced by our own political convictions. For example, award-winning journalist Levan Sutidze opines in Tabula magazine that the UNM should have been more consistent and should have defended its principled position more strongly rather than slackening the pace of reform after the violent break-up of the opposition rally on 7 November 2007. Sutidze believes that mistake was compounded when the ruling party thereafter rushed headlong into a populist race to win votes by distributing absolutely senseless government vouchers and to secure the favorable disposition of the Church through state budget allocations, etcetera. At the end of the day, UNM populism did not work.

Such criticism echoes my own personal view. The course favored by Tabula magazine, its columnists (including myself) and the majority of its readers is the synthesis of economic and social liberalism. In implementing those principles, the UNM was superior to its political opponents. After 2007, however, it allowed too many concessions and was too quick to compromise. In the opinion of some critics, the longing of UNM to retain power propelled it to great lengths, engendered some undemocratic behavior and, ultimately, squandered its moral and intellectual imperative.

Supporters (or erstwhile supporters) of the National Movement include people with different priorities as well. They favor a viable non-corrupt state, equality for minorities and law and order, but they regard dogmatic economic libertarianism as a mistake of the government. The UNM should have taken care of those priorities much earlier and in a more consistent way (and not in the form of those silly vouchers). Why is it not possible to develop a market economy and, at the same time, to establish social guarantees as the Europeans do?

Others may say that, even though its achievements are very important, the UNM should not have damaged relations with the Church and, in general, it should have refrained from excessively defending those values which were strange for the majority of the population. If economic liberals manage to coexist with social conservatives in the United States in a coalition called the Republican Party, why could that not be done in Georgia?

So on and so forth go the post-election musings about what the UNM did wrong. But which of the listed criticisms indeed constitutes an outcome-determinative “mistake”? We will never be able to gauge that accurately because supporters of different ideologies will never come to terms with one other.

What Wins Elections?

By narrowing the question to what strategy might have ensured the government’s victory in the parliamentary elections, the dispute takes on a qualitatively different form.

As the experience of democracy has shown, electoral success is not associated at all with whether or not a political party is consistent in its policy. Quite the contrary, a team which tries uncompromisingly to impose principles of economic and social liberalism would never win elections in modern Georgia (and not only there!). It is even questionable whether such a team would be able to clear the five-percent minimum hurdle necessary to enter the Parliament.

The prerequisite for political success is creation of the optimal political package: It must champion values in which the political party believes but, at the same time, it must also calculate what the society will buy at any given moment. Ideological consistency alone produces proud marginals whereas political pliability without principles produces corrupt opportunists and disloyal turncoats. One needs creativity to combine principles and pragmatism. That is precisely why politics is more an art than a science.

Saakashvili succeeded in coming to power, staying there for nine years and achieving quite a lot during that period. In the estimation of Thomas de Waal, one of Saakashvili’s Western critics, the Georgian President was able to do that because he managed to be whatever the people wanted him to be: a democrat; a nationalist; an implementer of strict order; a helper of the vulnerable; a defender of minorities.

Formula for Enduring Success?

Could Saakashvili have continued in that vein for much longer? Many (including this columnist) thought that the National Movement government could last for decades. That proved to be an illusion.

Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it is less surprising that UNM lost the elections than the fact that it managed to stay in power for as long as it did. Over the years, every government accumulates “mistakes” (real or perceived) and causes some dissatisfaction which leads to other causes of dissatisfaction. Tiring of the old is also a natural syndrome. One easily gets used to good things; rather than gratitude to the UNM government for improving their quality of life, people tired of being reminded that there were severe shortages of electricity and rampant corruption in the pre-UNM past.

Voters are notoriously fickle in the new post-communist democracies, where consecutive election victories are an exceedingly rare occurrence. Presumably, that is because expectations which new democratic societies have of their governments are unrealistically high. When a new democratic order fails to settle all their problems, voters quickly sour on the incumbent government on which they had once pinned all their hopes. It is especially difficult for a reformist government to remain popular, given the many drastic and sometimes painful steps it has to take to move ahead.

The UNM government’s unwitting ally for quite a long time was its immature opposition, which seemed single-mindedly resolved to repeat, by hook or by crook, the Rose Revolution. That folly only reinforced the arrogance which had characterized the National Movement from the very start: “We are better than the opposition!” The political emergence of billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili did not immediately threaten the ruling party’s feeling of invincibility. That was not without good reason – the new opposition promised people nothing but a dream. And what else? Ivanishvili changed two things: (1) he rejected the prospect of revolution and (2) he brought in a whole lot of money. That combination proved sufficient.

Clearly, Saakashvili’s team made a number of mistakes in fighting against Ivanishvili’s team. Stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship and imposing huge fines on him were political miscalculations. It hardly mattered whether or not the UNM government did what was legally right; what mattered was that Ivanishvili acquired moral superiority in voters’ eyes. It was also a mistake, in principle, to portray Ivanishvili as Russia’s stooge. Those who believed that were going to vote for the National Movement anyway, but undecided voters were turned off by what they saw as an unsubstantiated allegation without corroborating proof. Excessive reliance on public opinion polls was yet another mistake. True, the majority was rightly concerned about economic issues rated high in the polls, but it should not have ignored even that small stratum of people which had a disproportionately large influence on the public opinion. And, of course, there was the failure to heed warning signals about abuse in the prisons. That was also the result of looking exclusively at external surveys and listening to focus-groups rather than focusing on internal problems and finding ways to fix them.

Is Democracy a Core Mistake?

But none of that is the fundamental cause of the National Movement’s loss of power. Sometimes democratic governments are defeated simply because the society is ready for a change; it does not (always) depend on sins or mistakes of the government.

The recent parliamentary election outcome in Georgia has shown that, despite the authoritarian proclivities of the UNM government and the lack of a fully formed democratic political culture in the society, Georgia is still basically a democracy. The only sure-fired way of retaining power for a long period is through authoritarianism. Yet, as the Arab Spring has shown, authoritarianism does not work indefinitely either even though it can last for decades. Some frustrated Saakashvili supporters are now saying that the Georgian President should have taken a page out of the playbook of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and established himself as “Pinochetashvili.” But Saakashvili either could not or would not become such an amalgamation.

Indeed. But let’s note one more thing: Supporters of a “Pinochetashvili” regime also contend that Ivanishvili needed to be prevented from coming to power in order to maintain the European choice. Sorry, but here there is an internal inconsistency in logic. Whether you like it or not, Pinochetashvilis are not welcome in Twenty-First-Century Europe (in contrast to their dominance in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries). If he had wanted to stay in power indefinitely, Saakashvili would have primarily had to get on friendly terms with Vladimir Putin. By making nice with the Russian leader, Saakashvili would have made many Germans and French happy and may have averted an election loss. Not doing so was the fundamental “mistake.”

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 119, published 22 October 2012.

 

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