Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s announcement that “the United National Movement moves into opposition” clearly signaled to the country and the world that power had changed through elections for the first time ever in the modern history of Georgia. In acknowledging defeat and ceding the reigns of rule before the final election tally, the United National Movement (UNM) moved quickly to ensure that the country would not face a political crisis.
The defeated UNM and the victorious Georgian Dream political coalition may still find it difficult to adjust fully to the new reality, especially after a long and divisive election campaign, but the successor authority has already been established. From now on, the responsibility for the majority of governmental spheres and, in general, for the fate of the country lies with the new majority in Parliament.
For the UNM, the time has come to analyze past mistakes and to formulate future plans. That must necessarily start with a close look at the election results. The ruling party lost the support of more than 200,000 voters in the October election, compared to 2008. Without question, the ranking of UNM was badly damaged with the release of video footage documenting the torture of prisoners; however, it would be incorrect to say that outrage over the prison scandal was the only reason that Georgian voters did not cast ballots for the ruling party. The government responded immediately to that shocking video footage and took decisive action to ensure appropriate remedial measures, but it still lost tens of thousands of its supporters. That indicates that the loss of support for the UNM has deeper roots.
UNM support had conventionally been divided into rural residents and the urban middle class. The results of the October election show that the government was able to hold on to its rural support, which provided UNM with enough votes to enter the Parliament as a strong opposition force. The change in power was caused by the defection of a large segment of the urban middle class to the opposition.
One could say that estrangement of the urban middle class from the UNM is related to values – or their loss. Well before the October election, urban voters had largely lost the sense that the government that came to power vowing freedom, personal dignity and human rights had remained loyal to those principles.
There were solid reasons for that disillusionment: After the state-of-emergency following the violent break-up of the opposition rally on 7 November 2007 and especially after the war with Russia in August 2008, the pace of reforms slackened significantly and values-oriented rhetoric gave way to populist pandering. Promises of increasingly more benefits kept perfect pace with public opinion polls. The government lavishly extended promises to the electorate. In the run up to the election, ruling party politicians spoke of affordable health care, larger pensions and agricultural development, including in cities where voters would not normally be interested in what single-seat candidates in their election districts planned to do out in the villages. Meanwhile, scarcely mentioned or completely ignored by the government were topics such as the need for independent courts, improved human rights and a pluralistic and diverse media environment.
Competitive populism was a losing game from the start for UNM, which was pitted against an opposition which ably deployed vast financial resources and a well-established philanthropic reputation without having the additional burden that UNM had of running the state too. At the end of the day, the government message-boxes were only good enough to preserve UNM rural support, but not nearly enough to win over city dwellers who needed proof that the government had stayed loyal to its principles.
Today, while mistakes are being analyzed, it would be beneficial for UNM leaders and supporters to take a long hard look at what the government did wrong and could have done right. Had the government done that earlier, accepted responsibility for those mistakes and corrected them, perhaps the political balance would not have changed at all.
But the moving finger has written and the country’s political life moves on. The former ruling party will now participate in that political life in a different capacity. UNM leaders say their participation in political processes will be quite active, all the more so given the experience of this team and its still-significant minority representation in the Parliament.
If it wants to contribute substantively to political life, the UNM will have to rehabilitate itself politically. To that end, any obstruction or sabotage of the new government would not be to its advantage. Judging by its public statements, the UNM does not intend to try that anyway. It needs instead to formulate an honest and pragmatic strategy which the team can follow step-by-step. The best weapon in the UNM arsenal right now is the use of the parliamentary rostrum to voice constructive criticism.
Constructive criticism, not obstructionism, is necessary for the well-being of ongoing political processes in the country. The UNM needs to avoid the type of ambush attacks and aggressive antagonism which characterized the election campaign of its former opposition and the new authority. And just as the UNM opposition cannot turn a blind eye to its past errors, the new government needs to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor.
We have learned during these past two decades that the fate of the country is decided not by some heaven-sent angel, but rather by checking, balancing and counterbalancing deficient and very flawed forces. What has happened may be unprecedented in Georgia, but it is not unique in the world. In many countries, presidents and parliamentary majorities representing different political forces manage to coexist peacefully even in regimes of extreme opposition. Surely, Georgia can do that too.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 117, published 8 October 2012.