The Georgian Electoral Dilemma

Karlo Godoladze

The key essence, the very mission of democratic elections as an institution is nothing more than the recognition of legitimacy. Mankind has not yet devised a better solution for the practical enforcement of sovereignty. Consequently, the main definition of any democracy becomes related to the very act of elections themselves, and the securing of legitimacy through political and legal protocols. Regardless of the system through which the election system is enforced, legitimization is, in any case, a key challenge that triggers endless debates and, in many cases, political antagonism in several state systems.

Having mentioned the key mission of elections, let's move on to the problems and difficulties that emerge in the process, especially in such nations where state institutions either do not exist or are very weak – with the consequence that public trust towards them is very low and fragile. In this regard, the situation is very unfavorable for those systems undergoing the very difficult processes of transition and institution building. No one would argue that today these states are doomed to failure in their efforts to build statehood if they are not able to first establish such fundamental institutions.

The key, fundamental challenge in such countries, which include Georgia, is related to the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of elections. The history of elections in Georgia shows the unfortunate truth that, with the (pleasant) exception of the parliamentary elections of October 2012, political actors have always questioned the results of elections. Moreover, after the 2008 parliamentary elections, the opposition of the time went to such lengths as to publicly renounce their mandates to join parliament. Such an act would be an anomaly for any democratic system, which is why foreign politicians and diplomats back then were unable to understand why some Georgian politicians took such an extreme step. I will refrain from discussing here how the Georgian opposition of that time "benefited," in terms of political dividends, from such "original" behavior.

Consequently, it is clear that election results and their recognition by every main political force remains a problem. Along with the change of political elites, the issue of manipulating the electoral system is always topical, and this will remain the case in the upcoming Georgian presidential elections. The key challenges for the nascent Georgian state will prove to be the recognition of the rules of the game and the acknowledgment of the results. It is difficult to imagine now how events will unfold, but given that the presidential candidate of the ruling political coalition is not viewed as being a clear-cut leader, one may assume that regardless of what happens, certain political forces will inevitably question the final results of the election.
What is the possible solution to this situation? A clear cut answer to this question does not exist; that depends on the maturity of the political spectrum and, on the other hand, on public opinion and the means of shaping it. Coming back to the extreme measures taken after the 2008 parliamentary elections, there were groups in society who sincerely believed in the righteousness of the step taken by the opposition parliament deputies to decline their places in parliament, though later everyone saw that the effect of their doing so was nil.
Thus, the role of society itself and its level of awareness are of vital importance. We must assume that Georgian society as a unity and more importantly, as a political and legal unity, has grown, at least a little. Consequently, public opinion will not necessarily be positive about those political actors who constantly strive for de-legitimization and confrontation. Despite a whole number of difficulties, an analysis of Georgia's recent past provides grounds to say that it is possible to restrict processes with minimal rules for the game. What's more important, such restrictions somewhat reflect the attitudes of a significant segment of society.

There are some factors, however, that cannot and will not facilitate the conduct of the process in a legal and legitimate way. A clear example of one such factor is the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the processes related to it. As could well have been expected, the CEC's chairman, Zurab Kharatishvili, stepping down a little more than two months before the presidential election has already become laden with political connotations. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to neutralize such a belief, especially in an environment in which political forces have to distribute political dividends. While this step might have been quite ordinary in a normal democratic environment, the picture in Georgia is radically different. As expected, political parties and experts have already started arguing about the topic of the final legitimization of the election results. This topic will likely remain on the current political agenda for quite some time, especially considering that the former CEC chairman has since openly declared his intention to enter politics.

Freedom of choice is a guaranteed constitutional principle and an inseparable human right, but given the existing reality, the motivation for the ex-CEC chairman to step down just as the election campaigns were gaining momentum, and to do so leaving many question marks about political insinuations, seems unclear to say the least. Any decision-maker must take into account that in such a case escaping responsibility is not a solution. It is difficult to say how the former CEC chairman will now contribute to Georgian politics, but it is doubtful that his contribution will be greater than that which he would have made by ensuring the transparent administration of the election process in his former post – especially given the fact that he had previously administered the parliamentary elections that resulted in an unprecedented democratic change of power in which the legitimacy of the results were unquestioned (save for by a few marginal political figures).

The key political and legal challenge for the Georgian state is the establishment of principles for continuity in the change of power through the routine path of elections. In some regards the first step has already been taken, but when past political experiences are considered, the "October parliamentary saga" of last year remains the exception rather than the rule. It is still premature to assume that any future change of power will necessarily happen through elections. The legitimacy dilemma thus continues to exist in Georgia's political space.

Georgian society and Georgia's political elite still have much to learn and master. There is no doubt that the 2012 parliamentary elections do not fit into the pattern of Georgian electoral history. With the ruling political force of that time acknowledging the legitimacy of the process upon having received the first results and indicators, and, soon after, with the acknowledgement of the legality of the process being received from international actors, the parliamentary elections saw a change of power through the fundamental instrument of democracy for the first time in the history of Georgian republicanism. Despite the many loaded discussions of supporters and critics, this, at the very least, reflects a level of elementary accountability and transparency, though it is certainly still evolving.

As modern analysts and researchers contend, decision makers are fond of learning about expected political results in advance. This, however, creates a problem: political populism and the ruinous effect it has on the election environment. In this regard, the Georgian political spectrum faces serious challenges – both the ruling and opposition forces must realize they have a political and legal responsibility to reject undue confrontation once and for all. Otherwise, the Georgian electoral system will continue to face the dilemma of legitimacy, which would mean that Georgian society is incapable of learning from its own experience and past mistakes, let alone those of others. What the lot of such a society would be, needs no further elaboration.


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