Elections

From November to October

Sandro Tarkhan-Mouravi
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W e have grown rather accustomed to repeatedly hearing assessments like "the first ever really democratic and free election in the history of Georgia," and the recent presidential election held on 27 October was no exception in this regard.

Was the 27 October election better than all previous ones? Maybe. In certain directions, we have indeed made significant headway.

Do we have grounds to congratulate one another on the establishment of democracy? Not yet. Democracy still remains a desired goal, something we wish for when proposing toasts.
It may appear paradoxical, but the loud and exaggerated assessments of our elections are a precise result of our, as yet, unformed democracy. We still find it difficult to believe that the run up and conduct of elections can occur without significant violations. Therefore, when assessing elections we still have past violations and vote rigging at the forefront of our minds. Of course minimizing violations is both needed and necessary, however, being occupied with thoughts about election rigging, we fail to develop a clear understanding of the other conditions necessary for a successful democracy.

If one were to try and describe the difference between a properly established democracy and an authoritative regi me in a single word, the best choice would be the word "competition." Stable competition between different political forces, nothing more, is the flesh and blood of democracy.

What do we specifically mean by competition? Each and every election that has been held in independent Georgia was, without exception, conducted under conditions of active antagonism. Nevertheless, in most cases, the victor had, to a greater or lesser extent, been "predetermined." Out of the six presidential elections conducted thus far, the winners of the first four received two third or more of the votes. Against this backdrop, President Giorgi Margvelashvili's result of 62 percent, looks modest. However, even this result exceeds the highest indicator ever received by any candidate in the US presidential elections (at least since such results were first recorded in 1824).

Georgian analysts are prone to attribute such "unanimity" to the characteristic qualities of the nation (including emotionality and leader-mania). The main political reason, however, is much simpler: the absence of strong and stable parties.

Mikheil Saakashvili casting his vote in the 2004 presidential election. Photo: Reuters
It would be naïve to attribute the 96 percent of votes received by former President Mikheil Saakashvili in the 2004 election to leader-mania alone, especially bearing in mind that none of his rivals were backed by a political force of even minor weight.

No matter how gross the violations in the presidential elections of 1995 and 2000 were, the victory of Eduard Shevardnadze in those elections was an absolutely natural outcome. The rivalry of two former first secretaries of the Georgian Communist Party could have been tenser had the Unity party of Jumber Patiashvili been a real political party and not just a three-percent rating fiction that hinged on one person alone.

It is important to recognize the difference between strong, stable political parties and ephemeral one-time parties and election blocs. The existence of serious political parties and competition is not dependent on political turmoil, individual leaders or alliances forged with governments. The assassination of John F. Kennedy or the impeachment process against Bill Clinton did not shatter the foundations of the US Democratic Party. The Watergate or Abu Ghraib scandals did not raise questions about the existence of the Republican Party either. Of course, this does not mean that serious political forces are not responsible for the actions of their members, but a political scandal is seen by them as a breaking off a branch, rather than uprooting the whole tree. Every developed democracy rests on two or more such political parties. The absence of such a system means that society is always at risk of finding itself in the hands of one party easily capable of dealing with both newly born and aging political dwarfs.

It is quite clear that, apart from violations, what we should consider first and foremost when assessing elections is whether or not we have made headway in terms of developing a party system, and, if we have, to what extent?

In this regard, the presidential election of this year provides grounds for moderate and cautious optimism. A set of questions, however, remain open: will one or more strong independent parties emerge from the Georgian Dream multiparty coalition? Has the United National Movement (UNM) been established as a stable political actor? Have we obtained a long-term political actor in the form of Nino Burjanadze's party?

Before the parliamentary elections of October 2012 there was the assumption that the more exotic figures in the Georgian Dream coalition would be gradually sidelined and a more or less solid fabric resembling a party would be outlined. However, events have developed in the opposite direction. Giorgi Margvelashvili, a person not belonging to any party and a self-declared "plasticine man," represents the ambiguity of the Georgian Dream's platform. This ambiguity is further underlined by the activity of Eka Beselia and other "one-(wo)man shows." In terms of the timing of the movement from being an element in a coalition to becoming an independent party (or returning to such a condition), the Georgian Dream lags behind the alliance of the Rose Revolution. Within a year of the Rose Revolution, serious shifts were already observed within the winning coalition, in the directions of both merging with and becoming distanced from the UNM.

What does the 21.7 percent of the votes received by the UNM candidate in this October's presidential election tell us? Bearing in mind both the low turnout and the role which might have been played by the resources the UNM still maintained, it is difficult to conclude that this party has finally been established, though signs of that are apparent.

It has been said many times before that a former ruling party had not achieved a notable result in any of the elections preceding the last one. It is also important that the opposition party (and not a multiparty alliance) independently mustered more than 20 percent of votes nationwide. The 27 percent of votes, which according to a parallel vote, the same UNM party received in the 2003 parliamentary elections can be regarded as a similar development. Although in 2003, the UNM ran in an election bloc with the Republican Party and the Conservative Party, the influence of the latter two parties on the overall result is unlikely to have been significant.

In the 1999 parliamentary elections, the alliance set up around the Democratic Revival Union party of the then Adjarian leader Aslan Abashidze also garnered 25 percent of votes. However, the Revival Union's results can mainly be attributed to Aslan Abashidze's total control on Adjara and the widespread violations. For example, in the 2003 parliamentary election, which was declared void as a result of the Rose Revolution, the Democratic Revival Union received 98 percent of support in the Khelvachauri district in the conditions of 99 percent voter turnout.

Apart from the Democratic Revival Union, Jumber Patiashvili's party also received almost 20 percent support, although this result may be attributed to his personality rather than to his political party. Another high indicator among opposition parties was the 17 percent mustered by the Labor Party (according to a parallel count) in the abolished 2003 parliamentary election.

Considering that the effect of regional "deviations" on final election results is traditionally significant, it is interesting to analyze the change in support for the UNM according to different regions.

The decline in the support for the UNM is especially notable in the Shida Kartli region, where the party was once especially popular. This change may have resulted from the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, which affected the Shida Kartli region most severely and rendered the rhetoric on the restoration of territorial integrity senseless. The UNM traditionally lacked support from several districts of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region (Kazbegi, Dusheti and Tianeti). A drastic change – from conspicuously high to low support – was seen in Javakheti, which, aside from the loss of administrative resources, could be explained by the Georgian Dream's anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic rhetoric, which was appealing for the majority of the population; the release of Vahagn Chakhalyan, the leader of the United Javakhk Democratic Alliance composed of ethnic Armenians living in this region; and the promises to mend ties with Russia. However, the position of the UNM in Samegrelo and Meskheti has remained relatively stable, as well as in Rustavi, Kutaisi and Telavi (with more than 25 percent support) and parts of the Imereti region.

The most reliable indicators of the UNM's support are the results of the 2013 presidential election in Tbilisi, where the effect of the use of administrative resources is relatively small and that of political emotions is high. In the capital city, support for the UNM shrank by 12 percent compared to the 2012 parliamentary elections; by 11 percent compared to the 2008 presidential election and by 3 percent compared to the 2002 local elections. The 21 percent support garnered by the UNM this time around is critical, but not dismal.

Giorgi Margvelashvili with his daughter at the 2013 presidential election. Photo: REUTERS
The results of the 2013 presidential election in Kvemo Kartli deserve to be discussed separately. For the first time ever in the history of Georgia, the ruling party did not receive significantly higher results in this region than elsewhere. This can be attributed, on the one hand, to a relatively freer election processes than existed before, and on the other hand, to the certain degree of influence maintained by the UNM as the former ruling force.

For the sake of fairness, one must note that the high-turnout "election-addiction" of Kvemo Kartli started abating before the last election. In the 2008 presidential election, the turnout in Kvemo Kartli was rather moderate, ranging from 39 percent to 67 percent, with Saakashvili's support ranging between 64 percent and 91 percent. For comparison, in the presidential election of 2000, the turnout in all six districts of this region was above 95 percent, with Shevardnadze receiving more than 94 percent in each and every one of those districts (even gaining 99.5 percent of the vote in the Marneuli district).

What may we expect from the UNM in future?

On the one hand, the Georgian Dream still refuses to acknowledge the UNM as its legitimate opponent and sticks to its promise to totally annihilate this political force. With the period of cohabitation having come to an end, the UNM has lost its remaining public posts too. While former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili and former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili being placed on Interpol's wanted list has delivered yet another blow to the party.

On the other hand, the UNM has withstood both the arrest of several of its leading figures and an intensive campaign conducted by the government and media to demonize it – with a segment of the clergy also actively engaged in doing so. It is hard to imagine that anything qualitatively new will be added to those trump cards that have already been played against the UNM in the near future. At the same time, the end of cohabitation will make it increasingly difficult for the Georgian Dream to blame the UNM for its own problems in governance.
Considering all these factors, the chances of the UNM strengthening its position or seeing a further decline are 50/50. The decisive role in tipping this balance may be played by the position of Georgia's Western partners and their influence on the government. In any case, thus far, the UNM is the only party in the history of Georgia that has been achieving substantial results in elections since its inception.

The former chair of parliament Nino Burjanadze and her Democratic Movement-United Georgia party showed significantly improved results in the October presidential election. However, it is difficult to predict her future prospects. The problem first lies in the human resources of the party. At some stage in the past, the most notable figures seen at the forums of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party were Giorgi Margvelashvili and the current Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri. At present, however, one finds it difficult to recall, apart from Burjanadze herself, even a single, relatively notable politician representing her party. This might also indicate the excessive ambition of the former parliamentary speaker. But the "vagueness" of the Georgian Dream coalition further complicates the task of securing a place for Burjanadze and her party. Even though Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili "appointed" Nino Burjanadze as his desired opposition force, the Georgian Dream's attitude itself – anyone save the UNM – does not leave room for a third force. Burjanadze's electorate may best be described as "bigger dreamers than the Dream," which is not a stable category. However, one way or another, the Caucasian "Iron Lady" has a green light in terms of seeking and applying funds and she does not face any threat of being brought to justice, which significantly simplifies her objective.

What should we expect, in general, from the next election?

I have already said that competition is a decisive factor for the democratic process. The first thing that catches the eye when comparing past Georgian elections is an unfortunate adverse correlation between the competitiveness and the "freedom" of elections. Those instances where the run up to the elections and the election itself were assessed more or less positively, mainly belong to the category of "predetermined" results. This is logical: the temptation to apply administrative resources and other mechanisms is lower when the ruling party is sure of victory. The lack of violations at specific elections does not exclude the threat of the establishment of either single-party governance or multi-party chaos.

Since the ruling coalition has not yet transformed into a strong political party (or parties) and still cannot tolerate the existence of its only stable rival, it is clear that we still have a long way to go and must undertake a great many battles in order to strengthen the party system. Only the next election will show whether we have succeeded in breaking the vicious circle of all-encompassing ruling coalitions. So far, however, the light spotted at the end of tunnel may prove to only indicate our movement around a child's circular model railway.

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