We have put one more election behind us, the country has a new president and a new (old) government, but the election cycle is not over yet. Local elections are looming in the spring. To better understand what we may expect from the upcoming elections, let us carefully look at the outcomes of the presidential election.
What are the main takeaways for both the ruling coalition as well as the major opposition party?
The Georgian Dream coalition won by a landslide. Its candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, garnered almost two-thirds of the votes, ahead of his major rival by almost three times the number of votes. The referendum on the one-year-long rule of the Georgian Dream proved overwhelmingly positive for the coalition.
In contrast, the United National Movement (UNM) suffered a blow, losing all 85 electoral districts and over half of the voters who had supported it in the previous election did not turnout.
It seems hard to imagine a more favorable environment or a stronger mandate for the victorious political force. At the same time, for the party that dominated the country’s political arena for almost a decade, the outcome reflects the existing grim reality and suggests the prospect of more of the same.
Is this really the case? Maybe the mandate of the Georgian Dream is not as strong as it seems? Maybe the victors are not at all happy with the victory and the mandate they have been handed? Maybe they invested so many political resources into the victory that they are now left without any spare reserves? And finally, maybe the outcome for the UNM is not a negative, but rather a promising sign?
To get answers to these questions we should first crunch the numbers. In doing so, we see two issues emerge. Both of them serve as wake up calls, if not alarm bells, for the Georgian Dream. The first one is low voter turnout. The presidential election of 27 October set a historic record in terms of the fewest number of voters showing up than at any of the previous presidential or parliamentary elections held since 1990 and half a million fewer voters than at the parliamentary election of 1 October 2012. For the first time ever since independence, the number of voters who actually cast their ballots was below the psychologically significant 50% threshold. It is interesting to see that had the voter turnout on 27 October 2013 been as high as it was on 1 October 2012, Giorgi Margvelashvili would have received only 46% of the votes. And, had he then delivered on his pledge not to stand in a runoff, Georgia would have had another president now.
Compared to the public opinion polls administered by the NDI in the spring, in the election the UNM doubled its ratings. Interestingly enough, this result is virtually identical to that of the UNM a decade ago. In the parliamentary election of 2 November 2003, the party received the same number of votes, 350,000.
The second issue of concern for the Georgian Dream should be that it lost 170,000 voters, fully 15% of its electoral base as compared to 1 October 2012; a spectacular decrease after only a year in the office. Needless to say, that the first year in power is considered to be the least troubling, the “sweetest” of the four. To cut the story short, the mandate of the Georgian Dream is not as strong as it may appear at first glance.
Even more important is the use of the mandate, but we will return to that after analyzing how the UNM did.
27 October 2013 was the day the UNM got its political legitimization. Against the backdrop of a wide-scale campaign of selective-justice persecutions, physical intimidation, blackmail, defamation, and severe shortage of financial resources, the UNM still managed to muster the support from almost every fourth active voter. Compared to the public opinion polls administered by the National Democratic Institute in the spring, in the election the UNM doubled its ratings. Interestingly enough, this result is virtually identical to that of the UNM a decade ago. In the parliamentary election of 2 November 2003, which turned out to become the precursor to the Rose Revolution, the party received the same number of votes, 350,000. And we all know that that party was catapulted into political stardom soon thereafter.
Yet, perhaps the most important outcome of the recent election was that the dreamy project of destroying the UNM and forcing it off the political arena has collapsed. In a democratic environment, one cannot ignore a party that is being supported by 350,000 active voters. Proof of that was the conspicuously un-parliamentary, aggressively nervous behavior of the new de jure leader of the Georgian Dream, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, during the parliamentary hearings on his appointment.
Let’s now go back to the issue of the use of the mandate. The winning coalition will soon have to realize that, by handing over the mandate to the Georgian Dream, voters in fact removed their ability to offer any more excuses! The reserve of tolerance has been exhausted. Like a coiled spring the voters are expecting economic and social improvements and will no longer accept mutterings and fairytales like “Misha stands in our way,” “from the previous government we inherited an economy squeezed like a lemon” or “we were bequeathed a grave legacy.” The government will either have to enliven the stalled economy and create jobs, or will come to face a serious blow in the spring.
The new government’s much-awaited plan for economic development represents nothing more than a patchwork of general phrases and superficial wishes. If anything, one cannot find even a single figure in the economic part of the program.
To cover up the economic issues, the government may again resort to selective justice. However, the electorate has clearly declared that it will no longer swallow the bait of “circuses instead of bread.” Furthermore, stopping the “Caucasian vendetta” was a clear precondition the EU put forward for Georgia’s signing the Association Agreement that was initialed in Vilnius in late November.
The Georgian Dream will have to sail between this Scylla and Charybdis. To succeed in that, it needs an accurate map, a competent crew and a knowledgeable captain. It seems that is exactly where we have to look for the reason of the dissatisfaction of the then Prime Minister Ivanishvili seen during his press conference following the presidential vote. Who knows better than he that his political-financial brainchild has been left with almost no resources to reach a safe harbor? All promises have been meted out, all excuses used up and all credits handed out. With his new status Ivanishvili will no longer be able to openly support the coalition. The situation might be further aggravated by the weak regional party structures, uncompetitive parliamentary representation mostly made up of sportsmen and actors, and a lack of leadership and vision. Only administrative resources are left at their disposal, but one cannot go too far with administrative resources alone, as Shevardnadze the main political victim of the Rose Revolution, knows all too well.
In contrast, it seems that the energy and enthusiasm of the main rival of the Georgian Dream is not ebbing, but instead increasing. That is especially true given that the objective of the UNM in the upcoming elections is going to be fairly modest: to win several local councils and mayoral offices. Everything that the UNM seizes from the ruling party will be perceived as a victory. Bearing in mind the outcome of the presidential election, this objective does not seem unrealistic to achieve. The UNM candidate Davit Bakradze mustered the most votes in the following districts:
- Dmanisi - 42%
- Zugdidi - 41%
- Senaki - 35%
- Tsalenjikha - 35%
- Martvili - 35%
In three of these five districts, the Georgian Dream candidate failed to receive half of the vote (47% in Dmanisi and Zugdidi alike, and 46% in Senaki). In these and perhaps in several other districts the UNM can win.
In the meantime, the situation in the ruling team is gradually reaching boiling point. No sooner had Ivanishvili stepped down that grumbles of dissatisfaction could be heard from the majority. First, the leader of the GD faction was downgraded to the level of an ordinary MP; he expressed his dissatisfaction but so far has refrained from pointing fingers; yet another MP kicked up a fuss about the nomination of a non-Tbilisi native as the Georgian Dream’s candidate for the position of Tbilisi Mayor; while a third MP said that he will leave the faction altogether, promising to disclose the reasons for doing so later.
The newly elected president, the new prime minister and the entire Georgian Dream face serious challenges. The bulk of the political resources that were available to them last year have been exhausted. If they fail to find new resources, which can only be gained by running successful economic and social policies, the likelihood is high that, when recalling the election of 27 October, they, like the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus whose army defeated the Romans but suffered irreplaceable casualties in the process, may be forced to exclaim: “one more such victory would utterly undo me.”
The time span from the local elections this spring to the next parliamentary election is less than two and a half years.