Georgia on the Eve of Parliamentary Elections
On October 1, Georgia votes in a parliamentary election which is set to be its most important and closely-watched contest since the Rose Revolution of 2003. The election is also a shadow leadership election, and its outcome will determine who becomes the leader of the country when a new constitution takes effect next year, as the second term of current president Mikheil Saakashvili ends.
The governing party, the United National Movement (UNM), is facing a strong challenge from the recently formed opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. The political temperature is high as both sides are predicting victory and exchanging claims and counter-claims about the conduct of the election.
Less than a week ahead of Georgia’s parliamentary election, Thomas de Waal, George Washington University’s Cory Welt, and Mamuka Tsereteli reflected on the potential significance of recent developments and addressed arising misconceptions.
- A Referendum: This election is in many ways a referendum on Saakashvili and his United National Movement party, explained de Waal. Many Georgians are frustrated with the ruling administration, and have thrown their support to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition because it is the only plausible alternative.
- New Core Voters: The Georgian Dream appeals to those who feel disenfranchised by the UNM, added de Waal. These include westernized inhabitants of Tbilisi, who aspire to a more pluralistic system, the poor and unemployed who feel left behind by Saakashvili’s modernization, and former apparatchiks who saw their jobs go to younger protégés.
- Potentially Misleading Polls: While the UNM claims it is ahead in the polls, pollsters are seeing an increasing proportion of ‘don’t knows’ and ‘refuse-to-answers.’ Many of these unassigned votes will likely go to the opposition, warned de Waal.
- Scandal Close to Elections: The release of disturbing videos of prisoners being mistreated was most likely a political move to turn voters away from the UNM, explained de Waal. Welt suggested it may prove a successful strategy, motivating citizens to vote, despite the government’s efforts to disassociate itself from the video.
An Uneven Playing Field?
- Access to Administrative Resources: The UNM’s access to administrative resources has provided advantages, explained Mamuka Tsereteli. International observers have objected to the creation of administrative barriers against oppositional media and harassment of people with ties to either to vocal TV-channels or to the media service providers who offer those channels.
- One Significant Concession: In response to international pressure, the Saakashvili government agreed to the 'must carry' rule, which requires that every media provider offer every national and relevant local channel, Tseretieli explained. He was quick to add that there was no guarantee that it would be kept in place after the election.
- International Observers: A number of international observers have been on the scene throughout the lead-up to the election and have provided additional evidence of unfair practices, Welt said. However, Welt agreed with the U.S. government phrasing that the opposition has had the ability to campaign in a ‘competitive fashion.’
- Positive Moves: In spite of the international concerns over this election, Welt added that the electoral process in Georgia has also produced a series of domestic correctional procedures which will have effects beyond election day. Such reforms should be encouraged, he added.
Prospects for the Future
- Impossible Analogies: Commentators, overwhelmed by rapid developments, have been tossing around comparisons to the Rose and Orange Revolutions, explained Welt. However, such comparisons are inappropriate until the electoral process is over and the related cases going through domestic courts are resolved.
- Wealth and Politics: Ivanishvili's considerable wealth has, in many ways, enabled the success of the Georgia Dream coalition, Tsereteli said. He explained that although he is usually hostile to gigantic fortunes entering politics, this particular case provided an otherwise impossible opportunity for pluralism. Nor did Ivanishvili’s wealth create an unfair advantage; over the past elections, the UNM have spent much more on campaigns than the entire opposition combined.
- A New Experience: Having a hotly contested election is a new experience in Georgia, explained de Waal. Even the official results of the 2003 elections - which motivated the Rose Revolution - were initially a landslide victory for the incumbent party. With both parties maintaining that they will win, the ultimate test for this young democracy will be in the gracefulness of the concession speech, concluded de Waal.