Threat of instability looms large ahead of Georgia elections

Tuesday's car bomb in Tbilisi could be just the beginning of election-related turmoil in Georgia

Georgia’s parliamentary elections this weekend will, above all, be a test for a still-immature democracy. Despite the explosion of an opposition MP's car in Tbilisi on Tuesday night, it looks like this historically war-torn and politically polarised country is finally holding a 'normal' election. But, depending on the result, Tuesday's attack could be just the beginning, rather than the end, of election-related turmoil.

The big concern is the lack of public support for both the ruling party, Georgian Dream, and the main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM). According to the latest polls each of them enjoy some 25 percent support. This means that Georgia is at high risk of ending up with a hung parliament. If no other party gets into parliament then a government that enjoys only 25 percent of the popular vote could end up running the country –  a potential recipe for disaster. 

United National Movement has regrouped and at least partially renewed rank and file following the shocking defeat it suffered in 2012. Nonetheless, few Georgians can forget the wrongdoings and abuses that took place under UNM rule (along with successful and rapid reforms), and they are unlikely to welcome the return of the Saakashvili party. This is why despite the fact that Georgian Dream’s support has fallen sharply, UNM’s support has risen only slightly.

Georgian Dream is more likely to win – even despite squandering much of its 2012 popularity with unfulfilled promises. It has also lost several members of its coalition, who are now running independently. These parties (primarily the Free Democrats and Republicans) are not crucial in electoral terms but they helped Georgian Dream’s image.

Nonetheless, it looks like Georgia is willing to tolerate billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ‘dream’ for a while longer. The ruling party may have lost support, it may have weakened, but not enough to pave the way for a return of United National Movement. Moreover, serving a second term is something of a tradition in Georgia, and Georgian Dream will enjoy the benefits of administrative resources afforded to incumbents in the Georgian political system.

But while the election outcome seems relatively predictable, its aftermath is anything but. If Georgian Dream wins, UNM comes second and no other parties manage to win seats in parliament, there is a real danger of instability. With nothing left to lose, other parties may reject the result and take to the streets.

Under these circumstances United National Movement would face a delicate choice – to remain the main opposition paty or to boycott the parliament, reject the election results and join the protesting parties. If they choose the latter then once again Georgia’s future will be decided in the streets – a pitiful tradition the country looked to have overcome four years ago.

Georgian Dream would struggle to weather such a storm. Unlike UNM, it lacks seasoned politicians and crisis management is definitely not among its stronger points. Would it be able to handle this situation?   

This is where Saakashvili fits in brilliantly. The former president (and former head of United National Movement) recently announced his plans to return to Georgia. Saakashvili has not been in his motherland for almost three years – since shortly after the presidential elections in 2013. It looked like his political career was over but once the Maidan events began in Kiev Saakashvili re-emerged as a supporter of the Ukrainian opposition, which ultimately made him a governor of Odessa district.

In response, the Georgian authorities (no doubt worried about the fact that the former president was regaining influence) issued charges against him along with a warrant for his arrest. It was tacitly understood that few countries would have Saakashvili detained and handed over to the Georgian authorities, but one thing was clear: if he returned to Georgia, Saakashvili would be arrested. Provided, of course, that Georgian Dream remained in power and in control of the state.

But if the above scenario of political turmoil takes place then Saakashvili could make a dramatic and triumphant return, in defiance of the authorities. He has the experience of his bloodless revolution of 2003 that proved him a master of street protests. In 2009, facing himself a strong opposition protest in the streets, Saakashvili remarked ironically: “They have no idea what to do. If I were in their place I would topple the government in about two weeks.”

There is, however, some chance that other parties will overcome the five per cent threshold and gain representation in parliament. Those parties with a realistic chance are the Free Democrats, State for People, the Labour Party and the Patriotic Alliance. The latter is an ultra-conservative and nationalistic political force that is sometimes accused of being pro-Russian – a label  indignantly reject by the party leadership.

The Patriotic Alliance case illustrates just how unpopular being pro-Russian is in Georgia; parties which are openly on good terms with the Kremlin stand no chance. There was a time when Georgian Dream itself faced such accusations (the rationale was that the founder of the party Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia) but they have been almost completely dismissed. Georgian Dream may not be as fiercely pro-American and anti-Russian as United National Movement used to be but they proved themselves to be moderately pro-Western, focusing on integrating with the EU.

It is the actions of Russia itself that have destroyed any chances for pro-Russian forces in Georgia. Some had illusions that Russia would soften its stance after getting rid of Saakashvili but those illusions quickly evaporated. Russia not only refused to discuss the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but also began pushing the de-facto border (the administrative line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgian territory) deeper into Georgian-controlled territory, depriving desperate locals of land and property.

Russia also refused to introduce a visa-free travel regime with Georgia. Reopening the Russian market was thus the only benefit Georgia received in return for participating in the Sochi Olympic games, for renewing the broadcasting of Russian TV stations, for releasing Russian intelligence officers from jail and for shutting down Russian-language Georgian state TV channels.

While the Russian parties pose no threat , it may be in Georgian Dream’s interests to have some smaller party in the parliament even if it is a pro-Russian party. Otherwise its possible victory will be marred. But the ruling party has done little to create favourable conditions for smaller parties. About a year ago a new opposition party called State for the People emerged, led by internationally renowned opera singer Paata Burchuladze. This party looked strong enough to get into parliament but recently has started to crumble, with Burchuladze blaming its woes on the authorities “cutting sources of financial support”.   

There is one positive in all this. Regardless of what the political parties may get up to, the electorate has matured. Voters are more demanding and will not be easily manipulated anymore. Civil society has strengthened and become more self-assured since the 2012 elections. If the upcoming vote is truly free, transparent and fair then hardly anyone will be able to disturb the situation. So it is up to the ruling party to make sure that the entire process is beyond reproach so that no questions can be asked. If it does this and wins, then hardly anyone will doubt its victory. If, on the other hand, it loses, its contribution to Georgia’s democratic development will be widely appreciated.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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