Georgia’s Political Landscape Reshaped After Local Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 107

The Christian-Democrat Movement and the Alliance for Georgia laid a basis in recent local elections for the development of genuine opposition parties in Georgia. According to the final returns, these parties took the second and third place, with 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of the votes cast country-wide, behind the governing United National Movement (UNM)’s score of 65.5 percent (Civil Georgia, May 31, June 1, 2).

The Christian-Democrat and Alliance for Georgia’s leaders are considerably younger and more modern personalities than the irreconcilable radicals. These two parties conducted rational, issue-based campaigns, played by the rules in conceding the elections’ outcome, and intend to operate within the constitutional system in preparing for the next parliamentary and presidential elections. The UNM reached out publicly to these parties immediately after the May 30 elections, offering to consult and cooperate in the local administrations and implicitly on the national level, where the UNM has initiated constitutional amendments to reduce presidential powers.

The Alliance for Georgia, a bloc of four small parties, coalesced in 2009 around Irakli Alasania, who joined the opposition after having served with distinction in law-enforcement and diplomatic posts. Some representatives of Western governments have encouraged Alasania to step into the vacant role of a responsible opposition leader and, potentially, a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose final term of office expires in 2013. Some Western diplomats even suggested that their assessment of the local elections would partly depend on whether Alasania is elected mayor of Tbilisi.

In the event, Alasania and the Alliance for Georgia received 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of the votes cast in the capital city; and 9 percent country-wide. Inexperienced in electoral politics, Alasania assembled a weak team for his party Our Georgia, accepted several militant “regime-change” personalities in the Alliance for Georgia, acted often hesitantly, and sought in vain the support of radical opposition groups. However, Alasania made a clean break with these in the final stage of the campaign, and exchanged pledges of cooperation with mayoral election winner, Gigi Ugulava, of the pro-presidential UNM.

Alasania’s assessment of the electoral process has helped to defuse the radicals’ threat of post-election protests. Conceding the outcome (a rarity in the Georgian opposition until now), Alasania stated: “The elections were valid. I respect the free, I repeat free, choice of all citizens, including those who voted for my opponent” (Imedi TV, May 31).

The Christian-Democrat Movement took a distant second place country-wide at 12 percent, and third place in the Tbilisi municipal election at 11 percent. This party has turned from an anti-system group into one that plays by the constitutional rules. The party leader, Giorgi Targamadze, and his team had earlier operated Imedi Television for the tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2007, when Patarkatsishvili made his alliance with the radicals for a political war against the Georgian government. Following Patarkatsishvili’s death in 2008, however, Targamadze’s Christian-Democrats abandoned the radical camp, won a few seats in the parliamentary elections that year, and recognized the elections’ validity, in contrast with the radicals’ refusal to take up their seats. The Christian-Democrats have acted since then as a parliamentary opposition and have doubled their score in the local elections just held, compared with the 2008 parliamentary elections. Party leaders and the Tbilisi mayoral candidate, Gia Chanturia (former head of Georgia’s national oil company), also exchanged pledges of post-election consultation and cooperation with the winners (Georgia Update, May 31).

These returns provide Georgia’s answers to the four tests posed by these elections. First, they have shown a clear preference for continuity of government, repudiation of the inflammatory style characteristic of the Georgian opposition, and rejection of the Russia-oriented politicians.

Second, these elections turned into a form of referendum on Saakashvili’s and the government’s performance. The returns show strong voter confidence in the president and government, despite the devastation wrought by Russia’s August 2008 invasion, loss of Georgian territories, Russian psychological warfare against the Georgian leadership, and the world economic crisis that stopped and reversed Georgia’s economic growth.

Third, the clear-cut outcome should scotch the irreconcilable opposition’s plans to cry fraud and trigger post-election turmoil. By the same token, Western observers’ largely positive assessment should help expedite the EU-Georgia association agreement.

And fourth, UNM’s success in Tbilisi’s mayoral election (the first-ever by direct popular vote) will strengthen the party’s position for the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections. Ugulava is a potential candidate for a top national office in those elections.

In the final analysis these elections reflect the effectiveness of Georgian state-building and the advance of its institutionalization. Thanks to these processes, Georgia has been able to overcome three overlapping crises: Russia’s invasion and continuing commercial blockade, the impact of the world economic crisis on Georgia, and the radical opposition’s potentially violent regime-change campaign. The combined impact of these crises would have shaken many other states to their foundations, or exposed them to the risk of falling under foreign control. Georgia, however, has strengthened its internal political stability through these elections; is recovering from the impact of the world economic crisis; and the Georgian electorate has repudiated Russia’s political allies in the country.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>