The following political landscape piece is a part of Eurasia Daily Monitor’s special quarterly series of strategic assessments of developments across Eurasia. These pieces examine recent important developments and trends in the region, particularly since this past summer, and anticipate where those trend lines may lead over the coming months.
This year’s unusually hot summer in Georgia was matched by an equally hot political season. Since mid-2016, the country had been preparing for the highly important October 8 parliamentary elections (with the second round held on October 30); pre-election fever drowned out nearly all other developments in Georgia. Now that the elections are over and the dust is gradually settling, one can begin to try to summarize those crucial last four–five months of Georgian politics and assess their longer-term effects in the months to come.
On the foreign policy front, the Georgian political establishment did in fact have something positive to show. Specifically, the European Union agreed on a negotiating position for Georgia, which means that the country can expect its citizens to be granted the long-awaited visa waiver to the EU by the end of the year (On.ge, October 5). Moreover, on October 6, Georgia and China concluded free trade negotiations, opening up the Chinese market to Georgian produce and wine. Meanwhile, Georgia will benefit from cheaper Chinese industrial goods (Civil Georgia, October 6). Yet, it remains to be seen what impact, positive or negative, the influx of Chinese products will have on the still fledgling Georgian manufacturing economy.
Domestic politics, on the other hand, offered less positive developments. Secretly recorded audio and video tapes were repeatedly leaked during the course of the parliamentary election campaign. These incriminating tapes allegedly provided evidence that the opposition was involved in violent takeover plots or that it had shady ties to the criminal world. The ruling Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG) and the main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), constantly accused one another of preparing for pre- and post-election violence. On October 4, the car of senior UNM member Givi Targamadze exploded in downtown Tbilisi (Rustavi 2, October 4), thus accelerating fears that post-election violence could become reality. Luckily, it never materialized.
The elections delivered a resounding victory for the ruling GDDG and a crushing defeat for UNM. Overall, the international community assessed the vote as fair and democratic. Regardless of low voter turnout (51 percent of voters participated in the first round and 37 percent in the runoffs), GDDG obtained 115 seats in the 150-member parliament, thus securing a constitutional super-majority. UNM won only 27 seats, almost half of what it had in the previous legislature. Amid the Georgian public’s deep disappointment with the country’s political establishment, other mainstream parties failed to overcome the 5 percent threshold to enter the parliament. Only one marginal, ultra-conservative party—the Alliance of Patriots (AP)—garnered 5 percent of the proportional vote, thus obtaining six seats (On.ge, October 2016).
The election results have already begun to fundamentally alter the country’s political landscape as several heretofore mainstream parties have started to disintegrate or slowly fade from the political stage due to their crushing defeat. Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Free Democrats (FD) party and once one of the leading politicians in Georgia, announced he was temporarily quitting politics. Almost all of his senior party members followed suit (see EDM, October 11). More recently, David Usupashvili, the leader of Republican Party (RP), also quit. As Usupashvili observed, after the “elections, the political system became empty of political parties” (Civil Georgia, November 1). Other senior party members, including Usupashvili’s wife, Tina Khidasheli, quit RP as well. These high-profile defections effectively put the future existence of the party into question. Moreover, the once promising State for People party, led by world renowned Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze, and New Political Center “Girchi” (Cone), led by a group of UNM defectors, have largely receded from the political stage.
UNM itself is in deep political crisis. The heavy defeat in the elections exposed fault lines within the party leadership about the future direction of UNM. It is now all but clear that the formerly powerful ruling party is divided between former president Mikheil Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region, and those who challenge his absentee leadership of the party. Among the challengers are former national security advisor Gigi Bokeria; Bokeria’s wife, Tamara Chergoleishvili, who owns Tabula TV; Kakha Lomaia, Georgia’s former representative to the United Nations; and other senior party members.
It is evident that Saakashvili’s grip on his party is slipping. For instance, although Saakashvili urged UNM to boycott the runoff elections, the party decided that its candidates would still participate. Even Saakashvili’s wife, Sandra Roeloffs, who ran as a UNM candidate in Georgia’s western region of Zugdidi, initially did not oppose the idea of participating in the second round elections (Politcommersant.ge, October 12), although she ultimately did refuse to do so (Netgazeti.ge, October 24). The party is certainly experiencing a leadership vacuum as its former leader is out of country and cannot exercise real power. Subsequently, his former lieutenants are challenging his authority, trying to take over the reins of the party and define its direction. Most likely, it is only a matter of time before UNM either ousts Saakashvili as party leader or UNM itself formally splits into two or more new political parties.
The question remains how the developments of the last four–five months will affect the country’s domestic policies. Following the elections, GDDG acquired a constitutional super-majority in the parliament, thus vastly expanding its freedom of action within the legislature. It is also noteworthy that GDDG will rule without any coalition partners, as it shed all of its allies as the election campaign began. Almost certainly, GDDG will now attempt to further consolidate its position. The ruling party is already talking about constitutional amendments. Among others, it has called for changing the (already somewhat limited) position of president from one elected directly by voters, to one chosen by the parliament. Needless to say, this will yield even more influence to the GDDG dominated legislature. At the same time, electing a head of state by the parliament will enable GDDG to make sure that no opposition candidate wins the presidency in the near future. The next presidential elections will likely be held in 2018. Although initially a GDDG candidate, current President Giorgi Margvelashvili fell out with the party and has been constantly frustrating the Georgian Dream government’s various political efforts.
GDDG’s newly acquired constitutional super-majority also creates the possibility for future abuses of power, as the party faces no meaningful checks and balances on its rule. Moreover, it creates the risk that having near absolute power will cause GDDG to lose touch with reality and overplay its hand. The recent examples of two previous, overly powerful ruling parties—Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG) under President Eduard Shevardnadze (1995–2003) and United National Movement under President Mikhail Saakashvili (2003-2012)—indicate that GDDG may not be immune to this same tendency.
GDDG’s position could become more vulnerable if the Georgian lari continues to fall. Growing inflation is already contributing to wiping out peoples’ meager savings and sending more Georgians into deeper poverty. The lari took another tumble within the past two weeks, hitting 2.41 against the US dollar (Nbg.gov.ge, November 1). If the Georgian public’s already difficult economic conditions worsens, social unrest might become inevitable, with the potential of prematurely sweeping aside the now triumphant GDDG.
After five months of the tiring political campaign and few, if any, positive domestic political developments, Georgia has now entered a new post-election period. The following months will show how GDDG will use its newly acquired constitutional super-majority and, in general, in which direction it will take the country.