Can Georgia Deliver Democratic Elections?

28 Oct 2020

(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) Recently, Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), proclaimed its intention to formally apply for EU membership in 2024, against all odds. The statement was made at an important time: just as the Black Sea country heads toward parliamentary elections on October 31, 2020. The democratic quality of the elections will have a significant impact on Georgia’s European aspirations and its future with the EU and NATO.

The elections will also have a significant impact on the political traditions inside the country. A major feature that differentiates Georgia’s hybrid regime from post-Soviet autocracies is that none of its governments has stayed in power for more than two election cycles (the so-called “ten-year-rule”). The current regime’s political practicality and the weakness of the opposition may unsettle this trend. [1]

Georgia’s Made-to-Last Oligarchy

Since 2012, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has presided over Georgia. The oligarchic governance system he built via GD is a unique blend of semi-democratic rules, mimicked socially-oriented policies, and rent-distribution structures. The regime is tough on its opponents, yet its intimidation policies meet little backlash from the general population. Georgia’s socio-economic conditions have not improved during its rule, and poverty, unemployment, and inflation still haunt the poor and the middle class.

However, the GD administration managed to correct some of the neoliberal economic policies implemented by its predecessor and establish a somewhat tolerable socio-financial safety net. It has been dragging its feet on democratic reforms, but it never crossed “red lines” and backed off every time it encountered formidable international or domestic pressures. The party’s reform drives never produced significant results. GD generally retained the effectiveness of the state structures that it inherited. One could say that its political expediency prevented the growth of a dissatisfied critical mass while ensuring the longevity of its rule. So far.

Enter: Uneven Playing Fields and COVID-19

The October elections will be the first under Georgia’s reformed electoral code, which states that the majority of seats are to be elected from party lists. Many observers hope that the reformed legislation will result in a more multiparty parliament, increase the chances of opposition parties, and open the door to coalitional government possibilities.

However, the current pre-election period is highly polarized, and the political field is uneven. It is obviously skewed to benefit the ruling party. Despite its proclaimed European aspiration, the GD finds it hard to escape its post-Soviet instincts when it comes to holding fair and transparent elections. GD commands a disproportionate amount of financial assets and can easily resort to using administrative resources. For a prime example of the latter, the government announced it would turn the enormous, former hippodrome in central Tbilisi into a splendid park. According to

The Cartu Foundation of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder and the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has gifted the large territory of the former hippodrome in central Tbilisi to Tbilisi City Hall to build the capital’s central park in the area.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 struck the region, GD became accused of instrumentalizing the country’s top epidemiologists and doctors who had become “the faces” of Georgia’s successful struggle against (the first phase) of the pandemic. The party spent time trying to capitalize on its early success fighting the virus, but the recent exponential growth in infection rates has endangered this legacy.

Similarly, some experts considered that it was politically motivated for GD to launch investigations into former members of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border delimitation-demarcation commission for, allegedly, the unlawful giving of lands to Azerbaijan in the sensitive area of the David Gareji Monastery. By such moves, one can say that GD is attempting to consolidate its footing among the social-conservative part of the electorate, a segment that used to be its electoral stronghold.

The democratic quality of elections in Georgia may also suffer from COVID-19. Georgia will only host a limited number of international observers. Increasing infection rates may discourage people from heading to the ballot box on election day, which may turn out to be an unexpected gift for the ruling party.

A Feckless Opposition

The 2012 elections proved that, despite an uneven playing field, a formidable opposition can win elections in Georgia if they present a unified front, mobilize financial resources applicably, and maintain popular messaging.

Now, they are stuck in bipartisan polarization between GD and Ivanishvili on the one hand, and the former ruling party United National Movement (UNM) and its exiled founder and former president Mikheil Saakashvili on the other. It is debatable whether the active involvement of Georgia’s former president in current election campaigns benefits Georgia’s opposition. It could probably consolidate a loyal electorate around the UNM, but it could also alienate moderate, undecided voters and undermine opposition unity.

Leadership problems are not confined to the UNM. Due to the absence of intra-party democracy, both the ruling party and the majority of opposition parties have been finding it very hard to replace (usually unpopular) party leaders by younger generations of politicians.

Undecided Voters Hold the Key to Victory

While recent public opinion surveys see the GD firmly in the lead, it is rather unclear whether the ruling party will receive enough votes to build a government unilaterally, or whether Georgia will, for the first, see a coalitional government. Georgia has also witnessed another trend in the last few years: the emergence of a critical mass of swing voters who could decide the outcome of any election. According to an August survey commissioned by NDI, as many as 59 percent of voters are undecided. Thus, the majority of the population feels disillusioned with governmental policies and not supportive of opposition parties.

While the political apathy of the electorate could benefit the ruling party, such a high number of undecided voters is a danger for all political players. Any dramatic, 11th-hour event—real or strategically imagined—could tilt the election. Finally, opinion polls also show the political maturity of Georgians, who now favor a multiparty parliament and consensual politics over polarization and one-party politics.

A Test for the European Union

The upcoming election is not only important for Georgia; the EU needs to prove that it has not lost its transformative power in the region (and around the world). The EU is Georgia’s key economic and political partner and the main provider of its security and stability vis-à-vis Russia. In no other European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) country is EU leverage higher than in Georgia. The EU has high support among the Georgian population, but it will have diminished soft power if it fails to inspire democratic reforms, despite its high leverage. It is also a test for the EU’s new grand strategy, which allegedly relies on strengthening societal resilience.

What may occur in 2024 based on Georgian Dream’s present-day, election-cycle statement about joining the EU (and NATO) is anyone’s guess. Georgian politicians often talk about the nation’s European ambitions, but it is the enforcement of free and fair elections in Georgia that should be the aspiration in Brussels and Tbilisi.

Co-authored by Kornely Kakachia and Bidzina Lebanidze, Georgian Institute of Politics.

[1] Also see: Beka Chedia, "October 2020 Parliamentary Elections: Georgia at the Crossroads," PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 668, September 2020.

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