Georgia 2012

Legislative elections were held in Georgia (the country – not the state) on October 1, 2012. All 150 members of Georgia’s unicameral Parliament were up for reelection. This election follows some major amendments to the Georgian constitution and a change in the electoral system. According to amendments passed in 2010, the President of Georgia will eventually – by the beginning of the next term (due after the October 2013 presidential election) – be reduced to a ceremonial role while the Prime Minister and Parliament will assume more powers, seemingly with the obvious aim of transforming Georgia into a parliamentary republic.

The new electoral system has 77 seats elected by proportional representation (with a 5% threshold) and 73 seats elected by first-past-the-post. The 73 district seats seem to correspond to the second-tier administrative divisions (the districts), which would explain the huge malapportionment (the cities being badly underrepresented, as this map shows).

Since 2004, Georgia has been governed by Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power shortly after the 2003 Rose Revolution removed Eduard Shevardnadze from office. Saakashvili, a young anti-corruption reformist, had briefly served in Shevardnadze’s cabinet before becoming one of the major leaders of the opposition in 2001. By 2003, Shevardnadze’s government, in power since 1995, had become extremely corrupt and had clear authoritarian inklings. The 2003 legislative election, allegedly rigged to allow Shevardnadze’s party to narrowly defeated Saakashvili’s opposition party sparked the Rose Revolution.

In 2004, Saakashvili was elected President with 96% of the vote. Saakashvili, which has sought to cultivate the image of a young pro-Western (which entails, in this case, pro-American, pro-European and pro-NATO) anti-corruption reformer, has a mixed and controversial record in power. On the overarching issue of corruption, a problem which every Georgian government has faced, while some of Saakashvili’s efforts to curb corruptions were lauded by the international community, at the same time he has been accused of corruption by opponents and foreign observers. His economic policies have freed the business climate in Georgia and have received warm acclaim abroad, but at homes critics point to the high unemployment (16%) and deep poverty in rural Georgia, which has not benefited from his modernization program.

Saakashvili placed his country on the map in 2008 when the Georgian military invaded the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Since independence, Georgia has had only incomplete control over its territory, with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – two regions home to ethnic minority groups – causing headaches for every Georgian government. Both of these internationally unrecognized republics are described as Russian puppets (especially South Ossetia); indeed Russia is the sole major international power which has granted recognition to those countries and Moscow has clear interests in both: Abkhazia for its access to the Black Sea and South Ossetia because gas and oil pipelines transit through it.

Saakashvili had already faced a potentially explosive situation in 2004 when Aslan Abashidze, the local pro-Russian strongman of  the autonomous region of Adjara in southwestern Georgia, refused to submit to the new Georgian government. He avoided armed confrontation and was able to lead the issue to a peaceful resolution with Abashidze’s resignation. In dealing with the breakaway republics, he had favoured diplomacy until 2008, when he ordered the invasion of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia following border clashes. Georgia’s military was no match for Russia’s military, which quickly pushed back the Georgians. The war ended as a disaster for Saakashvili, with the peace deal signed in August 2008, Georgia lost control of parts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which had remained under its control.

Saakashvili has faced an often divided but very feisty opposition, which has often resorted to street demonstrations after failing to defeat Saakashvili at the ballot box. While international observers regarded the 2008 presidential and legislative elections as acceptably free and fair, the opposition has accused Saakashvili – perhaps not entirely unjustly – of abuse of power and authoritarianism. It is true that Saakashvili is known for his arrogant, vindictive, erratic and slightly autocratic tendencies and he has not quite transformed his country into a “Western democracy” since 2004 – it still has “partly free” ratings on press freedom, political and civil liberties and the Democracy Index rates it as a “hybrid regime”. His regime faced large protests organized by the opposition in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

The opposition to Saakashvili is extremely heterogeneous and generally noted for its internal squabbling. It unites a wide range of personalities, ranging from supporters of the former regime to right-wingers to left-wingers to nationalists to former allies of Saakashvili (including Nino Burjanadze). A lot of politicians in Georgia have been business tycoons. The 2007 protests were led and organized by Badri Patarkatsishvili and the runner-up in the 2008 election was Levan Gachechiladze, two business tycoons who had large stashes of cash backing them.

The new opposition coalition this year, Georgian Dream, was no different. Georgian Dream is a coalition of different parties, but it is steer-headed by a billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is a French citizen (he recently relinquished a Russian passport) after being stripped of his Georgian citizenship in 2011, allegedly for breaking dual citizenship laws but probably because he was entering politics. Ivanishvili made most of his money working in Russia, in a wide variety of sectors during the lucrative privatization era in the 1990s.

Georgian Dream is a heterogeneous movement. The Economist noted that “Mr Ivanishvili’s ragtag coalition is united mainly by his own largesse. Its ranks include xenophobes, chauvinists and those nostalgic for the old days, partly constrained by some distinguished pro-Western liberals who fell out with Mr Saakashvili.” The coalition’s platform was terribly vague, Ivanishvili said his sole priority is “happiness for all” and he has promised a wide range of goodies: more jobs, medical coverage, more schools, better pensions and a freer press and judiciary. The governing party – the United National Movement (UNM) – was similarly vague in its policy orientations. Its economic policies do not seem vastly different from those of Ivanishvili’s coalition, which is hardly surprising given that what divides the two parties are personality and power struggles rather than ideological disagreement. On foreign policy, the government promotes itself as pro-Western and pro-NATO, but Ivanishvili similarly supports NATO membership and closer ties with the west – all while also wanting closer ties with Moscow (which has led to Saakashvili accusing him of being a Russian stooge).

The campaign, as all electoral campaigns in Georgia, was very bloody. The two sides lobbed insults at one another, the opposition apparently refers to Saakashvili as “the rat” and has branded him a fascistic tyrant. The turning point during the campaign was the revelation of a video which showed prisoners being tortured and beaten up by prison wardens, the outrage forced a cabinet minister to resign and analysts have said that the outrage allowed Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition to take the lead.

The results were as follows, for the PR and the FPTP seats. Turnout was 59.76%.

Georgian Dream 54.85% PR / 53.42% FPTP winning 83 seats (44 PR, 39 districts)
UNM 40.43% PR / 46.58% FPTP winning 67 seats (33 PR, 34 districts)
Christian Democratic Union 2.05% PR winning 0 seats
Labour 1.24% PR winning 0 seats
New Rights 0.43% PR winning 0 seats
Free Georgia 0.27% PR winning 0 seats
Others 0.72% PR winning 0 seats

The election, largely free and fair, resulted in the defeat of Saakashvili’s party and the historic victory of the opposition. Though Saakashvili originally held out hope that the UNM would be able to win by virtue of the district seats, but he quickly gracefully conceded defeat to the opposition. The opposition was not as gracious in victory, Ivanishvili originally called on Saakashvili to resign before quickly backtracking on that statement. The country enters a funny transition period, Saakashvili will remain President until the October 2013 presidential election while Ivanishvili will become Prime Minister. The new parliamentary-type regime is due to take effect following the October 2013 election, between now and then Ivanishvili and Saakashvili will need to learn to work together. Ivanishvili will also need to learn to accept a strong parliamentary opposition, something which the UNM lacked in the last parliament.

Ivanishvili likely has a tough road ahead of him. His rag-tag coalition is held together in large part by his cash and a mutual hatred of Saakashvili, but they might find it very hard to stick together once in power, similarly to how Saakashvili lost a lot of his original 2004 allies during his presidency. Some will justifiably worry about the type of leader Ivanishvili will turn out to be. Will he continue the imperfect reformist path of Saakashvili or will he go down the road to crony capitalism, entrenching a regime of oligarchs? His platform was unbelievably vague, which means that few know exactly what he wants – besides happiness, a fairer society and a pro-Western foreign policy (all while being more pro-Russian than Saakashvili).

Results of the PR (top) and FPTP (bottom) vote by district (source: Bacon King, US Election Atlas)

The maps to the right, drawn up by a friend of mine, show the results of the PR and FPTP votes by district. The opposition’s stronghold was the capital, Tbilisi, where it won upwards of 70% of the vote. Tbilisi has traditionally been a stronghold of the anti-Saakashvili opposition, for example in the 2008 election, the capital was one of the three districts which he lost. The opposition is also traditionally strong in a few districts bordering South Ossetia (some of these districts are only partly under Georgian sovereignty).

The UNM’s strongholds correspond to those districts where Saakashvili polled best in the 2008 elections. These include a large block of districts south of Abkhazia, a region with a large Mingrelian (and Svan) population (a Georgian subethnic group); and border regions in the south of the country, including a few districts with Armenian and Azeri majorities.

Regardless of the nature of this election or the country’s future, it is refreshing to see democratic elections of this kind in the former Soviet Union which result in the peaceful transfer of power. At least the voters had a choice, even if this choice is perhaps was not what some would wish it was.

Posted on October 5, 2012, in Georgia. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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