What’s at stake in the upcoming Georgian elections?
The October 2020 parliamentary elections in Georgia are supposed to answer two questions. One lies on the surface: either we will keep the government of the Georgian Dream (or a GD-led coalition), or a diverse coalition of parties will replace the GD in power.
However, on a deeper systemic level, the question is whether we will keep the existing semi-autocratic dominant-power politics, or switch to a more pluralistic and open system that may (or may not) lead us to a full democracy.
Obviously, the preservation of the GD, that is Bidzina Ivanishvili in power, implies a continuation of the former, while the government change would lead to the latter.
It is not the first time that Georgian voters have to answer such a two-level question.
This was especially obvious in 2003 and 2012. Then, we got mixed answers: the government was indeed changed (in 2003 this happened through a peaceful revolution, though one caused by fraudulent elections), but the answer to the second question was negative: a new dominant power replaced the previous one, even though new governments promised systemic changes.
To make things clear, I have to explain what I mean under the “dominant-power politics” (a term I borrowed from Thomas Carothers, an American political scientist). In it, all levers of power belong to a single political group (in Georgia, such groups are also dominated by a single personality). There is also political opposition, independent media, civil society, but the dominant group has sufficient institutional and informal leverage not to allow for fair political competition.
In Georgia this system consolidated in 1995; despite two changes of power and, at times, fairly lively political competition, it has been fairly stable for quarter of century.
What makes these elections different?
Are these elections any different? I think they are. We don’t know the answer to the first question, whether the government will change or not, but we can say with some confidence that if the sum total of the opposition parties wins and forms a new ruling coalition, recreating a dominant-power system will be far less likely than in the two mentioned cases.
What allows me to say that? The main reason is the electoral system, and there are also important changes in the public mood. As a result of a mixture of public pressure and persistent western recommendations, the GD government agreed to change the system to an “almost proportionate” one: 120 mandates out of 150 will be distributed among party lists and 30 will go to single mandate constituencies.
This was important for Georgia because incumbent parties traditionally are much stronger in the latter. In addition, the threshold for getting to Parliament went down to one percent, encouraging numerous small parties to run independently.
The public had supported the transition to a proportional system for two reasons. It increases the probability of the electoral change of power: So far, this only happened once and we cannot take it for granted that it will happen again.
On the other hand, it makes it less likely that an incumbent dominant power will be replaced by another one: in countries with proportional electoral systems, they tend to have coalition governments. Currently in Georgia, most champions of democracy pin their hopes on this institutional innovation.
Chances of parties
So, how big is the probability that a sum total of the opposition parties defeats the GD and subsequently creates an opposition government? It is not easy to answer either part of this question.
Most opinion polls, while their data somewhat differ, give more or less the same general picture. The incumbent, GD, is an unquestionable leader well ahead of the others, though its support is not above forty percent. Unity is Strength, a coalition around Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president, is a clear runner-up but had twice and less support than the leader.
European Georgia is the third to be closely followed by a pack of parties including Giorgi Vashadze’s Agmashenebeli Strategy, Mamuka Khazaradze’s Lelo, Irma Inashvili’s and David Tarkhan-Mouravi’s Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, Shalva Natelashvili’s Laborists, etc. Even if we exclude the Patriots whom some consider the ruling party’s satellites, the sum total of the opposition supporters roughly equals or somewhat exceeds that of the incumbent.
There are a couple of factors that make the picture murkier. First, there is a number of the undecided: it differs in various polls but is never below 20 percent. Then, the ruling party can take advantage of the so-called “administrative resource”, which includes different methods of bribing and intimidating voters. The ruling party has used this in the previous elections and will do this again, though we cannot say how effective that will be.
And then, there is COVID-19 pandemics. Everybody agrees that the government’s relative success in fighting it became its important trump card in these elections and boosted its popularity. However, a new wave that has started in September may turn everything upside down.
Every day, the number of infected people is 10-15 times greater than in the spring, when we had a total lockdown, and the number continues to raise. But this time, the government is reluctant in institute strict measures. Apparently, it is keen to maintain an image of a successful anti-COVID fighter until the election day, but will it be able to? Nobody can say that, as well as whether the pandemics with force the postponement of the elections.
The danger of “feckless pluralism”
But let’s presume that the elections take place as planned and the sum total of the opposition parties prevails. Can we confidently say that in this case, they will create a coalition government and force the GD from power?
This is fully possible – but it will not be easy. We never had a coalition government before, so we cannot speak from precedent. We know from the experience of seasoned democracies, however, that forming a coalition may take months – and it may still fail.
When the GD came to power in 2012, it called itself a coalition, but it was such in name only. It consisted of parties that Bidzina Ivanishvili chose to invite to join in his personal effort. If there is a coalition government now, it will be the first one in history.
Alternately, nobody can rule out that some opposition parties chose to ally the GD. They deny such a possibility now, but changing sides comes cheap in Georgian politics.
The personality of Mikheil Saakashvili may become the most difficult hurdle for creating a new coalition. The Unity is Strength named him their candidate for the prime-minister’s position. It will surely be the largest party in the coalition, so it will only be fair if they raise claim to prime-minister’s position. But for many other parties, this will be beyond their red lines: they campaign on a promise of a government without both Ivanishvili and Saakashvili. Finding a compromise will require a lot of goodwill from Saakashvili, but not only from him.
I mentioned Thomas Carothers who coined the term “dominant-power politics” – something that I believe describes Georgia’s political system best. But he also described another type of politics that hybrid regime countries like Georgia may plunge into: that of “feckless pluralism”.
This version is less autocratic, but also less effective: the ruling class may be pluralistic but lacks competence and sense of responsibility to actually lead the country. Georgia’s task is to escape the procrustean bed of dominant-power politics without getting into a quagmire of feckless pluralism.