Georgia (still) without political parties
The break-up of the United National Movement (UNM) was loud and acrimonious. It looked like a divorce with erstwhile partners throwing pots and pans at each other and exchanging insults for everybody to see and hear. But now it’s time to forget the hullabaloo of it. Let’s ask: What has actually changed in Georgia’s political landscape?
First one should note what this landscape is like, how similar it is to that of developed democracies? Political party system is the most important indicator. Established democracies have stable and robust parties (lately, they started to weaken in many places, which called for the talk of democracy decline). We do not have such parties, and have never had them.
The row in UNM confirmed this yet again. One can put the events in the context of serial suicides of political parties after October parliamentary elections. Free Democrats and Government for the People, two parties that were confident about clearing a five percent threshold and were actually close to it, collapsed as soon as the results were announced. Republicans, who never had a chance but were still considered a tangible political force by some, split as well. That’s how vulnerable and neurotic our political parties are: they cannot stand the shock of defeat and run to the nearest pond to drown themselves.
The UNM was supposed to be different: it gave a hope of transforming itself into a genuine party. It was the first to endure three political cycles: being created as an opposition movement, it later became a ruling party and, finally, survived the loss of power, even though the new government put full destruction of its predecessors to the top of its agenda. Nobody had ever achieved that much in Georgia. UNM defeat in the last parliamentary elections was naturally disappointing for its supporters but objectively speaking, the result was not that bad: the party remained effectively the only opposition force that positioned it well for the future.
All Georgian political parties of consequence were created around single powerful leaders and remained fully dependent on them.
But the toughest and most painful test was still ahead: this was the issue of leadership. All Georgian political parties of consequence were created around single powerful leaders and remained fully dependent on them. Most of the electorate saw UNM as a party of Mikheil Saakashvili. This was simultaneously its strength (because ‘Misha’ has many loyal followers) and weakness. It constituted weakness not because there also are so many Misha-haters out there, but because a party dependent on a single person is substantively weak or, strictly speaking, is not a party at all. If something happens to the leader, the party disappears (as it happened to Eduard Shevardnadze’s and Aslan Abashidze’s parties after their political departures), or splinters into numerous groups that hate each other (as ‘Zviadists’ did after Zviad Gamsakhurdia was no longer around).
The issue of leadership has been UNM’s weakest point during the recent years. After Saakashvili became a Ukrainian politician and gave up Georgian citizenship, he legally lost a right to lead a political party in Georgia, and could not serve as effective leader anyway. Who had to take up that role instead?The party leadership in Tbilisi (those who have now became a ‘splinter-group’) counted on the party transforming itself into a European-style organization based on a transparent platform and procedures rather than willpower of a single person, however popular and deserving. They did not presume this to imply distancing themselves from Saakashvili, much less condemning him: He would continue being a symbolic leader, but give up the pretense of actually running a party.
The paradox of it all was that the success of the project to overcome a condition of a party dependent on a single person was so much contingent on the goodwill of that same person, Mikheil Saakashvili. This constituted fundamental weakness of this group that was eventually forced to break away, and, in hindsight, their vision looks somewhat naïve. Why would Saakashvili agree to give up control over the party he created? In reality, the deal might not had been so bad for him. It was anyway difficult to run the party from afar, and the ambiguity thus created hampered his success in Ukraine. The chance of winning 2016 elections were slim (and Saakashvili never counted on it), so he did not had a strong interest to be held responsible for the party’s activities. It appeared to be strategically smarter to allow the Georgian people additional time to get even more disappointed with policies of the ‘Georgian Dream’ (GD) and start missing Misha’s ‘Golden era’.If and when such period arrived, for most people Saakashvili would still be associated with UNM, the strongest force of the opposition.
But this was not how Saakashvili saw it. The divorce was not only conditioned by personal ambitions, however important they might be: significant differences of strategic vision were also involved. Apparently, Saakashvili does not believe that Ivanishvili will ever give up power through the electoral process (exactly as his own opponents had thought about himself), therefore UNM had to be a party of mass protest and wait for the inevitable and imminent implosion of the GD government, after which it would capture power through more or less revolutionary means. Without these assumptions, one cannot make sense of Saakashvili urging the party not to recognize results of 2016 elections and boycottParliament.
The other group within the party did not theoretically rule out that such scenario might materialize one day; but they did not think Georgian people craved for another revolution at this point. Moreover, they believed too radical rhetoric and tactics would help Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government to scare the electorate with the threat of instability coming from UNM. Indeed, this was the essence of the GD’s real electoral message: “We may not have great achievements to boast of, but if you want to avoid turmoil and conflict, you should still vote for us”. The future break-away group thought that Saakashvili’s radical pre-election rhetoric reinforced the government’s message; it seems this was the accusation he could not take from his erstwhile teammates. The narrative of the conflict between the small “cabinet elite” on the one hand and “rank-and file activists” or “regular people” on the other was a piece of political technology,which Saakashvili used with precision.
On the tactical level, Saakashvili’s victory is complete: he maintained the brand of the UNM as well as most loyal and active followers. But what is the strategic outcome? If the leader’s core vision does not change, UNM should now wait for the break-down of the Georgian Dream government and count on riding a tide of radical protest – something that led the 2007-2009 “anti-Misha” protesters to full marginalization. GD can hardly be called a successful government; but for the four years, its numerous mistakes did not amount to something like a catastrophe. How do we know a crisis will happen any time soon? And how politically expedient it is to be a party counting on the national disaster? How long can a political leader cheer his enthusiastic but impatient supporters from abroad, while they fail to make any dent in Ivanishvili’s regime?
The break-away group has tough challenges ahead of them as well. It has to build a distinct political identity and solid support base largely from scratch, which may prove difficult without genuinely charismatic leaders. However, political experience, parliamentary platform and being effectivelythe only player in the non-Saakashvili oppositioncamp provides for a good starting point.
Predicting future is a thankless task, though: let us wait and see what happens. But there are at least two things we know for sure. For now, the divorce of the UNM left one winner only: this is the Georgian Dream or Bidzina Ivanishvili. And secondly: there are no real political parties in Georgia, and there are still no signs of them emerging.