National Movement-the end of unity
It has been officially confirmed. The United National Movement (UNM), a former ruling team and country’s most powerful opposition party, no longer exists in the form it has survived until the present day. Part of the leaders and the majority of MPs representing the UNM in parliament have abandoned the party.
The split wasn’t a peaceful one. Those, who abandoned the party slammed the doors behind them.
At a briefing on January 12, former party leaders spared no criticism of Mikheil Saakashvili, referring to him as a politician who ‘no longer radiates leadership’, comparing him to an old car that should be junked.
“The only person responsible for this collapse is the man who established this party,” said Gigi Ugulava, one of the leaders who abandoned the party. He once used to be Saakshvili’s friend and companion-in-arms.
Ex-president responded to his fellow teammates’ allegations through the Facebook: “Our people showed their strength and did not allow implementation of Ivanishvili’s plan to take over the National Movement and distance me from the party…for me, today is the day of liberation of the National Movement and its return to people”! said Mikheil Saakashvili.
Thus ended almost a 4-month long public controversy between the former teammates, that had emerged after the October 8, 2016 parliamentary elections.
What’s the reason for Saakashvili’s party members being at odds with each other?
Earlier, there had been reports on certain problems within the party, but almost no one expected this political team to be facing the processes that followed October 8 parliamentary elections.
The UNM came second in this election with 27% of votes. The election winner Georgian Dream party got 49% and gained the constitutional majority thanks to its candidates who won the election in the majority constituencies.
Different opinions emerged in the second-place winner National Movement as to the causes of party’s failure, as well as the legitimacy of elections, in general.
Part of the UNM members and supporters thought, recognition of the election results was inadmissible, because, as they believed, the elections were unfair. They demanded from the UNM’s elected MPs to boycott the legislative body and give up on their MP mandates. In their view, the struggle should have been continued in the street.
Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-President and former UNM leader, also shared this position, referring to the elections as ‘totally rigged.’
Such evaluation of October 8 elections was radically different from the local and international observers’ conclusions, according to which, despite some individual incidents (including the attacks on several polling stations), the elections reflected the voters’ free will.
Not all UNM members shared Saakashvili’s radical position. A ‘moderate’ wing of the party, including the UNM’s incumbent leadership and the majority of MPs representing the party in parliament, decided to continue their work in the legislative body, thus angering their opponents.
Meanwhile, the UNM members and supporters initiated a debate, first in private conversations and on social media, and later in mass media, on the reasons of defeat of the United National Movement, that was ruling the country for 9 years (2003-2012) and standing as the Georgian Dream government’s most inconvenient and fierce opponent in the subsequent 4 years.
This debate on social media grew into a real confrontation, in course of which the representatives of different wings didn’t hesitate to affront each other, referring to each other as the ‘leadership fans’ and ‘won-over by Ivanishvili’. Social media users observed live the breakup of the party that was once regarded as the most powerful, uniform and well-structured political association in Georgian political arena.
The representatives of ‘moderate’, so-called ‘Bokeria’s wing’ (Giga Bokeria, the Secretary of the National Security Council during the former government and Saakashvili’s long-time companion-in-arms) expressed the opinion that Mikheil Saakashvili’s overly active participation in the election campaign, his Facebook posts and video messages, in which he stated about his return to Georgia sometimes through a tunnel and other times by sea, possibly did the UNM a bad service and ‘scared’ the neutral electorate that was discontent with the Georgian Dream’s rule.
Mikheil Saakashvili’s criticism on part of the fellow team members outraged another part of the UNM, the so-called ‘radicals’. They blamed the ‘moderate wing’ for secret bargains with the government. And Mikheil Saakashvili actually shared this opinion. Saakashvili addressed the supporters at UNM’s campaign rally in Zugdidi via Skype from Ukraine, saying: ‘I know what kind of secret bargains are there, what talks the matter concerns and who is promised what.’
A confrontation around the elections became irreversible and even more large-scale after the party’s incumbent leadership announced about transformation of the UNM, which, among other things, implied election of a new chairman.
This post is vacant so far. Mikheil Saakashvili, the UNM founder and its chair until 2012, has been persecuted by the Georgian government. Criminal proceedings against him have been instituted and he has been deprived of Georgian citizenship. Thus, he couldn’t hold any formal post in the party.
“We believe that in order to defeat Bidzina Ivanishvili [a non-official leader of the Georgian Dream party], we should advance forward as a party. This implies that the party should have new members, new chairmen, we should be a uniform team and offer some novelties to the public,” said Elene Khoshtaria, MP from the United National Movement.
The party was to elect a new chairman at the party congress, which, according to the party leadership, should have brought together 2,000 delegates.
Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters regarded this plan proposed by ‘Bokeria’s wing’ as an attempt to distance Saakashvili from his party and declared a deadly war on it. The former president supported the idea of holding a more impressive mass meeting, that would be attended by 7,000 delegates, so that the party chairman could be elected by broader representation.
On November 29, the UNM’s 50-member political board backed, with a 1-vote lead, Saakashvili supporters’ proposal to hold 7,000-delegate party congress. The congress was scheduled for January 20.
A Procedural War
Saakashvili supporters’ camp regarded the political board’s decision as its victory and started preparing for the congress.
David Bakradze, ex-speaker of Georgian Parliament and currently the parliamentary minority leader, tried to make a conciliatory move, saying there had never been any plans to expel Saakashvilis from the party. He added that neither he himself, nor other members, would stand for chairmanship, so the chairman’s post would remain vacant.
However, instead of relaxation, the situation was further aggravating day by day.
Saakashvili’s supporters started organizing the party congress independently from the political board. A corresponding 6-member commission was set up. ‘Saakashvili’s wing’ started mobilizing its regional delegates and supporters bypassing the party leadership. The ‘moderates’ regarded the ‘radicals’ move as a party coup attempt.
The opposing parties, that were companions-in-arms some time ago, found it difficult even to gather at the same table. On December 27, the party’s political board meeting, during which this and some other disputable issues were to be address, was canceled. Saakashvili’s supporters didn’t show up for the political board meeting.
In response to the radicals’ move, Sergo Ratiani, the party executive secretary and the ‘moderate wing’ member, appealed to the Central Election Commission, requesting to withdraw some of Saakashvili’s supporter candidates from the parliamentary list. The aforesaid outraged the ‘radicals’ and further tensed the situation.
On January 6, the Appellate Court commuted a sentence to Gigi Ugulava, ex-Mayor of Tbilisi, who had been sent to prison for the embezzlement of budget funds and whom the UNM regarded as a political prisoner.
Upon his release, Ugulava said, he was going to use even ‘a 1% chance’ of maintaining unity in the party and would talk to the leaders of both wings. At the same time, he referred to Saakashvili’s supporters as ‘library deviationists’ (the wing members chose Saakashvili’s library as a temporary residence), which outraged the latter. Ugulava also talked to Mikhail Saakashvili on the phone. However, later, Tbilisi ex-mayor, who was referred to by Saakashvili’s supporters as ‘Bokeria’s gang member’, admitted that there wasn’t any chance of maintaining unity.
As a result of the procedural war, the parties’ positions radically distanced from each other, whereas aggression and mutual accusations made reconciliation absolutely impossible.
On January 12, this party officially split in two, turning former companions-in-arms into political opponents.
Saakashvili’s team members are preparing for January 20 party congress. 7,000 delegates are expected to participate in congress, whereas their leader will address them via Skype from Ukraine.
Saakashvili’s supporters believe, the UNM has not been affected by this breakup.
Despite the differences, the UNM opposing parties are unanimous in the opinion that the ongoing processes within the UNM serve the interests of the ruling Georgian Dream party and its informal leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
As a result of October parliamentary elections, Ivanishvili managed to get hold of unprecedented power.
There have been sweeping changes in Georgian political spectrum after the October 8 elections. The defeated opposition parties – the Republicans, Free Democrats, the State for People, have been abandoned by their leaders and members. These parties no longer represent a force that should be reckoned with, whereas part of their leaders have not only quitted the party activity, but have left the politics, in general.
The United National Movement remains the only powerful, pro-Western oppositional force with the governance experience, parliamentary resources and international ties. Despite the fact that after losing power in 2012, many of its leaders were sent to prison on various charges, unlike their forerunner ruling parties, the UNM didn’t break up. On the contrary, it stood as a fierce and efficient opponent to the government over the past 4 years.
However, it seems that the party has run out of its unity resource. One more failure in the parliamentary elections turned out to be fatal to the UNM. Both parties to a certain extent admit that split in the only powerful opposition force will seriously affect country’s interests and democracy, though they have failed to avoid such a scenario.
As Korneli Kakachia, the Director of Georgian Institute of Politics, told JAMnews, a split in the National Movement will create ‘great problem in terms of political stability and sustainability of the political system.’
In his view, in this case there won’t be any traditional opposition parties, that represent the interests of certain layers and groups of the society, whereas the ruling party will no longer have a strong opposition in the form of an influential party.
“It’s a burden that should be assumed by the civil society and business circles. And nobody knows, what will be the outcome of it.”
According to Kakachia, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the liberal political parties are facing crisis, which forms a certain political vacuum. The latter is a serious problem for country’s democratic development.
By the next elections, Saakashvili’s wing of the National Movement will apparently shape into a party comprising solely Saakashvili’s supporters, with significant, but still limited electoral resources. As for the UNM’s breakup group, although it will have such experienced leaders as David Bakradze, Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava, but it will have to win the electorate’s liking and form a party structure virtually from the scratch.
According to Korneli Kakachia, this spit will affect both parties, though who will maintain greater influence largely depends on which party will have more financial resources or influence on mass media.
The local government elections that are scheduled for this autumn will be the first test for both parts of the former ruling party.