Single Party Rule Returns to Georgia
Source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
The opposition parties share responsibility for the low turnout. The main opposition party – the United National Movement – failed to rebrand itself despite it being clear the party’s old faces and arrogant tone were reminiscent of their heavy-handed rule from 2004 to 2012. The former ruling party still hasn’t distanced itself from ex-president and party leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who spoiled the campaign by making controversial statements just ahead of Election Day.
The folly of Georgia’s pro-Western liberal parties, namely the Free Democrats and the Republicans, also contributed to Georgian Dream’s constitutional majority. It was clear before the elections that these parties wouldn’t pass the five percent threshold working alone. Yet they refused to build a coalition that could have gotten them into government. Following the election result, several members of the Free Democrats quit the party and declared the intention to cooperate with Georgian Dream—perhaps with the ulterior motive of ingratiating themselves with the new government. Similarly, former Parliament Speaker David Usupashvili quit the Republican Party to launch a solo political career.
Still, the elections were free and fair and Georgia appears to have made the move from a country in transition to a consolidating democracy. Ensuring that consolidation continues will depend on several factors. The first is Georgian Dream ruling effectively and responsibly. They must avoid the temptation to abuse their constitutional majority. Good starting points would be to strengthen constitutional checks and balances and increasing channels for dialogue with other parties, civil society organizations, and the public at large.
Transitioning from a mixed parliamentary system with a high electoral threshold—it currently stands at five percent—to a proportional system with a lower threshold would potentially increase the number of parties represented in parliament. This is particularly relevant now; the Free Democrats and the Republicans were shut out of the new parliament for failing to pass the threshold. Another welcome move would be for billionaire Georgian Dream patron Bidzina Ivanishvili to stop influencing things from the shadows; either he should enter politics on an official basis or withdraw altogether. Currently he enjoys an unhealthy combination of too much influence and too little official responsibility.
For its part, the National Movement needs to reconsider its role in society. Its days as a ruling force are over; former leaders like Saakashvili have become more hindrance than help with their unruly, attention-seeking behavior. In order to contribute to Georgia’s democratic development, the party needs to become part of a constructive opposition and present ideas for improving quality of government. Although there are sound differences in their socio-economic platforms, Georgian Dream and the United National Movement don’t occupy opposite ideological poles—both are devoted to market-oriented economic development and eventual EU and NATO membership. Working together should be easier for two groups that want essentially the same things.
Lastly, the country’s established parties need to respond to the growing popularity of nationalism. The conservative nationalist Alliance of Patriots crossed the five percent threshold to enter parliament. Its six seats won’t be enough to affect legislation but do provide a platform for propagating anti-liberal, NATO- and Euro-skeptic messages to a much larger audience. Exposure to the policymaking process may push the party toward pragmatism, but it could also use the bully pulpit to promote xenophobia. Either way, growing nationalism is something the mainstream parties can’t afford to ignore.