Election Intrigue in Georgia

An outgoing president eyeing a power grab. A tenacious challenger. Unpredictable international responses. Tbsilisi prepares for political drama.

Georgia’s parliamentary elections will take place on October 1. The heated electoral campaign has been underway for some months now, and its final results look unpredictable. The elections are not comparable to past competitions. In fact, they may be one of the most important political events of the last decade.

The October elections open a new electoral cycle, and the following year will see a contest for the presidency. This cycle will underline a period that started after Eduard Shevardnadze was forced out of the Georgian political scene in a 2003 period known as the “Rose Revolution.” The protest also brought to power the current president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and was largely triggered by the 2003 parliamentary elections campaign. More precisely, it was provoked by the interpretation of the people's will.

The 2012–2013 electoral cycle coincides with a series of constitutional amendments coming into force after it is complete. This round of constitutional reform will see redistribution of power between the president, parliament and government. Saakashvili will leave his post as president next year, but that doesn’t mean he will leave Georgian politics. Both the old and new versions of the Georgian constitution allow the outgoing president to serve as speaker of the parliament or prime minister. Tellingly, Saakashvili has remained silent on a possible successor and his political plans after 2013. If he were to continue his political activity as prime minister, Saakashvili would be able to determine the basis of Georgia’s foreign and domestic policy.

The president elected after 2013 will have prerogatives similar to those of the federal president of Germany or any other parliamentary republic. Importantly, the new Georgian constitution creates a system in which any official document is dependent on the prime minister’s signature. However, while the president will be elected by the entire population, the prime minister only needs the support of the parliamentary majority. Thus it remains for Saakashvili to secure such a majority through the upcoming parliamentary victory of the ruling party United National Movement this October.

But unlike the parliamentary elections four years ago, it is now more difficult for Saakashvili and his party to dominate the parliament. Today, it is no longer enough to utilize the administrative resources of the ruling party in order to ensure victory. In 2008, parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the same year. Saakashvili threw all his resources in support of himself and ruling party. Against the background of tough confrontation with Russia, during which experts and politicians openly argued about the possible war with its northern neighbor, it was much easier for the president of Georgia to use patriotic rhetoric against the opposition. The opposition was extremely fragmented, and its leaders waged a political war on two fronts, against each other and the Georgian authorities.

The Challenger

Today, Saakashvili’s United National Movement faces a serious opponent in Bidzina Ivanishvili. Less than a year ago, Ivanishvili rushed to the forefront of Georgian politics, and since that time he has managed to use his tenacity, fighting spirit and political skill to consolidate fragmented and disoriented ranks of the opposition. Now the Georgian authorities are being challenged not by a resigned minister or former deputy and not even by a Saakashvili ally from the Rose Revolution. Instead, they are being challenged by Ivanishvili, a successful businessman, who has been rated by Forbes as one of the world’s wealthiest individuals since 2005. In 2011, the magazine estimated his fortune at $5.5 billion.

Thus Ivanishvili does not owe his success to the current Georgian president, and he is not dependent on Saakashvili either financially or politically. Unlike the vast majority of opposition politicians, Ivanishvili has had opportunities to conduct lobbying activities in the West, the results of which are already coming into view. The attempts of the Georgian authorities to exact influence on their opponent through the traditional administrative methods (deprivation of citizenship, financial checks) have not been successful. On the contrary, these political attacks have earned Ivanishvili a reputation as an oppressed figure and provided him with a wellspring of popular support. Moreover, the well-known oligarch has tried to emphasize his “plebeian” origins. He was born in a village near Chiatura, and the future billionaire’s father worked as a miner.

According to opinion polls, Ivanishvili’s "Georgian Dream" is becoming more famous and popular. Some surveys, including those conducted by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, give his party a solid second place. Clearly, there is still room for Ivanishvili to attract additional electoral support.

Saakashvili and his team understand the need to address the country’s new challenges. The closest companion of the Georgian president, former minister of interior affairs Vano Merabishvili (known as the “grey cardinal” of the Georgian politics), was appointed to the post of prime minister. Practically since the first day of his term, Merabishvili began an active public-relations campaign. For many years following the Rose Revolution, the problems of agriculture and pensions remained outside the focus of Georgian authorities and were considered by Tbilisi to be examples of the "socialist approaches." Today, however, Georgia’s authorities say that the fight against poverty and the inefficiency of the agricultural sector are top priorities.

Despite the pervasive rhetoric about modernization and Westernization, Georgia remains largely a peasant country. Fifty percent of the Georgian population is involved in agricultural production, while 64 percent of all poor people live in the countryside. The ruling authorities do not want to see this class amongst the protesting electorate willing to vote for any force other than the ruling party. Hence the government has adjusted its priorities. It is possible that, given the scheduled constitutional reforms, Merabishvili has been conceived as Saakashvili’s successor as president. However, following what may be a disastrous result for the current government in the upcoming elections, this ambitious politician could be displaced from the top of the Georgian hierarchy.

An Unpredictable Future

The next election cycle will be marked by intrigue. First of all, there is the new role of Mikheil Saakashvili. This question, however, is not only of domestic political importance. The Kremlin has repeatedly said that it will not conduct any negotiations with the current president of Georgia. But if there is change atop Georgia’s Mount Olympus, will Moscow communicate with any of his associates, such as Vano Merabishvi? Or the current mayor of Tbilisi, Giga Ugulava? Or the current chairman of the parliament, David Bakradze?

No less interesting is the intrigue associated with Ivanishvili. Does he really want to aggravate the game? Would he agree with the results of the parliamentary elections or endorse protests such as those seen in November 2003? Will he compete for the presidency in 2013? And, if so, would he accept the constitutional amendments in their entirety?

The question on the future foreign-policy priorities of Ivanishvili will remain. This politician made his successful business career in Russia. But that link to Russia will not guarantee a radical shift in the Georgian approaches to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russian Caucasus policy.

While Georgian politicians and experts look for responses these questions, Washington and Brussels have sent an unambiguous signal to Tbilisi. All the talks about increasing cooperation with NATO will be possible only in the case of successful elections and a civilized transition of power. Both Americans and Europeans have strongly emphasized that for them the importance of Georgia is not tied solely to the person of the current president. It seems that, above all else, the West wants predictability from their Georgian partner. For now, they will just have to wait out what is an unpredictable year.

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Image: European People's Party