Even those situations that should have raised red flags—such as a brutal 2007 crackdown, Georgia’s competitive authoritarian stagnation and the prison scandal—failed to alert all but a few Georgia watchers of the UNM’s unraveling popularity. And much-touted polls, bandied as proof of the ruling party’s popular support, only seem to demonstrate that a strong plurality of respondents were unwilling to honestly state their preferences—possibly out of fear of political reprisals.
“The government was able to cast themselves as a positive force and the opposition as a negative force,” points out Tsereteli, who believes that preferences for simple narratives allowed “monolithic” views of the electoral contest to take root. This view was echoed by Patten, who noted the Georgian government’s success in crafting a brand around such dynamics.
“The Georgian [UNM] government had a great PR operation,” says Patten, pointing out that Georgian Dream's own operation was “less smooth.”
But the UNM’s public-relations savvy may have contributed to their own downfall. Surrounded by an extensive strategic-communications infrastructure that sought to define the race as a stark geopolitical choice between the liberal West and pro-Moscow kleptocracy, the UNM and its advisers were blindsided by a referendum mostly based around domestic concerns.
For the foreign-policy community, the Georgian election is a cautionary tale of the dangers of mistaking branding for reality and choosing personalities over institutions. Given such a misread by the West of ground-level realities and apparent faith in the ruling party’s ability to stay in power, it’s fortunate that the Georgian people have chosen a party that has pledged to continue the country’s Western path.
When Ivanishvili announced his political goals in fall 2011, many found it easy to write him off as yet another curious addition—if an outsized one—to Georgia’s drama-prone politics. But with his party set to control a majority of seats in Georgia’s parliament, no one is writing him off anymore.
Michael Hikari Cecire is an Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he contributes to the Project on Democratic Transitions.