Georgia's Election Was about More Than Russia

Posters in Tbilisi during Georgia’s parliamentary election. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Shuvaev

What Georgians themselves are saying about the country’s recent election.

During the month of October, Georgians overwhelmingly reelected the governing Georgian Dream (GD) political party, founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, which in 2012 defeated then president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). GD won a huge mandate (49 to 27 percent in the popular vote) and won nearly every seat contested in the districts, securing a supermajority of 115 parliamentary seats. UNM won twenty-nine seats, and the opposition Alliance of Patriots won six seats.

This was the most democratic election Georgia has ever experienced. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the October election was “competitive, well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected.”

Most analysts expected a much closer vote, with a hung parliament as a likely outcome. To help craft the right policy towards Georgia, Western policymakers need to understand what brought about this unexpected result. Helping Georgia consolidate its democracy requires guarding against the possibility that it will slide back into autocratic politics from which it recently emerged.

How Did We Get Here?

Many in the West viewed Georgia’s ex-president Saakashvili as a democrat. Yet he had governed Georgia essentially through authoritarian methods—opposition had been marginalized; business was completely state captured; many lived in a state of fear. Though on the surface there was democratic electoral competition, Saakashvili’s Georgia was a perfect example of “competitive authoritarianism.” In spite of this, especially after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, many in the United States, especially conservatives, supported Saakashvili, including with huge financial aid.

Saakashvili’s luck began to run out in 2011, when Ivanishvili challenged him. Having made his fortune as an oligarch in Russia, by the late 1990s Ivanishvili was living a reclusive philanthropic life in Georgia. In the mid-2000s, Ivanishvili was a primary source of capital for Saakashvili. But once he became active in politics, he used his immense wealth to develop support abroad, unify virtually all opposition parties into one electoral bloc, and create his own TV channel. All of this led his Georgian Dream party to win the 2012 election.

In office, GD had some notable accomplishments: many businesses that had been taken over by Saakashvili’s allies were returned to their original owners, television stations were freed from state control, significant improvements were made to the healthcare system, and Georgia’s relationship with Europe in particular continued to improve (for example, Georgia is about to be approved for visa-free travel into the EU).

Most importantly, Ivanishvili did something remarkable: after being in office for nearly a year, he resigned as prime minister (although he may remain in control behind the scenes). In post-Soviet politics, no politician had given up power at the height of popularity; indeed, most transitions in post-Soviet countries, even when peaceful, have happened under heavy protests or strong Western pressure.

The Election Results

By late 2016, GD had lost significant support, largely due to a slowing Georgian economy. However, UNM’s support did not improve, hovering in the range of 25 to 30 percent. According to pre-election polling, a large portion of GD’s supporters had defected to smaller parties. As a result, many observers thought that five or six parties had a real shot at getting past the 5 percent threshold necessary to secure seats in the parliament. There was a strong chance GD would need to form a coalition to govern.

Instead, GD won an overwhelming victory with 115 parliamentary seats and, in addition to UNM, only the Alliance of Patriots made it into parliament.

This happened because many 2012 GD voters, who had switched support to smaller parties, coalesced back around GD.

According to both pro- and anti-UNM analysts and opinion makers, this largely happened because UNM made Saakashvili the center of its campaign. Saakashvili made regular campaign appearances via video at UNM rallies and on TV, making clear that his intention was to eventually return to Georgia. There also surfaced recordings of UNM leaders and Saakashvili speaking about pursuing a “revolutionary” path if they did not succeed at the polls.

This was the explanation of Davit Usupashvili, the former speaker of parliament (who had been part of GD’s coalition in 2012 but ran independently in 2016 and did not win reelection): “Mr. President . . . successfully performed this role [of a scarecrow] and the result of these elections will be . . . due to this.” In Usupashvili’s estimation, Saakashvili remains so unpopular in Georgia that his interference scared the Georgian voting public away from UNM.