The recent parliamentary election in Georgia saw the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party defeated by the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. This election has been variously described as evidence of the strength of Georgian democracy, a turn toward Russia by Georgia, a victory which Ivanishvili bought by spending lavishly in the United States, Europe and Georgia, the end of UNM domination, and more or less everything in between. It is still too early to know the real meaning of this election, but it is possible to make some observations, and raise some questions.
This election does not make Georgia a democracy: Supporters of President Saakashvili, both inside and outside of Georgia, have argued that because there was a smooth transition of power, orchestrated by Saakashvili, Georgia is now a real democracy. Opponents of Saakashvili have come to a similar conclusion, arguing that the defeat of Saakashvili government now makes Georgia a democracy. There is some accuracy in both these views. By turning over control of the government, Saakashvili helped his country become more democratic; and by defeating one-party UNM dominance, the GD made Georgia more democratic. Nonetheless, Georgia today is still quite a distance from being a democratic country in a truly meaningful sense.
The UNM did not give up easily: It is significant that Saakashvili's decision to concede defeat occurred after an almost year-long campaign of harassing the opposition, arresting opposition activists, limiting access to media and even going so far as to strip his primary opponent of his Georgian citizenship. While it is not possible to determine why Saakashvili didn’t simply steal the election, the explanation that it was the huge international election observer presence, as well as significant outside pressure at the key moment, was a decisive factor. It should not be assumed that a basic democratic impulse in Saakashvili prompted him to admit defeat.
Politics is still a zero sum game in Georgia: After being soundly defeated in the election, Saakashvili didn’t seek to assert his full constitutional and legal authority. Instead, he uncharacteristically turned over all the ministries and essentially the entire government to the GD. This can be interpreted in part to the UNM’s desire to accelerate the transition and respect the will of the people: but it also indicates that Georgian political institutions are not at the point where power and decision making can be shared by more than one party.
Money played a critical, but complex, role: Ivanishvili’s money did not make it possible for him to buy the election, rather it made it possible for him to compete with the UNM, which was able to use governmental assets for partisan political purposes. For example, while Ivanishvili spent millions of dollars of his personal fortune on lobbying efforts in the United States and Europe, the Georgian government had established similar relationships with foreign lobbyists for years to advance causes beneficial both to the country as a whole and to the incumbent political party. By 2011, the government also had turned many embassies, at least partially, into partisan political operations. Only an opposition party which, like the Georgian Dream, had substantial resources of its own could compete with that. Similarly, the UNM relied on government resources to provide staff, travel and space for campaign operations. This would have given UNM candidates an overwhelming advantage against an opposition force that did not have deep pockets.
What does the UNM do now? The UNM has now become the opposition in Georgia, but it is not clear what that means. It is possible that UNM leaders will build support based around a neo-liberal ideology. This could contribute to a multi-party political system in Georgia. The UNM could also become a catch-all party for groups and individuals who become dissatisfied with the GD. Lastly, there is a distinct possibility that the UNM, now that it is out of power, starts to fade away. Toward the end of its tenure, the UNM was, in some respects, simply a governing party whose major allure was its proximity to power and the resources that go with power.
What is needed to create multi-party democracy in Georgia? The central political challenge facing the GD and Georgia is to break the pattern of the post-independence era, in which Georgian politics revolves around a single party. Georgia’s political culture still needs to change dramatically, so that there is room for substantive debate within an agreed upon structure. In other words there needs to be a legal and accepted role for the disagreement and conflict that is central to real democracy. Much of the responsibility for establishing a multi-party system will fall to the GD. The default setting in Georgia is for a one-party system; and the GD is poised to benefit from that setting. It is up to GD leaders, then, to establish a new political tone in Georgia and, perhaps even to recognize that an omnibus ruling coalition, such as the GD is currently constructed, may not be best for Georgian democracy. The GD is now a broad coalition: such a structure may have been needed to defeat the UNM, but Georgian democracy might be better served by seeing the coalition, over the next months or years, break down into its constituent parts.
Did the election result occur because of or in spite of western democratization assistance? The answer is not clear. Western funding certainly played a role in helping civil society groups, including Transparency International and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, raise awareness about corruption, potential election fraud and overreaching by the Saakashvili administration. At the same time, many Western governments seemed to expect the UNM to retain power. Accordingly, Western criticism of the UNM government, on election related issues, seemed restrained. Meanwhile, the GD worked a lot less closely with western democracy assistance organizations than the Rose revolutionaries had in 2003.
What is the real legacy of the Rose Revolution? Some, in the West, see the Rose Revolution as having been led by Western-oriented reformers who attempted to turn Georgia a modern, democratic state. Others believe the revolution ultimately fell short, leaving Georgia once again with a closed government, in which a small group of people controlled most of the power, and who were willing to trample human rights and democratic norms as they wielded authority. There are elements of truth in both these visions, but, the real and complex legacy of the Rose Revolution will become more apparent over time.
The outcome of the Georgian parliamentary elections may, if things go right, move the country further down the path toward Western-style democracy, featuring official accountability and a competitive party system. But the elections may also lead to the collapse of the opposition and the consolidation of a new one-party system. It is obviously too early to know what will happen, but it is not too early to begin to move past the fear and heated rhetoric which dominated the campaign and its immediate aftermath, and at least begin to ask the right questions.
Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. He is a frequent commenter on political development in the former Soviet Union and is currently writing a book on the Color Revolutions. During the parliamentary election campaign, he served as an informal advisor to the Georgian Dream coalition.