After electing a new president in an October 27 vote seen as both clean and exceptionally uneventful, the South Caucasus country of Georgia is now entering a period of uncertainty.
With nearly 100 percent of ballots counted, it appears Giorgi Margvelashvili, the personal pick of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has secured a convincing victory with 62.12 percent of the vote. Among the nearly two dozen candidates in the election, his closest rival, Davit Bakradze of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, trailed far behind at 21.72 percent. Turnout, at 46.6 percent, was the lowest for a national election in the past decade.
But low voter participation did not trouble a jubilant Ivanishvili. At a joint news conference with Margvelashvili on October 28, the prime minister expressed surprise at Bakradze’s returns, but described the presidential election as “very cultured” and thanked voters for showing appreciation for his pick for president, whom he described as a “genius.”
International observers praised the conduct of the vote. Describing the election as “positive and transparent,” João Soares, the special coordinator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s short-term observer mission, declared that “[t]his clean election following a political cohabitation tells me that Georgia’s democracy is maturing.”
But that period of cohabitation is now coming to an end. President Saakashvili, in office since 2004, will step down after the new president’s inauguration, expected on November 17. He is not, however, the only political figure leaving. Prime Minister Ivanishvili has announced his intention as well to retire from politics – probably on November 24, at a Georgian-Dream convention.
The duo’s departure comes amid a paradigm shift in Georgia’s political life. Constitutional reform has shifted the center of political gravity away from the president’s office and toward parliament, controlled by Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, and a yet-to-be-announced, new prime minister, representative of the parliamentary majority.
“Very soon the two top leaders in Georgia will be two men who had very little name recognition in Georgia recently, let alone the rest of the world,” said Thomas de Waal, a longtime Caucasus analyst and a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
“That is both the good news and the bad news,” de Waal continued. “Georgia has strong traditions of pluralism, if not democracy, which will be well served by a more parliamentary system and less dominating leaders.”
De Waal forecast that, while “[t]he media and judiciary will have the chance to grow stronger,” “more intrigue, more muddle, less competence,” potentially damaging to the economy, could come as well.
For now, the bulk of the intrigue in Georgia centers on the identity of the person who will follow Ivanishvili as prime minister – a pick widely seen as the billionaire politician’s own. Media speculation suggests a choice between Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and Health Minister Davit Sergeenko, both tied to Ivanishvili’s past in business and philanthropy.
The views of either man beyond his own policy sphere are largely unknown. But some onlookers believe that, now that the Georgian-Dream coalition has consolidated its political positions, it needs to look forward – particularly on the economic front -- rather than back at what it terms the injustices of the Saakashvili era.
“If the government does not improve its efficiency -- that is, does not start taking decisions and responsibilities -- economic stagnation is inevitable,” said Sergi Kapanadze, a former deputy foreign minister under Saakashvili and a co-founder of the think-tank, Georgia Reforms Associates. The year-to-year economic growth rate stood at just over 1 percent in August.
“Most importantly, you need to take a strategic decision on what kind of country and economy we are going to have: free investment and market-based, or oriented toward social spending and protectionism?” Kapanadze said.
“In general, there needs to be a real vision for the country and I don’t think there is one yet,” agreed Mark Mullen, a former country director of the National Democratic Institute and a frequent commentator on Georgia. “Misha [Saakashvili] had his. … But the new team, I am not sure how they see it. Part of that is because it is such a big tent.”
The Georgian Dream, a diverse collection of political forces, was glued together by Ivanishvili’s presence and a collective desire to oust the Saakashvili government from power: beyond that, coalition members have few shared views. With Saakashvili leaving and Ivanishvili stepping aside, alliance members may now start focusing more on their own interests, some believe.
Kapanadze does not see that as necessarily negative. “Disintegration of the coalition will be a healthy process,” he said. “They could form temporary, issue-based coalitions in the future.”
Saakashvili’s United National Movement also will face a survival test. It remains the largest legislative minority, but the election showed that it falls far behind the Georgian Dream in terms of public support. “[T]hey will need to be more honest about their past mistakes if they want to have much of a dialogue with the Georgian public and policy-makers,” Mullen said. The UNM’s reluctance to admit to its failures could further undermine its standing with the Georgian public, he added.
Kapanadze believes that, to remain relevant, the UNM needs to reshuffle its party ranks, and liberalize its party structure, putting forward people who truly embrace western democratic values and who were not involved in the scandals of the past. “I don’t believe that a party … built around one or two figures, will be successful in Georgia, be it the UNM or Georgian Dream.”
Some observers believe that while Ivanishvili may retire in name, he will remain the shadow leader of the country. Ivanishvili, a declared investor in a $6-billion fund to amp up Georgia’s economy, says he wants to end the era of messianic leaders and allow an active civil society to control a government free of all-powerful figures.
But, so far, it is still unclear to what degree the billionaire prime minister will follow his own advice.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist who lives in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to Eurasianet's Tamada Tales blog.