Continuing our Election Reports series in conjunction with the journal Electoral Studies, the following post-election report is provided by political scientist Sean Mueller, a PhD student at the University of Kent. Sean’s pre-election report is here; additional commentary on this election from Julie George is here.
On Monday 1 October the Republic of Georgia elected a new parliament. Overall 14 parties and two electoral blocs competed for the vote of the people in the race to gain a parliamentary majority. But the showdown was entirely one between the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM) under President Saakashvili, and the opposition bloc Georgian Dream (GD), led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Results are only slowly pouring in, but provisional figures show GD with 82 and UNM with 68 seats in the new parliament, i.e. with 54.8 and 45.2 per cent, respectively.
Despite the mixed nature of the electoral system and fears that the plurality tier would unduly favor the ruling party, the distribution of seats reflects each side’s share in the vote quite well, GD having gained 53.2, the UNM 41.6 per cent of the vote in the proportional contest. No other party/bloc cleared the threshold of 5 per cent in the proportional tier, nor did any other contesting “electoral subject” win any of the plurality races.
Parties: opposition victory or defeat of the ruling party?
Because it conquered a majority and reduced the ruling party’s parliamentary strength by half, the end result appears to be a clear victory for the opposition. Thus a heterogeneous bloc of six political parties, which initially arose not more than sympathy and even this confined to the country’s capital, emerged as the more successful combination of charisma, resources and haphazard policy ideas. Despite intimidations before and irregularities during the elections, GD came out with a majority (and not just a plurality) of votes in both tiers and, more importantly, also of seats. In the run-up to the elections, the UNM had increasingly come under double pressure to argue why it should be allowed to continue ruling with a supermajority and, more fundamentally, to reassure international observers and NGOs that the election outcome would reflect the actual decision of voters. In the end, Saakashvili became the victim of his own success: to uphold the image of Georgia as the “beacon of freedom” in the Caucasus and to prove his own democratic credentials, the vote needed to be correct. But the mandate that, according to UNM, these elections were to bestow on another four years of liberalization turned into a plebiscite for change. In this, the simple logic of the personalization of politics became once more visible: all credit if things go well, full blame if they don’t. If the prison scandal revealed to many Georgians that, indeed, something was wrong, seriously wrong, with the Georgian state, then a credible opposition appeared as a welcomed protest. The answer to the question of how much in this vote was directed against the UNM – and especially against Saakashvili – and how much was for the opposition – and especially for Ivanishvili – cannot be answered here, but has implications for the medium-term future (see below).
The people: victorious at last
Be that as it may, in the long run the people at large deserve to be credited, too. For to get from the level of indignation – even if collective, public and widespread – to achieving democratic and peaceful change, two additional conditions must be met. The first – necessary for democratic change – is actually turning up to vote. This time, turnout reached a good 61 per cent (2,197,173 voters out of 3,613,851, according to the Central Electoral Commission). 2012 also marks the first increase of relative electoral participation since the advent of democratic elections in Georgia in October 1992. Polarization has certainly contributed to this fact.
Numbers aside, this is the first time in the history of this small country that the electorate successfully votes a government out of power. But even voting is insufficient if not also the second condition – necessary for peaceful change – is met: the willingness on the side of the government to relinquish power. The last time an opposition movement won a landslide victory was in November 2003, but then-President Shevardnadze, a former USSR Foreign Minister, refused to concede defeat. It needed the ensuing “Rose Revolution” to sweep Saakashvili to power. Today, however, the President conceded defeat in a televised speech, stating that “I respect the decision of the Georgian people […] the parliamentary majority should form a new government […] the UNM will go into opposition.” Ivanishvili, on the other hand, already announced that none of current ministers would continue to serve. In that sense, the people are victorious: change is very likely to happen. But Georgia would not be Georgia if it was so simple: complete and sustainable governmental alternation is complicated by at least three factors.
What next in the exercise of power?
The first is constitutional ambiguity. The governmental system of Georgia is semi-presidential, with the president (still) exercising the exclusive right to nominate the Prime Minister and with all cabinet ministers “accountable” to him only (Art. 78). An obligation to change the current UNM-cabinet arises from new presidential, but not parliamentary elections (Art. 77, also pp. 6-13 of the Venice Commission’s 2010 Final Opinion). However, the President in his speech showed statesmanship: “I, as the President, will contribute – in the frames of the constitution – to the process of launching Parliament’s work so that it is able to elect its Chairman and also to form a new government.” So far, so good. But until the new rules that make Georgia a premier-presidential system kick in by October 2013, the president remains powerful. Then, secondly, what kind of parliamentary majority are we dealing with? Overwhelmed more by satisfaction than by joy, Ivanishvili when celebrating his victory in downtown Tbilisi late at night did not forget to remind supporters to “stay calm and remain patient”. He was referring to the process of counting the votes – 24 hours after polls have closed, less than 70 per cent of the 3,612 precinct protocols are uploaded – but his statement may very well be interpreted more generally. His bloc reunites the Republican Party, founded in 1978 and the only actor with parliamentary experience; the Free Democrats of former Ambassador to the UN, Irakli Alasania; the Conservative Party; “Industry Saves Georgia”; the “National Forum”; and Ivanishvili’s own “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia”. So far, the opposition was held together by its leader, but it remains to be seen for how long the six parties are able to impose internal discipline while also agreeing with each other on possibly painful reforms in agriculture, education or foreign policy. That is, thirdly, if they are able to form a durable government in the first place. Since the President can remain in office for another year, he may veto parliamentary decisions, delay implementation or simply refuse to formally appoint certain ministers. And although – or rather: because – Saakashvili is not allowed to stand for presidential re-election next year, his plan to “pull a Putin” may still work: if a UNM candidate, say current PM Merabishvili, was to win the presidency and appoint Saakashvili as PM, it would probably not prove too difficult to co-opt a few MPs and form a different majority – especially so if today’s victors will be frustrated by a possibly very slow working of the first ever case of Georgian cohabitation. But then again, everything may very well turn out completely different. In the peculiar mixture of Western-style majoritarian democracy and Eastern-style cultural environment that is Georgia, one already hears talks of impeachment, resignation, early presidential elections, and yet another constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario seems to be simple stalemate. One thing is sure, though: the precedent whereby the Georgian people wield the ultimate power over who is to rule is unlikely to lead to an authoritarian backslide that many have reproached Saakashvili. But whether – and when – this power is going to turn Georgia into a fully democratic country would be the topic of another post.