Campaigns and elections

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: 2012 Georgian Parliamentary Elections Pre-Election Report

Joshua Tucker Sep 29 '12

Continuing our Election Reports series in conjunction with the journal Electoral Studies, the following pre-election report is provided by political scientist “Sean Mueller”:https://sites.google.com/site/sstmueller, a PhD student at the University of Kent.

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On Monday 1 October the Republic of Georgia elects a new parliament. On the surface, 14 parties and two electoral blocs compete for 150 seats. But three more profound issues are at stake in this post-Soviet country that by 2013 will have switched from a president-parliamentary to a premier-presidential type, as Robert Elgie notes “here”:http://www.semipresidentialism.com/?p=426 and in reply to Matthew Shugart “here”:http://fruitsandvotes.com/?p=6418. For an outside observer those issues are, in increasing order of importance, the credibility of the political system, the leadership of the country, and its future state of democracy. (For insiders the order might be reversed; see below.)

The Ugly: Georgia’s very own Abu Ghraib?

At the height of the electoral campaign, a major human rights scandal sent shockwaves through the Georgian society. On 18 September, the Interior Ministry “announced”:http://www.police.ge/index.php?m=8&date=2012.9.18&newsid=3516 the arrest of three guards in the infamous Gldani Prison No. 8, near Tbilisi, and released a video showing the beating of a prisoner. Shortly thereafter, opposition channel “Maestro TV”:http://www.iptv.ge/en/tv/Maestro/ aired another “footage”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB1-5qprsmQ, and the other opposition TV “Channel 9”:http://canlive.tv/live/13019/tv-9.html aired yet a third “video”:http://www.youtube.com/verify_age?next_url=/watch%3Fv%3DIJ1qcbLeCsY in which prisoners were raped by their guards using a broomstick and rubber bat. The outcry of anger, fear and shame was huge. A crowd gathered the same evening in front of Philharmonic House, where President Saakashvili attended a show, demanding the resignation of one man: Bacho Akhalaia. Akhalaia, minister of Defence, was in charge of the penitentiary system between 2005 and 2008, but was “allegedly”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25225 still running Georgia’s prisons; he “resigned”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25233 on 20 September. But the political leadership continues to oscillate between promises to thoroughly and impartially “investigate”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25255 the abuse and accusing the opposition to “fabricate”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25235 the videos with the sole aim of winning the elections. We will never know what the full truth is. However, the Georgian Ombudsman has long been one of the few voices to draw attention to the “incredible silence in the Establishment in Gldani, with over 3500 persons” (p. 223 of the “2011 Annual Report”:http://www.ombudsman.ge/files/downloads/en/hcqkqyhblwldxcayqiwg.pdf). At least he now has the full attention of the country, if not the whole world, in trying to tackle this ugly business: President Saakalshvili put him in charge of overseeing the prison reform. It will also be very difficult to continue ignoring Georgia’s vibrant Human Rights activists.

The Bad: discrediting the contender

If one compares the election platforms of the two main contenders, one is struck by their similarities. The government party controls no less than 82 per cent of the seats, i.e. 112 (the total number of seats is 150, but the 13 seats attributed to Abhkhazia and Samachablo/South-Ossetia remain empty for as long these two territories are occupied by Russia).

The UNM under President Saakashvili “promises”:http://www.unm.ge/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=2&lang=en to create jobs, provide free health care, and invest in agriculture, education and infrastructure. The main opposition, the “Georgian Dream” bloc led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, equally “declares”:http://www.georgiandream.ge/eng,georgian-dream-coalition,coalition-declaration to combat unemployment, work on health care and education, and “empower the village”:http://www.georgiandream.ge/eng,georgian-dream-coalition,policy-plans as a means to foster agriculture. This electoral contest is less one about policy-issues and the nitty-gritty of budgetary and technical details. What is at stake here, apart from re-establishing the credibility of the political system shattered by the prison scandal, is a principle decision on the future direction of the country: authoritarian post-Sovietism or Western freedom, clingy nationalism or global competition, relegation to Russia’s backyard or full NATO membership. At least this is what both sides try to make the electorate believe. Moreover, it is not entirely clear who is pulling in which direction. Saakashvili, who came to power through the Rose Revolution of 2003, has all but eradicated corruption, stimulated foreign investments, and even sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the US. But he also violently and repeatedly clamped down on opposition protests (in November 2007 and May 2008), led Georgia through the war with Russia in August 2008, and stripped Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship after the latter announced to run in the election. All that is known of Ivanishvili, on the other hand, is that he made his huge fortune in Russia, returned to Georgia to live a philanthropic but secluded life until “last October”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24022 and that he was able to at least partially unify the fragmented opposition forces. In this situation, many Georgians might prefer the evil they know over the one they don’t, for as a Georgian saying goes: “the accustomed ill is a better one”…

The Good: the state of Georgian democracy

In contrast to the recent elections in Belarus, Ukraine or Russia, and unlike the situation in neighboring Azerbaijan or Armenia, democracy overall is in quite a good shape in Georgia. Depending on your principle attitude, one might want to emphasize either the “quite” or the “good” in the previous sentence, for the following reasons. For 2012, “Freedomhouse”:http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2012/Georgia classifies Georgia as “partly free”, with an overall democracy score of 4.82: the same as in 2003, with some progress in terms of the judiciary and the media and significant improvements in fighting corruption. For the “Economist”:http://www.economist.com/node/16847798 Georgia has even “reinvented itself as the star of the Caucasus”. In view of the upcoming elections, the Georgian Parliament “approved”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25069 so-called “must-carry” rules, according to which the two opposition channels, which only broadcast over satellite, have to be taken onboard by all cable-TV providers on which the rural areas of Georgia rely. The Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR attested to the overall positive features of the new electoral system in their joint “report”:http://www.osce.org/odihr/86401 of last year. This system, last reformed in June 2012, provides for the election of 73 MPs in single-member constituencies and 77 MPs elected through a closed-list proportional system in a single, nation-wide constituency. Candidates need at least 30 per cent of the valid votes in the plurality tier, otherwise a run-off between two best-placed contenders takes place within two weeks. Only parties/electoral blocs that pass the five percent threshold are entitled to proportional seats; the two tiers are not connected (pp. 2-3 of the “OSCE Interim Report no. 1”:http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/Georgia2012). Finally, despite not being a Georgian citizen anymore, Ivanishvili can run both for MP and president, in October 2013, since parliament passed a tailor-made constitutional amendment to this effect. However, stories of the abuse of administrative resources for political purposes are numerous as well (see Transparency International Georgia’s “pre-election analysis”:http://www.osgf.ge/files/publications/pre.pdf): Georgian Dream was fined 1.45 million USD for “accepting unlawful donations”; Ivanishvili himself was fined 45 million USD (that’s forty-five, yes) for “making illegal donations”, notably to his own party; over 130’000 satellite dishes that Georgian Dream distributed for free throughout the country were seized; Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank was temporarily placed under state control; and even the company that rented out office space to Georgian Dream was fined ca. 300’000 USD. Finally while several teachers and school directors were dismissed because they became members of the opposition, local government officials who publicly encouraged residents to vote for the UNM remain in place. In sum, competition is free, but not fair; the media are allowed to say what they want, but only few will hear critical words; and the opposition hangs on the personal wealth of Ivanishvili. In a “poll”:http://electionswatch.org/2012/07/16/ndi-poll-indicates-two-way-race-in-october-elections-in-georgia/ conducted in June 2012, 18 per cent of the respondents said they would vote for Georgian Dream, and 36 for the UNM (N=6229, 22 per cent undecided). The opposition is up from 10 per cent in February 2012, the latter down from 47 per cent. Because of the recent scandal, this race has probably become even tighter. But the question that Georgians might ask themselves is not whether the democratic glass is half full or half empty. The more pressing problems, such as the dire state of the economy, the occupied territories, the 270’000 Internally Displaced Persons (according to “UNHCR”:http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e48d2e6) as well as dealing with the gross human violations in prisons and the judicial sector at large, require long-term plans which neither of two main contenders is able to offer. But will public outrage and Ivanishvili’s funds suffice to produce Georgia’s first ever cohabitation?