Georgia’s Ruling Party Triumphs in Elections. Now for the Hard Part.

The pro-Western ruling party’s decisive victory in parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 8 is a reflection of voters’ preference for stability and staying the course. 

The Georgia Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD) was followed in second place by the United National Movement (UNM), which was in power from 2003-2012. GD will need to work hard to meet the challenges facing the country and must avoid the temptation of consolidating one-party rule. These challenges can be overcome by calm, forward-looking, and practical governance that incorporates input from the UNM.

Recent elections in Georgia have been dramatic, intense, and sometimes painful. This election was not without incident: a bomb went off in a UNM politician’s car, ballot boxes were damaged in some precincts, and several complaints were lodged with the nonpartisan citizen observer group International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED).  Nonetheless, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded after reviewing the reports of thousands of international and domestic election monitors that fundamental freedoms had been respected during the election. In the pre-election period, the media was more pluralistic, improper use of administrative resources was reduced, and parties were able to campaign more freely, making this election an overall improvement over past ones.

Candidates from nineteen parties contested the unicameral parliament’s 150 seats. Seventy-seven of the members are elected through a party-list proportional-representation system; parties maintain their own list of candidates but must win 5 percent of the vote to be allotted seats. GD came away with 48.7 percent of the vote and the UNM had 27.1 percent.  The pro-Russia Alliance of Patriots party (AoP) was the only party other than GD and the UNM to win seats in parliament, managing to cross the 5 percent threshold and earning six seats. Two other notable minority parties fell short. Former Defense Minister and Western darling Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats just missed the threshold with 4.6 percent of the vote.  Alasania has announced he is stepping away from politics after hearing the results. The other notable pro-Western Republican party, headed by former Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli and her husband parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili, earned 1.6 percent of the vote.

The remaining seventy-three seats in parliament are allotted from single-member constituencies and require a 50 percent majority to win outright. These constituencies were redistricted last year to improve the equality of the vote for citizens from more populous regions. In this election, fifty-one of the seventy-three races required runoffs because they did not hit the 50 percent threshold. Despite improvements from last year, gerrymandering was not completely removed from the redistricted constituencies. This tends to favor the ruling party, and indeed, GD will win a super-majority in parliament if its candidates win forty-six of the fifty-one runoffs.

The UNM came away with fewer votes than it had expected, but still achieved a solid overall result and established itself as the only significant opposition party in parliament. Analyst Hans Gutbrod noted that the party’s rhetoric was often negative, which may have turned off voters. He also opined that “[former Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili misstepped by reframing the elections as a referendum on his return” because “many voters may have liked to vote fresh faces of the UNM into prominent roles.”  Despite this, the UNM remains a powerful pro-Western voice with solid support and talented members that can bring a constructive counterbalance to parliament. [Editor’s note: Saakashvili campaigned for the UNM and his wife, who ran for a seat in parliament, is in a tight runoff election. Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship in December of 2015, took Ukrainian citizenship and the job of governor of Odesa oblast in Ukraine earlier in 2015. He had hinted in the run-up to parliamentary elections that he may try and return to Georgia if the UNM did well but then stepped back from this on the eve of elections.]

While voter turnout was not especially high, GD’s victory demonstrates that voters are satisfied with the general trajectory of the past four years. The government successfully created a universal health care system, started to reform the court system, and continued to integrate with Western institutions.  

Former Prime Minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to influence the GD’s agenda behind the scenes. An independent government is an important step toward having a consolidated and pluralist democracy, but this will be difficult to achieve while unelected citizens like Ivanishvili assert influence on policies and politicians.

The GD’s work for the next four years will not be easy, particularly with regard to economic issues where the party has struggled to date. So far, simply cutting regulations and improving the business climate has not been enough to significantly improve the economy. Georgia endures high unemployment, underemployment, partial dependence on foreign assistance and remittances, and unequal distribution of wealth. These problems have contributed to the loss of 15 percent of the population in the past twelve years due mostly to emigration. Hopefully, GD can continue to limit bureaucracy and strengthen the rule of law. Other avenues include improving higher education and professional training opportunities, continuing to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) that creates jobs, and more soberly assessing Georgia’s economic strengths and weaknesses.

Georgia remains in a tough neighborhood. Russia continues to harass Georgian citizens living near Abkhazia and South Ossetia and continues a process of borderization and moving the administrative boundary line further into Georgian territory. The Middle East is increasingly unpredictable: Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in a tense standoff, and the attempted coup in Turkey in July sent shockwaves through the world. The UNM and GD will need to work together to achieve shared foreign policy goals wherever possible. It is imperative not to let political infighting seep into international relations.

The election was a step forward for stability in Georgia. Hopefully, the coming years will bring more practical political discourse and governance in parliament as well as more transparency and accessibility in government overall.  Recognizing and building on past accomplishments, rather than focusing on the offenses of political opponents, will be critical to deepening Georgia’s “island of stability.” This in turn will help solidify democracy and strengthen institutions throughout the country.

Laura Linderman is a nonresident research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

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Image: Georgia's former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (L) and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili wave at a rally of Georgian Dream party after the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 8, 2016. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)