Zaal Anjaparidze is a political analyst in Georgia who wrote this analysis for Transitions Online, a Prague-based online news and policy magazine, where this was first published.
The rhetoric has been more heated, the competition more personal, the electorate more polarised than any election since 2003. Allegations of shady campaign financing have often overshadowed substantive issues. The release last week of shocking videos showing prison guards abusing inmates, which fuelled demonstrations across the country and led two cabinet ministers to resign, has wounded President Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement party.
Georgia watchers at home and abroad sense that this is a pivotal vote for the country. A delegation from the Council of Europe that visited Tbilisi in mid-September called the elections “crucial” and a “litmus test” for Georgia’s commitment to democratic values and principles.”
As the delegation stated, the competitive race offers voters a choice between “distinct alternatives”: the ruling United National Movement (UNM), running on an eight-year record of reform and ostensible westernisation; and Georgian Dream, a coalition of six opposition parties led by Georgia’s own Maecenas, billionaire businessman and arts patron Bidzina Ivanishvili, and drawn together in opposition to the autocratic turn in Saakashvili’s rule.
Amid 16% unemployment and growing economic inequality, the debate has centred largely on the success or failure of Saakashvili’s reforms, the increasingly authoritarian means by which the government has pursued them, and whether Georgian Dream aims to pull the country back into Russia’s orbit, a question on which no clear answer has emerged.
Ironically, the two dominant figures in the campaign were once close allies. It is an open secret in Georgian political circles that Ivanishvili was a major financial sponsor of the Saakashvili government’s reforms. After the Rose Revolution, he contributed the lion’s share to a fund to boost state officials’ salaries as a hedge against corruption. Ivanishvili also helped pay for equipping and arming the reformed police force, and he financed socioeconomic projects that were subsequently promoted as achievements of UNM.
Ivanishvili publicly broke with Saakashvili in 2008, claiming fraud in that year’s presidential and parliamentary elections and castigating his former ally for policy failures and the August 2008 war with Russia. With his huge financial resources and positive image as the country’s most generous philanthropist – and a leadership vacuum on the anti-Saakashvili side – Ivanishvili easily emerged as the face of the opposition.
In some areas the rivals offer strikingly similar prescriptions for Georgia. Both sides’ socioeconomic platforms focus on development of agriculture, affordable health care, expanding public services, economic modernisation and job-creation. Their differences are over broader values and the nature of Saakashvili’s rule, on which the parliamentary balloting will essentially be a referendum.
Georgian Dream, while seeking to capitalise on widespread discontent over joblessness and inflation, also flavours its campaign message with claims to greater democratic credentials, calling for a new round of reforms to depoliticise the police, military and judiciary. If the coalition wins and he becomes prime minister, Ivanishvili has pledged to stay in power and in politics no longer than three years – enough time, he says, to stop the country’s decline – but to remain a private watchdog of government beyond that.
What Ivanishvili will do if Georgian Dream loses has become another contentious issue. Raising the spectre of the disputed 2008 vote, he has called on the coalition’s supporters to rally if there are signs of vote rigging. UNM, and some of its western allies, have interpreted that as a call for rioting if the elections don’t go Ivanishvili’s way.
Štefan Füle, the EU commissioner for neighbourhood policy, conditioned a 13 September Brussels meeting with Ivanishvili on a pledge that Georgian Dream will accept the results if the OSCE deems the balloting compliant with international standards. On 16 September Ivanishvili publicly vowed to accept results deemed legitimate by “authoritative” international observer bodies, but other coalition leaders have not abjured protests if fraud is suspected.
UNM builds its campaign on its widely advertised pro-western orientation and freewheeling reforms. These have yielded tangible benefits – less petty corruption, higher state revenues, improved public safety, and development of hospitals, parks, roads, cultural institutions, and other amenities – that are the ruling party’s chief campaign calling card.
The reforms still enjoy a measure of public support – 30% to 35% on average, according to polls over the last three years by the US-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute – despite the unsavoury methods by which they have been accomplished: mass layoffs, questionable arrests, encroachment on private property, forced closure of scientific and educational institutions, and restriction of judicial and media independence. Such moves prompted the Economist Intelligence Unit to brand the Saakashvili government a “hybrid regime” – not quite authoritarian, not quite democratic – in its 2011 Democracy Index.
The ruling party also portrays itself as the sole genuinely pro-western force in the country, depicting Ivanishvili as a Kremlin stooge and associating him and Georgian Dream with the country’s turbulent past. Some prominent figures in the coalition served in the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet official deposed by the Rose Revolution, and UNM hints darkly at a “Russian origination” of Ivanishvili’s billions.
The stepped-up anti-Russian rhetoric rings a bit hollow considering that it was UNM that made possible the transfer of strategic Georgian assets to Russian state-run companies, a process that started six years ago and continues despite the August 2008 war. At least six large Georgian hydropower stations have been taken over by Russian state companies such as Inter-RAO UES, and in June, Russia’s Capital Group obtained controlling stakes of the largest Georgian gold-mining company, Madneuli-Quartzite.
But as a gathering of groups with varying philosophies, from clearly pro-western to strongly nationalistic, Georgian Dream is more vulnerable than the strongly unified UNM to claims about its loyalties. The coalition declares adherence to the goals of NATO and EU integration, but Ivanishvili has also talked of normalising relations with Russia, confusing some domestic and international observers for whom compromises with the Kremlin are anathema.
Whatever the ruling party’s rhetoric, there is little reason to take seriously its assertions that Georgian Dream will draw the country back into the 1990s. Neither Ivanishvili nor his partners are keen to commit political suicide by reviving what Georgian society has decisively rejected. Many members of the coalition were instrumental in the Rose Revolution; like their leader, they broke with Saakashvili not to take the country backward but out of sharp disagreement with his policies and his governance.
More likely, the election will turn on domestic conditions, and here UNM is vulnerable. Polls over the last three years indicate a growing public perception that its rule has widened inequality, with more than half of respondents complaining of worsening economic conditions. According to a government database, in July about 1.6 million citizens were registered as socially vulnerable, more than a third of the population.
Public employment, government contracts, and business favours are widely viewed as having fallen largely on UNM members and associates. The goals of the government’s ambitious “Georgia Without Poverty” programme, announced in 2008, have not been met. In this environment, the ruling party’s campaign slogan, “More benefits for the people,” is viewed with considerable scepticism, according to surveys by domestic media.
Still, the latest opinion polls paint a wildly contradictory picture. An August survey by the Georgia office of the National Democratic Institute gave UNM a commanding advantage over Georgian Dream (37% to 12%, with 43% undecided). However, polling in the same period by German research company Forsa indicated a much less uncertain electorate that favoured Georgian Dream by 49% to 43%.
Whatever the true national mood, the developments of recent days cannot have helped UNM. The video recordings broadcast on two national television stations 18 September, showing torture of prisoners, appeared to confirm longstanding allegations about abuse of inmates.
Anti-government rallies immediately sprung up in Tbilisi and spread to other cities. The ministers of corrections and the interior have stepped down, and more than 10 prison officials who directly participated in torture have been arrested.
The country’s penal system was another target of post-2003 reforms, one to which Saakashvili once proudly pointed, and which he now admits has failed. Student-led protests continue across Georgia, raising a political temperature that was already near boiling, and threatening to badly burn the president and his party.