Georgia’s quiet move away from ‘Messiah’ politics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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, 9 October 2016. [Reuters]

A quiet transition has taken place under the Georgian Dream government, bringing the country in line with a fully-matured western democracy, writes Amanda Paul.

Amanda Paul is a geopolitical and foreign policy analyst and journalist, and a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC).

The Georgians have held their first round of parliamentary elections and passed their first test of democracy. Following a pre-electoral campaign which was relatively (and perhaps surprisingly) calm – bar several incidents which were notoriously reported – election day has come and gone without any major ripples. For a country whose political scene has long been characterised by polarisation and unhealthy tension, this represents an important quality stamp.

The lack of any strong political personalities has fundamentally changed the debate in these elections. Georgian politics have long been haunted by the past: former leaders Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili have often been perceived to fail to distance themselves from the political scene, as a pre-electoral rally of opposition party United National Movement demonstrated with an address by the former president to his Georgian party live-streamed on Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square, promising his return to Georgia after the elections had taken place. The scene was set for a potentially dramatic result.

But the elections did take place, and surprising calm ensued. Saakashvili did not return. The voters chose to elect for a second term a government whose main characteristic is its technocratic team.

An ‘issue-based’ election

The two main parties who collected the most votes were no surprise: the Georgian Dream took 48% of the votes, while the UNM took 27%. These two parties do not have a fundamentally different programme: both are pro-EU, both are pro-NATO, both focus on economic development and growth. The Georgian Dream is more conciliatory towards Russia, but the basic foreign policy orientation is the same. The novelty with these elections was the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots, which just scraped past the 5% mark to make it to parliament.

But the key takeaway from 8 October is that the Georgians have voted to elect teams, not leaders. There has been no rallying behind big personalities as in previous years. There has been a vote on a programme, on a policy agenda, on social values – a distinctly Western approach to politics and democracy. In brief, Georgia has stated clearly that it does not need any more Messiahs.

From populist to calming forces

A quiet transition has taken place under the Georgian Dream government, bringing the country in line with a fully-matured western democracy – a tendency which was confirmed by the vote on Saturday. While several factors have contributed to this successful transition – the possibilities granted by the EU and NATO to steadily advance in Euro-Atlantic integration, the UNM’s peaceful step down from power in 2012 – some credit must be given to the government, whose technocratic approach has in fact generated a welcome shift from populist to peaceful politics.

This was one of the main promises of Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili when he assumed office in December – he had pledged a conciliatory approach to politics, vowing that his government would be open to cooperation with all the groups in the Parliament. Since January and notably in these elections, the Georgian Prime Minister has been remarkably constructive in comparison to his predecessors and peers, through statements and a series of initiatives promoting peaceful, free and fair elections.

The polarisation of Georgia’s political scene is of course still high. But these elections have shown that technocracy and democracy can go hand in hand.

Ruling party in Georgia decisively wins parliament vote

The ruling party in Georgia decisively won parliamentary elections, firming its grip on power in the former Soviet nation, near-complete results showed yesterday (9 October).

Subscribe to our newsletters