Wednesday, 22 August 2012

GEORGIA’S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS: MOVING TOWARD A FOURTH, DEMOCRATIC PHASE?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Andrea Filetti (8/22/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Elections have repeatedly played an important role in the evolution of the Georgian political system, far more so than for example in neighboring Azerbaijan. Georgia's twenty-year republican experience can be analyzed through the lens of a three-phase evolution, where each phase has been characterized either by continuity or discontinuity with the Soviet period, though not representing decisive steps toward the full democratization of the country. The parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1, 2012, can potentially become a new “critical juncture” toward a fourth phase, a democratic one, thanks to particular new elements that distinguishes it from previous phases.

Elections have repeatedly played an important role in the evolution of the Georgian political system, far more so than for example in neighboring Azerbaijan. Georgia's twenty-year republican experience can be analyzed through the lens of a three-phase evolution, where each phase has been characterized either by continuity or discontinuity with the Soviet period, though not representing decisive steps toward the full democratization of the country. The parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1, 2012, can potentially become a new “critical juncture” toward a fourth phase, a democratic one, thanks to particular new elements that distinguishes it from previous phases.

BACKGROUND: Georgia’s post-Soviet experience can easily be divided into three distinct historical phases that have nevertheless not succeeded in leading the country toward full democratization, as hoped in the early 1990s. The first phase was inaugurated by the 1990 elections in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic: the success of the anti-communist coalition “Round Table – Free Georgia” started an inexorable process that culminated with Georgia’s declaration of independence. Under the leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia sought to develop along a path characterized by strong discontinuity with the previous regime, but separatist tensions and the deep fragmentation among the anti-communist forces (many opposition parties preferred to establish alternative institutions, rather than accepting Gamsakhurdia’s government as legitimate) undermined the popular support for the newly established regime and favored the 1992 coup d’etat which brought the first phase to an end.

The return to power of the old Communist statesman Eduard Shevardnadze opened the second phase, characterized by a higher degree of continuity with the Soviet period. Shevardnadze’s government brought a decade of stability to Georgia, although at the expense of democratic development. The old patronage system guaranteed stability, but the galloping corruption and the economic stagnation caused by the 1998 Russian financial crisis opened a new window of opportunity, causing a fracture within the ruling party elite.

Again parliamentary elections represented the decisive “critical juncture”: the electoral fraud denounced by domestic and international observers in 2003 created an opportunity for a united opposition (otherwise characterized by a strong tendency to fragmentation) to mobilize the Rose Revolution and to obtain Shevardnadze’s resignation. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, even this third phase cannot be considered a fully democratic one.

The plebiscite for Mikheil Saakashvili in the 2004 presidential elections – won by 96 percent – laid down the basis for a personalistic management of power. Improvements have been achieved in breaking the continuity with the past and dismantling the previous patronage system. In the words of Michael McFaul, “Saakashvili owed no favors and could clean house, which to his credit he has tried to do.” According to Transparency International, Georgia has indeed jumped from the 124th position of 2003 to the 64th position in 2011 in the World Corruption Index. On the other hand no agreement has been achieved among international observers on the press freedom situation in comparison with Shevardnadze’s reign. While Freedom House recognizes some improvements in the “legal environment,” it denounces a deterioration of “political and economic environments.” The “Freedom Press Index” by Reporters without Borders is even more negative, placing Georgia on a 104th position as compared to the previous 73rd. Adding the reduced pluralism of the Georgian parliament, the overall picture is that of an incomplete transition, where further reforms are needed in order to revitalize the democratization process.

IMPLICATIONS: As previously pointed out, new elections can potentially provide input for a positive development of the situation. There are two main reasons for optimism: first of all, the parliamentary election of October 2012 will be the first after a new break within the elite that guided the country through the Rose Revolution. Although Nino Burdjanadze’s political ambitions have been significantly resized by the scarce success in mobilizing a significant demonstration in May 2011 demanding Saakashvili’s resignation (the so-called “day of rage”) and due to the recurrent charges about her proximity to Russia, Saakashvili’s leadership has progressively exhausted his epic aura as leader of the 2003 Revolution.

His main challenger will be a “new face” in Georgian politics, the billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose decision to create his own party “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia” has received diverse reactions from domestic and international observers. On the one hand, a new political subject is more likely to win sufficient popular sympathy than an opposition that has been frequently charged with disunity and inconclusiveness. On the other hand, his immense wealth seems to be the only factor holding together the several personalities who joined Georgian Dream. As many observers have pointed out, although Ivanishvili could subsidize a short-term reform program with his own wealth, that would not boost Georgia’s longer-term political development and this is a serious weak point for his party manifesto. Yet, the mere presence of more credible contenders could enhance the responsiveness of Georgian politics and of the UNM itself, beyond the actual virtues of the singular players.

Secondly, a new electoral code was adopted in 2011 and this can potentially produce additional positive effects. Criticism has been leveled against the failure to address the “issue of disproportionality between single-mandate constituencies … even though this was one of the major comments from the Venice Commission concerning the draft code,” according to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report. Moreover, officials from opposition parties had expected a major conversion of seats assigned through single-member districts into proportional representation, claiming that previous elections have clearly shown how the majority vote favors the ruling party. Despite these requests, the new electoral code has taken away only two seats from the single-member constituencies in favor of the proportional part and now 73 will be assigned by the former and 77 by the latter method.

Nevertheless, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has welcomed the electoral reforms as a “step forward” for the Georgian political system, first of all thanks to the lowered threshold of 5 percent from the previous 7 percent. The most significant innovation is represented by the fact that every party that clears the threshold will automatically receive six seats, even if the actual votes would translate into fewer mandates. This correction is even more important since, according to the reformed Georgian Constitution, “the number of the members of Parliamentary Factions shall be no less than six” and thus every party will have the opportunity to constitute its own faction and become more involved in the legislative procedures. 

CONCLUSIONS: In this light, Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections can potentially represent a new turning point for this country. Whoever will turn out to be the winner, a new Parliament with a higher degree of political pluralism can trigger a virtuous circle with long-term beneficial effects for the country. Increased pluralism will open up several windows of opportunity for opposition parties to overcome their fragmentation, in order to constitute a valid alternative to Saakashvili's power, which is precisely what has been lacking during previous years, beyond Ivanishvili’s capability to attract consensus through his private resources. As observers have argued, the electoral reform will improve the opportunities for participation by smaller parties. In other words, the upcoming parliamentary elections can potentially prepare the ground for a more stringent political competition in view of the even more important presidential elections in 2013.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Andrea Filetti is a PhD candidate at the “Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane” (SUM), in Florence (Italy). He is currently working as an International Fellow at the Caucasus Research Resource Center in Baku. 

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