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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Georgia's ruling coalition starts election year

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By Eka Janashia

February 23rd, the CACI Analyst

Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili unexpectedly resigned in the end of 2015. In a week, he was replaced by Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. The move was widely seen as part of the preparations for the parliamentary elections slated for the fall of 2016.

 

 kvirikThe Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition has undergone several changes since its ascent to power in 2012. The most serious reshuffles took place in July 2014, when the cabinet’s composition was significantly renewed. Soon thereafter, one of the founding members of the coalition, Our Georgia – Free Democrats (OGFD), led by then Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, left the coalition. Along with Alasania, the OGFD Ministers also left their posts. In the same year, another reconfiguration of the GD leadership occurred that affected senior and mid-level government officials, purportedly due to oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s changed attitude to his protégé PM Gharibashvili. Consequently, the PM’s trustees at important positions were replaced with people close to Ivanishvili.

These alterations, in addition, brought to the front the Republican Party (RP), another founding member of the coalition. Holding only 6 out of the GD’s 87 seats in parliament, RP managed to gain several ministerial portfolios including the Defense Ministry, headed by Tina Khidasheli, the spouse of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili. 

Meanwhile, the coalition failed to keep a steady majority in one regional legislative body – the Supreme Council (SC) of the Adjara Autonomous Republic – and became actively involved in numerous corruption cases. The most scandalous among them was the alleged links entertained by Manana Kobakhidze and Eka Beselia, respectively Vice-Speaker of Parliament and Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights, with convicted prisoners. According to Aleko Elisashvili, an independent member of the Tbilisi City Council and a former Chairman of the Presidential Pardon Commission, Kobakhidze and Beselia were seeking to exert pressure on him to achieve the preterm release of certain inmates, imprisoned for severe criminal charges.

Aside from political tension, Georgia’s economic situation has dramatically worsened since fall 2014. The value of the Georgian Lari (GEL) against foreign currencies has plunged by 45 percent, dampening the overall social-economic and investment climate in Georgia. These factors have contributed to undermining GD’s popularity, which is reflected in the loss of a considerable share of electorate.

A November 2015 poll, commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI), showed that the number of respondents supporting the ruling coalition has halved since 2014. Only 18 percent of likely voters pledged to vote for GD if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow. In August 2014, 42 percent of the respondents identified GD as the political force “closest” to them. Moreover, in November 2015 the number of respondents who believed that the country was moving in the wrong direction had grown to 45 percent, compared to 6 percent in August 2014. However, 32 percent of the likely voters still do not know which political party they would vote for, which may increase GD’s chances to keep a grip on power.

Although struggles within the coalition provided the opposition parties with a new window of opportunity, none of them has taken real advantage of the coalition’s decline. At this stage, opposition parties remain weak and cannot consolidate sizeable support. They will find it hard to compete with GD, given the latter’s privilege of using administrative resources during electoral process, a feature characteristic of young democracies.

Another point is that despite the political and economic shocks during GD’s tenure, Georgia signed an Association and Free Trade Agreement with the EU in 2014 and is now close to achieving visa-free travel with the union (see CACI Analyst, 01/22/16). Moreover, in August 2015, NATO opened the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) at the Krtsanisi military facility near Tbilisi as a part of the “substantial package” granted to Georgia at NATO’s Wales summit. 

In spite of accomplishments, cases of corruption and inefficient governance necessitated a more comprehensive revision of GD’s lineup. Georgian media speculate that Ivanishvili is actively engaged in the formation of a new election team, which may increase the risk of internal clashes. Yet the most significant challenge to the GD is the ailing economy. By the end of January 2016, the Lari reached a historically low level against the US dollar. The poorest part of the population has increased since 2014, whereas people with an average income can hardly meet daily needs. Although the Georgian Central Bank’s rapid and frequent interventions have helped avoiding panic on the financial market, the vulnerability of Georgia’s economy is increasing with dwindling foreign reserves. This context creates a very difficult background for the ruling coalition ahead of the upcoming elections and again provides a chance for the opposition forces to regain lost opportunities.

Image attribution: www.rferl.org, accessed on Feb 20, 2016

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