By Luis Navarro*
(FPRI) — In the film, “The Candidate,” after Robert Redford’s character wins a seat in the United States Senate, he asks his campaign manager in a private moment, “What do we do now?” Bidzina Ivanishvili’s party, the Georgian Dream (GD), is presumably asking the same question. Four years after achieving a historic and peaceful transfer of power, the GD is now the dominant political force in the nation, just as President Misha Saakashvili’s United National Movement was from 2008 to 2012.
After Georgia’s October 30 runoff parliamentary elections, GD-endorsed candidates won 49 out of 50 second round elections for single mandate parliamentary seats, securing at least two seats more than necessary to achieve the three fourths membership required for a parliamentary majority. The GD now also holds governing majorities in the country’s 73 municipalities and in the autonomous region of Adjara. The party succeeded in leveraging their support from among just under 49% of voters into control of 116 parliamentary seats, plus one from an endorsed independent candidate, former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili. GD “new face” Irakli Kobakhidze will be the next Chairman of Parliament. Despite this tremendous success, Ivanishvili apparently was just as adamant about allegations of first round voter fraud as UNM, saying this was the reason why so many runoff elections had to be conducted.
GD party leaders have said they will move forward with their plans to amend the constitution, starting with a ban on same sex marriage. However, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili assures everyone that the amendment is not meant to discriminate against anyone, nor is it likely to increase violence against the LGBT community. Ivanishvili’s favored opposition party, the Patriots Alliance of Georgia, also supports the ban. The party crossed the electoral threshold and will have a six-member faction as well as one of the six Vice-Speakers, which will be held by party leader Irma Inashvili. The Industrialists Party, an anti-European Union, anti-NATO and former Georgian Dream coalition party; it won a single mandate seat and supports the ban as well. The amendment is the culmination of an almost yearlong campaign first initiated by the Georgian Dream in Parliament. Then an anti-gay marriage ballot referendum campaign was led by a former GD parliamentary leader. The effort was only stopped by President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s refusal to allow the referendum to be placed on the ballot.
The main opposition party, UNM, will have just 27 seats, proportional to their overall national support in the first round. PM Kvirikashvili has said that rather than use its power unilaterally, the GD will seek consensus on constitutional amendments. But the GD has asserted in the past that Georgian civil society’s critiques of the government are aligned with UNM, and therefore are questionable. GD has also stated its preferences for right wing populist, even pro-Russian parties,. Thus, the question is with whom will they seek consensus and what is their desired outcome? Were the pre-election alarms about the largest opposition party, UNM, a substitute for lacking an agenda for the future, or were they a reflection of the party’s future approach to governance now that they have almost no serious obstacle to the imposition of their political will?
UNM leaders were assaulted five months before the election and no arrests occurred. Three weeks before the election, the government alleged (without evidence) for the second consecutive election that UNM was conspiring to commit acts of violence to disrupt the process. Three days before the first round of elections, UNM member of parliament Givi Targamadze’s car was blown up, and the Prime Minister immediately blamed the crime on UNM again without evidence; the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed to have solved the Targamadze case two days before the election, without making any evidence public so far.
The OSCE and other election observers have reported that the elections were conducted in a “calm” environment, but marred by isolated incidents of violence. The government was claiming that the elections were taking place under the threat of violence from the opposition and that the opposition would also launch post-election revolutionary actions upon their defeat. The Georgian parliamentary election was undoubtedly competitive as early polling and negotiations over reforming the electoral laws indicated, and the parallel vote tabulation conducted by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) demonstrates that the electoral outcome reflected the will of the people who voted . But calling this election environment “calm” is noteworthy in light of the government’s own narrative and how they view the nation’s most popular opposition party.
To be sure, the United National Movement’s actions through the first round of elections provided plenty of support for the Georgian Dream’s narrative. His ravings (uncovered via undisclosed surveillance) last year over how to violently resist the possible seizure of Rustavi-2 were certain to be capitalized upon by the government. Saakashvili’s further entreaties to boycott the second round of elections and the withdrawal of his wife’s single mandate candidacy in the Samegrelo region have finally called into question his future influence in UNM party affairs. UNM’s residual arrogance as the initiators of the Rose Revolution and its subsequent abuse of power in governance continues to define its public brand.
This perception of UNM also further fuels the West’s disinterest in the their grievances, in stark contrast to Western interest when parties opposed to the UNM government largely chose to forgo their electoral mandates in 2008, or when they took to the streets in an effort to overthrow the UNM government in 2009. Clearly, times change, and the West’s larger regional concerns appear to make them once again just as ready to indulge the excesses of the Georgian Dream now as they were willing to do with Saakashvili prior to the Obama Administration reset with Russia in 2009.
The Georgian Dream will face a number of temptations as it considers how to use its constitutional majority, and the question remains of how the shadow governance by Ivanishvili will affect it. Will they seek to further consolidate their power by having the President chosen by Parliament rather than the public and settle for self-interest disguised as electoral reform? Will they advocate for and possibly engineer through the courts a change in ownership of the only opposition national broadcaster, or further the perceptions of unequally applying its law enforcement prerogative based on political considerations? Will their definition of multi-party democracy rely on the Alliance as their attack dog (the party’s central message is essentially, “Lock them up”) against UNM in parliamentary dealings, or try to create new opposition parties in order to create the façade of political pluralism?
The Georgian Dream has achieved tremendous political success in a very short period of time. It now has the power to remake the Constitution and therefore the nation in its own image without any formal obstacles. The much-anticipated EU visa liberalization should provide a tangible benefit to the public and demonstrate the potential reward for continued faith in pursuing formal Western membership, however Western incentives may be diminishing due to their own changing domestic politics.
The ending of “The Candidate” is ambiguous, but it is clear that Robert Redford’s character is entertaining a moment of self-doubt regarding the burden he has chosen to undertake on behalf of his supporters and power for himself. How the Georgian Dream’s governing dominance chooses to engage with their pro-West but not pro-GD critics will determine the reality of their democracy in the future. Hopefully they will live up to the spirit of the French National Convention of 1793, “They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power” and not acquiesce to the populist impulse which consumed and rejected that premise.
About the author:
* Luis Navarro served as Senior Resident Director for the National Democratic Institute of International Affairs in Georgia (2009-2014) and as both presidential campaign manager and the last chief of staff for then-United States Senator Joe Biden (2007-2009).
This article was published by FPRI.
 “Civil society and opposition as well as governing political parties lack confidence that the police, prosecutors, or courts can be relied upon to respond — whether to electoral disputes or physical confrontations — in a timely, impartial, and effective manner. There was broad consensus on the need for greater consistency in policing and greater independence, accountability, and transparency in the judiciary. The delegation heard frequently and consistently of delayed investigations, selective pursuit of cases, inconsistent uses of pretrial detention, pressure on judges, and uneven application of sanctions. The delegation’s interlocutors repeatedly referenced several key events from recent months to illustrate their perceptions that police and judicial independence do not necessarily apply to politically-charged cases.” NDI pre-election report, June 2016 https://www.ndi.org/georgia-pre-election-statement-june-2016