Georgia’s Democratic Dilemma

Bidzina Lebanidze

Despite some problems, the international community positively assessed the first round of Georgia’s parliamentary elections as largely in accordance with democratic standards and representing a step forward towards consolidating democracy. Yet the elections also revealed major structural weaknesses in Georgia’s young democracy that go far beyond election day. In particular, controversial electoral legislation that does not adequately reflect the preferences of the electorate as well as the prevalence of an underdeveloped political culture both among political parties and voters. These problems have turned seemingly harmless elections into the danger of one party getting a parliamentary supermajority.

Parliament of Georgia

The electoral legislation in Georgia allows for electing 77 proportional and 73 majoritarian mandates. Yet, it is a well-known fact that majoritarian systems don’t perform well in transitional democracies, and especially so in the post-Soviet space, where majoritarian mandates are often used by incumbents to secure electoral victories. In Georgia, majoritarian seats were effectively used by former incumbents – Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikhail Saakashvili – to secure constitutional majorities for their parties. Prior to coming to power, the GD coalition declared the abolition of the majoritarian system as their policy goal, yet soon after coming to power they suspiciously postponed that reform for the 2020 elections. Until then, the majoritarian system will remain the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise improving electoral environment of Georgia. The majoritarian system becomes an especially efficient legal instrument for incumbents to secure overwhelming victories under conditions of low turnout. At the October parliamentary elections turnout was as low as 51% and in the proportional part of the elections the GD received 48% of votes – meaning that the governing party received little more than 25% of votes from a whole electoral population. However, the majoritarian system can easily turn the 25% support into a constitutional majority if the GD wins in 46 of the remaining 50 single-vote districts in second round of elections.

The GD itself and its supporters have been campaigning actively for an overwhelming win in the second round and have been doing their best to reassure the Georgian public that constitutional amendments, if any, will only be adopted based on a wide public consensus. What is striking, however, is that even many representatives of civil society, which should be best aware of the dangers of qualified majority, do not oppose GD’s constitutional majority and consider giving a few more votes to the UNM candidates to be a moral dilemma. They appeal to the fact that the first years of GD’s rule was far more pluralistic and democratic and that GD proved that it does not pose a danger of autocratic backsliding. This is a clear sign of low political culture which, combined with distorted electoral legislation, multiplies the risks for Georgia’s future democratic development.

Besides, to designate the pluralism of political life of the last four years as emblematic of GD’s democratic nature may be an overstatement. The truth is, it was rather the result of unique political constellation that was established after the 2012 electoral power transition from UNM to GD, the first of its kind in Georgian history. After the power transition, the UNM still continued to have influence in a number of important state agencies such as the Georgian National Bank, the Constitutional Court, the Office of the President etc. Hence the more pluralistic and open rule of GD is a result of balance of power established between the former and current ruling parties, to which the heterogeneity of the GD coalition also contributed.

The context is radically different now. First, the GD is less heterogeneous. The two most pro-Western political parties – the Republicans and the Free Democrats – were forced to leave the coalition. In terms of internal cohesion, the GD of 2016 is far more homogeneous than the GD of 2012. Moreover, the absence of two liberal parties in the coalition may further strengthen the temptation to disregard democratic mechanisms of governance whenever the governing party sees its own objectives to be at odds with democratic hurdles.

Second, it is possible that Bidzina Ivanishvili’s influence on the governing coalition will only increase after the elections. Unlike the GD Coalition of 2012, the current ruling party lacks prominent supporters of procedural democracy. The Republicans and Free Democrats were not exactly famous for their rebellious character, yet their presence contributed to more pluralism and more intra-coalition competition. Moreover, the party continues to be financially dependent on Mr. Ivanishvili. For instance, just prior to the elections the GD borrowed 1 million GEL (approximately 420 000 USD) from a bank owned by Ivanishvili.

Third, the UNM is much weaker now. It lost influence in a number of key state agencies – the National Bank, Constitutional Court, Office of the President and local administrations. The UNM’s influence was also weakened in the new parliament, where the former ruling party barely managed to get one-sixth of the mandates. Hence the pluralism in governance which marked the last parliamentary term will most likely be replaced by dominant one-party rule by the GD.

A one-party rule with a constitutional majority should not a priori lead to disastrous results if formal and informal checks and balances are firmly established and able to fulfill their functions. Formal checks include a strong justice system and independent constitutional court, independent president, strong opposition in and outside the parliament and politically independent and socially responsible state agencies – something Germans would call „Herrschaft der Beamten“ or “rule of the [honest] bureaucrats”. Informal checks could include strong civil society, critical mass media and a strong middle class that is financially independent from the government and ready to defend the democratic foundations of the state. In Georgia most of the checks are formally in place yet none of them has so far lived up to their political and democratic obligations: the justice system is still susceptible to the political influence of executive power; the opposition is much weaker now than four years ago; the state bureaucracy’s political loyalty still belongs to the ruling party; civil society suffers under financial limitations and political infantilism, and significant parts of the middle class remain dependent on a state which happens to be the largest employer in the country.

Under these conditions, supporting the constitutional majority of GD might prove premature – both for the party itself and for the country. The representatives of GD already declared their intentions to make constitutional amendments in a number of areas. One of the amendments would abolish direct presidential ballot and instead the head of state be appointed by parliament. This will only further boost the dominance of the ruling party and bar the current president Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is considered a more or less independent political actor, from rerunning for president after his first term is finished. Yet this might only be the thin end of the wedge. The most critical test for constitutional majority will probably come in a couple of years when the GD coalition faces questions of how to ensure its stay in power. It is well possible that after eight years of rule the GD will further lose support among the electorate and be destined to lose the next elections without a major socio-economic breakthrough which, for now at least, is not in sight. Whether the GD will handle this power dilemma democratically or will try to cope with it by constitutional manipulation is a question we would be better off not having to face.

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