Dossier: With a spectrum of candidates ranging from hard line Stalinists, to others who want to restore the monarchy, the Georgian electorate has much to choose from in the forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 October. But most Georgians are in no mood for adventures, and are likely to choose from those options they know best.
With parliamentary elections only five weeks away Georgia is now firmly in election mode, even if the campaigning over the summer has been rather sluggish. The Central Elections Commission (CEC) has now finalised the registration of political parties and blocs contesting in the election.
Forty-four political parties were registered by the CEC. (For a full list of parties with the names of their party leader as registered click here).
However, 17 parties have grouped to form six blocks, which have now also been registered by the CEC (See list here).
A number of other groups tried to register but failed technical criteria, including not having a clearly recognisable leadership.
Georgian voters will therefore have a choice of 27 parties and 6 blocs on 8 October. And a fine choice it is too. With parties ranging from hard line Stalinists, to monarchists who want to bring back the monarchy, Georgians are spoilt for choice, not only on exotic issues of the past, but also on the future economic model for the country, as well as its foreign policy direction.
Under Georgia's election legislation the 150 person parliament is elected through 73 single mandate constituency elections, and nation-wide elections for a party list to choose the other 77. For a party to secure representation in parliament through the party list it must pass a 5% threshold.
Opinion polls are notoriously inaccurate in Georgia, and it is difficult to assess the state of the popularity of the parties on that basis. In contrast to the past, however, Georgian politics has been remarkably uneventful in recent years. A look at how the different parties performed in recent polls may therefore be a good start to consider their likely chances of success in October.
Perhaps the most significant development since 2012 is the fact that a number of parties that in 2012 were junior coalition partners to the Georgian Dream party will now contest the elections on their own, including the Republican Party, the Free Democrats, Industry saves Georgia and National Forum.
Most observers agree that it is the five parties that got most votes in the 2014 local elections, plus one or two of those that used to be part of the Georgian Dream coalition that stand most chance of passing the 5% threshold and be represented in parliament. Opinion varies as to the likelihood of a large number of parties passing the 5% threshold. There are two schools of thought, the first saying that only two parties - Georgian Dream and United National Movement will do so, although other parties may win single seats through the majoritarian elections. A second school of thought sees as many as five parties passing the 5% threshold, GD and UNM, and two or three others. The hot favourite to place third is the Patriots Alliance of Georgia.
In the absence of accurate polling these assessments are mainly based on anecdotal evidence.
Georgian Dream (GD) - slimmer but substantial
A slimmer Georgian Dream is betting on its track record in government, and on a quest for stability by an electorate wary of adventurism. Without its coalition parties it will be difficult for the party to repeat the landslide victory of 2012, and the circumstances are also different. Yet the party has a strong popular base and the figure of Bidhzina Ivanishvili looms large over it despite the fact that he is not a candidate. Ivanishvili still carries considerable credibility in Georgian society. The governing party is proud of its flagship universal health protection scheme, its success in securing associate membership for Georgia with the European Union and with doing away with the human rights abuses of the past.
Georgian Dream is therefore a substantial force in Georgian society and, bar some last minute political earthquake, is likely to emerge as the largest party in the poll.
UNM plays the queen, and waits for the window of opportunity
After the 2012 election there were many expectations that Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) will implode. It has not. The party remained a coherent political force, even though several of its party leaders are in prison after being convicted for various misdemeanours. Saakashvili has in the meantime re-invented himself as Ukrainian and is now governor of Odessa. Since he is now a foreign national he cannot legally play a part in Georgian politics, although as always Saakashvili is not one to care very much about detail. In a twist as colourful as only Georgian politics can be, Saakashvili's wife, Dutch born Sandra Roelofs is now running for parliament in Menghrelia region - an area which she knows well and where she is well-liked. Hoping that the former first lady will add glamour to their campaign the UNM have now placed her as the number 2 person on their party list. Despite all this UNM continues to be blamed by many in Georgian society for the excesses of its time in government from 2003-12 and its best hope in the election is to maintain the same percentage of support as in the 2014 local elections. Internally within UNM various personalities and groups vie for influence. Saakashvili is the archetypal opportunist who can spot a window of opportunity long before anyone else. UNM has developed this talent as well, and it knows that now is not its moment, but hopes that that moment will come again soon. Others think its moment has already passed.
Former GD allies try their luck by playing solo
Four allied parties of the Georgian Dream will this time contest the election on their own. None of them has wide-enough grass root support to be guaranteed passing the 5% threshold, so for all of them this decision is quite risky. More so for the Republican Party whose influence in the GD coalition government since 2012 exceeded their actual political strength in numbers. By the end of the legislature the party had the Chairmanship of the Parliament the Ministry of Defence and various other ministerial positions. The party leadership hopes that that exposure and their track record in these positions will ensure them enough popular support to be represented in Parliament where they can then play the role of power brokers. The second party, Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats, had become enstranged from the coalition long before this election. Many consider that they have their niche in Georgian politics and may just make it through the 5% threshold, but this is far from certain. Topadze's "Industry saves Georgia" has been around in Georgian politics for decades. Topadze decided to break ranks with GD and adopt an anti NATO position. If he passes the 5% threshold he will never be too far away from which ever party is in government.
Patriotic and conservative parties
The most important new feature of this election is the emergence, or re-emergence, of a sprinkling of parties that can be grouped under the broad category of patriotic, conservative and largely anti-western parties.
The Georgian Labour Party is a phenomena that has been around in Georgian politics since 1998. Led by populist Shalva Natalishvili, the Labour Party whose policies are tailored for Georgia's lumpin prolitariat, never made it into parliament but was often very close. In a less polorised political scene than in previous elections, some think this may be Shalva's best chance yet.
Nino Burjanadze was once thought of, and thought of herself, as the Mrs Thatcher of the Caucasus. She made an alliance with Saakashvili in 2003, but when her time was up she re-invented herself as the voice of Georgian neutrality, often visiting Moscow to prove the point. Time is not on the side of Mrs Burjanadze, and if she fails to get in parliament this time her political days will be numbered.
The wild card in the 2016 elections is likely to be the Alliance of Georgian Patriots, a political force which claims close contacts with elements within the Georgian Orthodox Church and which is eurosceptic without being outrightly anti-European. The party scored just under 5% in the 2014 elections but all anecdotal evidence suggests that it has increased that popular support considerably since. Many think it will emerge as the third force in Georgian politics.
A fourth party "State for the people" led by opera singer Paata Barchuladze started with a big bang but has since been fizzling out. Several of its activists abandoned it claiming that the party was no more than a satellite of UNM. Unless there is some sort of strategic voting to enable it to pass the 5% threshold, it is difficult to see how it can achieve this, even though it has teamed up with a number of other groups to consititute one of the six election blocs.
The anti-western parties have core support but are fragmented.
The GD-UNM divide remains for the moment the major faultline in Georgian politics. This is a faultline based mainly on personalities and style of government. On several key policy issues the two parties look remarkably alike, including in their committment to pursue a pro European and euro-atlantic foreign policy and to seek full membership for Georgia in both NATO and the EU.
The new faultline is the emergence of several parties that are now ready to challenge this foreign policy orientation head on. Many consider that it is the performance of these parties that will be the most interesting asspect of these elections. Whilst most Georgians remain firmly enamoured to the pro-european ideal, the anti western rhetoric, generously fuelled by Russia, also feeds on conservative views in some sections of Georgian society.
With preparations for the elections well advanced, the process is appears efficiently organised. There has so far been also a remarkably peaceful environemnt around campaigning. No doubt things will get hotter once election day approaches but those familiar with recent history in Georgian politics are impressed.
Monitoring and observation of these elections will be intense, as is usually the case in Georgia. Apart from representatives of the 27 political parties and 6 blocs, there will be thousands of people representing NGOs. The issue is now starting to create some concerns that the observers themselves may cause overcrowding in the polling stations. Speaking to commonspace.eu last month in Tbilisi, the chairman of the Georgian Central Elections Commission, Tamar Zhvania, said that the process of the registering organisations which will observe Georgia's elections is underway. These will be a mixture of international and domestic NGOs. Many of these, such as ISFED and the Georgian Young Lawyer's Association, have a good reputation, she said. However, Zhvania also highlighted the problem of politically affiliated NGOs which conduct "fake observation," and cause problems on election day.
As usual, the primus inter pares of the election observation missions will be ODIHR, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. In Georgia, unlike in some neighbouring states, ODIHR is very welcome and its report will provide a defining verdict on the conduct of the elections. The mission is led by French diplomat Alexandre Keltchewsky. He led the OSCE’s election assessment mission for the parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan in late 2013, and it is to be expected that he will find the Georgian terrain somewhat different.
The mission includes a core team of 12 experts from 9 countries based in Tbilisi, which will be joined by 26 long-term observers from September 5, who will be deployed across the country to monitor pre-election developments. ODIHR has requested the OSCE participating states to send 350 short-term observers to monitor election day and the vote counting process.
Elections used to be a time of turmoil in Georgia. Risks remain that events closer to polling day, or unexpected surprises at the poll itself, might yet again trigger crisis. But few Georgians have an appetite to return to the turmoil of the past, and the most likely overall result of this elections is yet another confirmation that Georgia has turned the page and is now a much more politically mature country than was the case two, or even one, decade ago.
This dossier on the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia was compiled by the editorial team of commonspace.eu for Caucasus Concise.
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn held discussions with officials from the South Caucasus on the margins of the Munich Security Conference