Analysis: Where have all the Georgian liberals gone?
27 October 2016

In this analysis for, Dato Parulava, a journalist of the Georgian website discusses the outcome of the Georgian Parliamentary elections held earlier this month and examines why political parties with a liberal agenda failed to secure seats in the new parliament

In Georgia's recent parliamentary elections on 8 October, turnout was only 51.63% - a historic low for elections since independence in 1991. One of the most important outcomes of the election was that parties with liberal views failed to obtain public support.

There is a run-off vote on Sunday (30th October), though it is already clear that ­­only three parties will make it through to parliament. While some have expressed concerns that the victory of the "Georgian Dream" will be so huge that they will be able to change the constitution without needing the support of other parties. Yet, the greatest turn-off for liberals is not this concern, but the emergence of "the Alliance of Patriots" as the third party in the legislative body.

The choice of the electorate was not to give other significant parties, with more or less liberal views -  including "Republicans", "Free Democrats", and Paata Burchuladze's "State for People" - enough support to enable them to cross the 5% barrier. In the face of defeat, some now focus on identifying the mistakes they've made, while others appear to be too fragile to look ahead to the next elections, preferring to abandon active politics. ­­

With 100% of votes counted, "Georgian Dream" (GD)leads with 48.68% of votes, already securing 44 seats in the parliament with party-list proportional representation. They are followed by "United National Movement" (UNM) with 27.11% (27 seats), and "Patriots' Alliance" with 5.01% of votes, just enough to secure 6 seats in the parliament.

In 50 out of 73 constituencies run-off elections will show whether UNM can increase its mandate in the legislative body, as in the remaining 23 constituencies GD candidates won outright, guaranteeing the party 67 seats combined majoritarian and party-list representation. With the prospect of GD obtaining constitutional majority, they already said that they have plans to do so.


Georgian Dream keen to keep its promises

Looking at the leading position "Georgian Dream" has earned in the constituencies where run-offs are to take place, it is very likely the party will win 113 seats and therefor hold constitutional majority. With that power in its hands, the party already stated it has plans to amend the constitution and define marriage as a union between man and a woman, something the GD has long been talking about, using the issue as a carrot to impress electorate in the pre-election period.

While the party boasts of its reforms in the field of human rights, undertaken in the framework of visa liberalization action plan (VLAP) and Association Agreement with the EU, it does not admit the initiative will restrict LGBT rights. Even the members of the party with a background in human rights support the initiative, claiming it will put an end to unnecessary speculations on the issue, speculation that critics say the party brought upon itself.

The second constitutional proposal GD has put on the table regards the election of the largely symbolic post of President. It plans to amend the constitution in a way that selection will no longer be done through universal suffrage, but by a vote in the parliament.

 Since both these issues were election promises, if GD obtains a constitutional majority there will be nothing barring it from implementing these two proposals.


Split of the United National Movement 

After the results from the first round of elections showed low public support for the UNM the party passed through a short but painful period of soul-searching, with the leadership undecided whether to reject the results of the elections, and boycott the run-off elections, or to continue participating in the democratic process. Eventually the UNM published the list of those who agreed with the two option, and the decision was taken that they should remain in parliamentary framework.

 Ex-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, now a citizen of Ukraine and a Governor of Odessa also questioned the legitimacy of the elections considering it pointless to join the new parliament. He is also sceptical whether UNM should participate in the run-offs though he later said it is up to individual candidates to decide. His wife, ex-first lady and majoritarian candidate in the Zugdidi voting precinct Sandra Roelofs refused to participate in the run-off, however Saakashvili issued a statement saying he has nothing to do with her decision.

Roelofs thinks it is insulting to run again after unfairness of the first round. But the leaders of the UNM see it differently. Sergo Ratiani, one of the leading persons of the party condemned her decision, calling it 'regrettable and partially harmful'.

In a nutshell, there seems to be a growing rift within the UNM, undermining much-needed unit­­y of the party, especially before run-off, a sign perhaps of things to come.


Who should fear the Alliance of Patriots?

The political election block of Irma Inashvili, leader of the "Alliance of Patriots" has a different vision on reforms Georgia must undergo compared to GD or UNM parties. Inashvili, a prominent journalist of Obieqtivi TV channel, which she also owns, sees the UNM as a primary enemy to Georgian society. She claims to be the person who exposed the footage of ill-treatment and torture of prisoners during UNM's rule. One can see that the two opposition parties will not get on well in the next parliament.

Obieqtivi TV channel has become a platform for ethno-nationalist ideas over the years. Despite Inashvili's  claims that the party has a pro Euro-Atlantic path, much of what's been aired on Obieqtivi TV contradicts western values in many ways.

Having strong opinions on religion and nationalism, the AP political team wasn't happy with anti-discrimination law which Georgia adopted in the framework of VLAP. The party considers as propaganda attempts by different minority groups to exercise their basic rights.

Many fear that Party's mandate in parliament will give them a platform for anti-western and pro-Russian sentiments, but Inashvili claims otherwise, saying that her party supports integration with EU and the NATO, though on the latter the party says this aspiration is delusional as 'NATO doesn't want us'. The "Alliance of Patriots" claim they can solve problems with Russia better from within the Europe and NATO, calling for both pro-NATO electorate and sceptics to vote for them.

It is unlikely they can affect GD's chances of gaining a constitutional majority.


Where are the liberals?

 After gaining only 4.63% of votes, the unity of the "Free Democrats" came into question. Several prominent members, and the leader Irakli Alasania, left the party. The once famous pro-western leader and the ex-defence minister Alasania, had, it seems, put his expectations too high. Now he says he'll abstain from politics, and some of his colleagues also said they will not seek political positions. Alasania left wishing his remaining party colleagues success and explaining that the support they received from the public was not enough to let party keep promises they've made during pre-election period.

Three prominent ex-members of the party called on their supporters to vote in favour of 'Georgian Dream' candidates in the run-off, but another member said that an appeal to vote for a party which is a political rival to the Free Democrats was unacceptable.

Scoring one of the lowest number of votes among liberals - 1.55% to be precise - "The Republicans", the most liberal of them all - are taking their time to analyse the mistakes they've made. But the party with a long tradition of political life is not even close to aftereffects which occurred within Free Democrats.

Campaigning on their 'Get Free' slogan, 'Republicans" during the election were not afraid of taking stands that they deemed correct but which were unpopular with the electorate, for example opposing the Government's initiative on marriage. The party even produced the first in the history of Georgian politics an anti-homophobic video on Facebook on the eve of elections.

During their activities in the parliament and the government "the Republicans" were outspoken on many sensitive issues that could have alienated the electorate. For the moment, they still claim that the reason for their defeat was their inability to out from under the shadow of GD party, of which they were coalition partners in government for four years.

The "State for the People" election block of Paata Burchuladze faced quite a hard struggling in the pre-election period. One of the bloc's four parties - Girchi, abandoned them with accusations that Burchuladze group had financial interests and lots of unpaid debts on its hands, when uniting with them.

Burchuladze, a famous opera singer who turned politician, is still new on the political arena. First he had to demonstrate that his declared support for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations were authentic. Uniting with a well-known liberal party "Girchi", came as a surprise to many, but at first was seemed worthwhile. Eventually, after the breakup, the bloc managed to win only 3.45% of votes. Butchuladze says the party will keep going, claiming that dissolution is out of question but asking for time to see what happens next.

The poor performance of parties with liberal outlooks is disappointing. High expectations that a larger number of parties will be represented in the parliament failed to materialise. Perhaps these parties failed to connect properly with the electorate. On the other hand, maybe their failure is the cost for the double game they played, sending mixed messages on several sensitive issues. Unlike some of them, GD or AP were very firm about their values.

It is also possible that with the prospect of a return of Saakashvili the Georgian public took fright and decided not to take chances and support Georgian Dream. It is very much likely that for some it was a choice between the bad and the worse. While dissatisfied with ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili's team's work, many might have thought UNM will not do any better if given the second chance.

Liberals in Georgia will have much to think about over the next four years. In the meantime, an interesting time is ahead for Georgian politics. A confrontation between "Georgian Dream" and "United National Movement" MPs will not be new for the Georgian public. But now, with the Alliance of Patriots in the game, things are about to be spiced up. A lot!