On the first of October, 2012, Georgia held parliamentary elections. In Western capitals and analytical circles, it was widely believed that Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM) would be returned to power. Most polling on political rankings supported this expectation.
Some analysts had suggested that the highly unequal impact of Georgia’s impressive growth record was generating significant social discontent, undermining the ruling party’s position. Deepening inequality, sporadically high inflation, persistently high unemployment, and deepening poverty might translate into opposition votes. These people were dismissed as misinformed or deluded cranks, me included.
As it happened, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) won by a convincing margin.
Georgian parliamentary selection has two categories: seats allocated on the proportion of votes gained by the various parties, and seats allocated by plurality of votes in territorially defined majoritarian districts. Georgian Dream came out on top in both categories, producing an 85-65 split in parliamentary seats, smaller parties being eliminated.
The UNM government resigned. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party has been invited to form a new government. We are moving from one party rule to co-habitation (GD controlling the Parliament and UNM the presidency).
NATO, European, and American official communities were clearly unprepared for this result. Much of their effort in the leadup to elections focussed on convincing the opposition to settle quietly into its role, rather than hitting the streets in the event they lost. They are now scrambling to figure out who this Ivanishvili is, what he wants, and how to deal with the new reality.
How can this outcome be explained? At the risk of seeming excessively academic, the explanation includes profound, proximate, and catalytic causes.
On the first, polling evidence suggested that concern about economic issues (unemployment, poverty) outweighed the government’s discourse of standing up to Russia and regaining occupied territories, and their hollow claims to be building the Nice or the Singapore of the Black Sea. The day-to-day misery, drudgery and uncertainty facing many Georgians overshadowed bombastic promises of a glorious future.
The country’s zero-tolerance crime policy and the explosion in the numbers of incarcerated people meant that a large portion of the country’s population had relatives who were in jail, as a result of verdicts by a deeply dysfunctional and biased judicial system. The widespread perception that incarceration was used as a means of getting business people to cough up large sums to replenish the state treasury did not enhance the popular image of the government.
Concerning proximate causes, before this election, the electorate had no credible alternative to the incumbents. Opposition factions were small, personalistic, and poor. Few people bothered to vote for them, because their weakness was obvious. The trajectory of turnout for earlier elections suggested that increasing numbers of Georgians were not bothering to vote, because they saw no point. The votes of those who did bother to vote for the opposition were split, and, therefore, irrelevant.
Turning to the most recent parliamentary elections, several points arise. First, Ivanishvili is rich. His personal fortune reportedly equals about 50% of Georgia’s GDP.
Since his return to Georgia about ten years ago, he has been generous to his country. His record of philanthropy amounts to over a billion dollars. Among major beneficiaries was the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is pretty clearly the most powerful civil society institution in the country. Everybody knew this. And most people liked it.
Ivanishvili drew a number of opposition parties into coalition so they would not split votes. It was not so much the delivery of cash that fostered the amalgamation, but the appearance of a credible alternative, a primus inter pares around which the opposition could coalesce.
The government’s efforts to control this new and substantial threat backfired. In the days after the announcement of his political intentions, Ivanishvili’s citizenship was revoked. This was followed by heavy fines for alleged violations of the country’s campaign finance laws. These were levied by a biased audit chamber without hard evidence or transparent process. Serious limitations on opposition media access persisted. There were also widespread and widely believed reports that the government was harassing or firing employees who showed sympathy for the political opposition or whose family members did so. In the meantime, government propaganda sought to rebrand Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream as a Russian-inspired, and Russian-financed effort to sabotage Georgia’s development as an independent state.
The objective was clear – by administrative means and slander to prevent the opposition from mounting an effective campaign, or to limit its capacity to do so. The conclusion was also obvious. The ruling party was not willing to allow a fair electoral process.
It was clear that many voters were unhappy. For example, polling data suggested that the vast majority of Georgians wanted Ivanishvili’s citizenship restored.
The opposition soldiered on, unwilling to be intimidated. Arrests of activists and occasionally violent efforts to prevent or to obstruct opposition rallies had little effect. Polling data on the question of whether people were going to vote suggested that a large number were coming off the benches. The saturation of Georgia by foreign diplomats, observers, and media made it difficult to manipulate the game.
For all these reasons, it became a tossup. My own bet at the time was that Georgian Dream would win more seats than the UNM, but would not be able to get a majority on its own, and that the overall result would be close enough to fix at the margin if necessary.
Then, about ten days before the election, videos of systematic beatings and, on the face of it, rape, in the prison system, appeared on opposition television stations and went viral on internet social media. The graphic videos appeared to confirm what many had suspected about human rights in the prison system. These practices were, in cultural terms, deeply offensive. Indifference and resignation turned to disgust and outrage. Arriving in Tbilisi on the day and staying for a week, it was clear to me that this was the final nail in the coffin.
The government response was confused. First, denial and the claim that it was all fabricated. Then a small number of dismissals of prison officials directly involved. Then the removal of ministers directly “responsible”, which seemed to contradict their earlier claim concerning fabrication.
In the meantime, large numbers of people hit the streets and the police failed to crack enough heads. People sensed that the government was on the run and they lost their fear.
The result was a margin of victory for the opposition that was too large to fix.
In short, the government underestimated the level of unhappiness in the electorate. They failed to deal effectively with the emergence of a powerful unified opposition, because they had never had to do so before. And their responses to events immediately prior to the elections were dysfunctional.
And now we are about to have a new government. The people finally spoke and the authorities could not stop them.
Two questions remain. Why did the UNM surrender when they could have fought the result? And why were Western governments so off the mark in their expectations?
Neil MacFarlane is the Lester B Pearson Professor of International Relations and a Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a specialist on the regional dynamics of the former Soviet Union.