Will Georgia become an ordinary democracy?


The victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition is a triumph of sorts: a rare case of a peaceful transition of power in the former Soviet space. But the prime minister-elect now needs to prove that he can keep the country on the reform path.

Georgia's parliamentary election on October 1st went relatively well, defying concerns that the polarised campaign might lead to post-election unrest. The result was neither pre-ordered nor blatantly manipulated, and voting proceeded more or less peacefully. Shortly after the vote ended, President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat of his party, United National Movement and announced departure into opposition. Georgia has so far had a remarkably ordinary transition of power. But the election has raised as many questions as it has answered. What will happen to 'Saakashvilism' – Georgia's unique political system?

The outgoing president concentrated decision-making power in his office and ruled barely constrained by the parliament (in which his United National Movement controlled 75 per cent of seats). This made decision-making easy and relatively effective; the few internal squabbles usually had little influence on the decision-making. Other Soviet strongmen built similar one-man systems but usually to serve their own economic interests – in Georgia, Saakashvili used power to drive through economic reforms and modernise the country. Georgia, which only a decade ago was among the poorest in the former Soviet Union, has attracted foreign investment and the economy has been growing. It is among top twenty countries globally for the ease of doing business (ranking higher than Germany or Estonia), because of friendly legislation and because investors know that agreements with the president and the ministers will be honoured. Saakashvili nearly eliminated petty corruption (though the departing government has not escaped accusations of political corruption). In short, Saakashvilism ensured effectiveness and speed that a more deliberative and participatory version of democracy would most likely not deliver within the same time horizons.

The same system, however, worked against institutionalising other potential gains of the revolution that would have strengthened Georgia's democracy: a more deliberative and inclusive decision-making process or political competition in which both sides respect the rules of the game. Political opposition was marginalised and the government was seen as cutting corners too often to get its way. To his credit, Mikheil Saakashvili himself initiated the change of this system: in 2011, the Georgian parliament approved changes that strengthen the prime minister and limit the presidential powers (these will take full effect once his current term expires, no later than in October 2013). But for now, Georgia remains a modernising and democratising country, though not yet a full democracy.

Can Ivanishvili now replace Saakashvilism with a more competitive political model while keeping Georgia on a reform path? The early signs are mixed. "Georgian Dream" is a coalition of many parties with diverse political views; how exactly they build a coherent political programme is unclear. The prime minister-elect – Bidzina Ivanishvili himself – said that he would retire from politics in two years' time; barely enough time to begin to implement the programme, much less to see it through. Unless "Georgian Dream" transforms into an institutionalised political party, it risks splintering and losing capacity to govern.

Many Georgians voted for "Georgian Dream" because they were tired with Saakashvili and did not feel that the reforms brought the expected benefits or rise in their living standards (as my colleague Nicu Popescu writes here). The ruling coalition will therefore need to deliver on at least some of their pre-election promises including kick-starting economic growth, improving social services and tackling the country's high unemployment. But unlike the previous government, the new one will combine various politicians with different political views; when it comes to policy proposals in the sphere of economy or finance, the coalition's plan remain an enigma. Moreover, in President Saakashvili, the government will have a powerful opponent who can veto the parliament's bills and whose party does not plan to stay quiet in the parliament. Saakashvilism will no longer be possible as a way to govern. But will it be replaced by a genuine and inclusive democracy?


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