Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), Georgia's leading opposition party, is splitting a week before the party is scheduled to hold its annual congress on January 20, where it is to elect its new leadership.
UNM's meltdown comes at a time when the party needed unity in order to lead the parliamentary opposition against Georgian Dream, which holds a constitutional majority that enables it to pass legislation virtually unchallenged. The party now risks losing the little relevance it still had in parliament - where it holds 27 of 150 seats – making the centre-left Georgian Dream even more dominant.
The disintegration of the former rightwing ruling party, which governed the country between 2004 and 2012, had been on the cards since it experienced a humiliating defeat at the polls in October, when it lost by a large margin to the Georgian Dream.
The split reflects divisions over the role of Saakashvili, the party's founder and a former president of Georgia (2004-2013), whose interventions in the election are widely thought to have contributed to its defeat. The first signs emerged in December of the growing rift between Saakashvili’s supporters and the new leadership. On January 12 two leaders announced that they would be leaving the party. They are expected to take most of the party's MPs with them.
The two leaders that decided to leave the party are Gigi Ugulava, a former mayor of the capital city Tbilisi who had just been released after serving a one- year jail sentence for abuse of power, and one of the party's current leaders, Giga Bokeria, one of Saakashvili's most outspoken critics inside the party.
Known as the leader of the Rose Revolution in 2003 that set Georgia on the fast track to Western-style democracy and a market economy, Saakashvili is also criticised for abuse of power and authoritarian tendencies, and for leading Georgia into a disastrous conflict with Russia.
After ending his second term in 2013, Saakashvili left Georgia for Ukraine, where he obtained citizenship and was appointed governor of the Odesa region. In November, Saakasvhili resigned as governor of Odesa in a blaze of controversy, and is currently setting up a Ukrainian political party.
A bitter feud between Saakashvili and Georgian Dream's founder, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, has spilled over into the political scene. Saakashvili himself is wanted on multiple criminal charges in Georgia, all issued after his departure, and had his Georgian citizenship stripped from him in 2015.
Furthermore, animosities between UNM and Georgian Dream prompted an increase in polarising, populist rhetoric and the use of underhand tactics to undermine one another, such as wire tapping, practices that occasionally escalated in politically-motivated violence.
Saakashvili has remained the official chairman of the UNM despite his absence and the fact that non-Georgian citizens cannot legally hold office in the country. But there has been growing dissatisfaction among party members, leaders, and the electorate with his frequent interference in domestic politics while in self-imposed exile in Ukraine.
The October election results were somewhat of a surprise, as opinion polls leading up to them showed UNM and Georgian Dream as being neck and neck, but they showed that voters still associated UNM with Saakashvili, despite the new leadership's efforts to distance the party from him, and they preferred the more moderate and progressive vision of Georgian Dream.
In response to the party's poor showing at the polls, Saakashvili called for the party leaders to boycott parliament, a call that was ignored. He then proceeded to accuse the party's current leadership of "prescribing defeat", of making mistakes and saying that he did not "want to have anything to do" with them.
"One person is responsible for dismantling the party - the person who established the party," Ugulava stated during the announcement on January 12. “We are starting a movement from scratch, which will change this wrecked regime – I promise. [...]National populism stays on their side and progress and freedom stays on this side,” he added, according to civil.ge.
The UNM parliamentary faction is also breaking apart, according to Democracy & Freedom Watch. Some seven MPs will reportedly follow the faction chairman, Nika Melia, a former candidate for mayor of Tbilisi, to set up a new faction that will remain faithful to Saakasvhili. The remaining 17 MPs would defect with Bokeria.
However, the party is mulling replacing Melia with either Otar Kakhidze, a lawyer, or Irakli Abesadze, Ugulava's former deputy, the report concludes.
In a Facebook post on January 12, Saakasvhili called the defectors "losers", adding that “Everyone saw the amount of fugitives today and everyone will see the strength and the amount of the United National Movement at its January 20 congress … The party is as united and as strong as it has never been in the last four years, since tens of thousands of our activists regained control over the party.”